Trash it right: We must transform waste management

If we delve deeper into the kind of waste produced, we find that the 62 million tonnes of waste includes 7.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste, 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste, 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste and 170,000 tonnes of biomedical waste.
If we delve deeper into the kind of waste produced, we find that the 62 million tonnes of waste includes 7.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste, 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste, 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste and 170,000 tonnes of biomedical waste.

Summary

  • India must get its act together. Thankfully, there exists a viable business model focused on the environmental as well as social impact of waste management, one that uses twin revenue streams to achieve a triple balance of ‘people, planet and profits.’

Heard of the Trash Isles? It’s a ‘country’ with over 100,000 citizens, with Judi Dench as its queen and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as defence minister. This floating mass of trash clumped together and polluting the Pacific Ocean was declared an imagined country by an awareness campaign to focus attention on the ‘no man’s land’ that gets polluted by everyone’s waste but is taken care of by no one. Today, it is the world’s 26th smallest ‘country’ by population, with all its ‘citizens’ (people who have signed up to clean up the mess) pledging to reduce consumption of single-use plastic.

This is one of many examples that exist in a sea of creative solutions driven by the need for environmental action. Whether it is oceanic clean-ups or using flowers from temples for making incense sticks, the idea is to make zero-waste economies the norm.

Over the past few years, waste management has seen a paradigm shift in terms of policies and perspectives. How we manage our waste at individual and organizational levels shows a seismic change in perspective: waste is no longer something to discard instantly, but a reservoir of resources, given all the materials to be recovered for reuse.

How are current policies different from traditional waste management practices?

India’s current policy framework aims to eliminate landfills or have less than 10% of waste going into these. This forms the basis of ‘zero waste’ policies that are part of the Solid Waste Management Rules in India. To achieve this end result, we will need to introduce a holistic system that begins with the collection of segregated waste, followed closely by further sorting into multiple categories, the aggregation of each category, and finally its dispatch to various recyclers. If this process is followed meticulously across the country, we will have a system calibrated for maximum resource recovery, with 95% of the waste sent for processing and just 5% put into a landfill.

Contrast this with the current dismal situation. A report by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) states that India generates over 62 million tonnes of waste in a year. Of this, only 43 million tonnes of total waste generated gets collected, 12 million tonnes is treated before disposal and the rest is simply discarded in waste yards.

If we delve deeper into the kind of waste produced, we find that the 62 million tonnes of waste includes 7.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste, 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste, 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste and 170,000 tonnes of biomedical waste, among other categories in need of proper facilities with trained personnel for adequate treatment.

The responsibility for institutionalizing waste management in India lies not just with bodies of governance, but, importantly, with waste generators: i.e. citizens and businesses.

The last 150 years have seen informal workers in the waste management sector, commonly known as kabaadiwalas, creating and following best practices such as sorting and segregating waste, trading it at various levels and even recycling plastic and paper. However, this model is not sustainable because their insufficient income limits their ability to scale up and adopt the modern structure, systems and technology needed for the task. 

Additionally, there is rampant exploitation of informal sector workers; their working conditions are often hazardous, especially in the context of toxic waste. So, how do we achieve a model that equates waste management with maximum resource recovery? How do we create a circular economy that keeps waste reduction at its core?

A sustainable waste management system needs appropriate infrastructure in the form of collection and sorting centres and material recovery facilities, apart from wet waste processing and dry waste recycling facilities. Beyond that, it needs very detailed processes to operate the facilities, manage logistics and capture data. It also needs technology to track and trace waste and ultimately ensure the recycling of all that can be recycled.

Our aims would be best met by adopting a business model focused on the environmental as well as social impact of waste management, one that can achieve a balance of ‘people, planet and profits.’ With proper practices and systems in place, the model should also integrate the informal sector and provide a roadmap for transformation.

Such a business model could rely on a twin revenue system: a service fee that users are charged plus revenues from waste sales. These two revenue streams could cover the operational costs of an enterprise in the waste sector. Compare this with the current operations of informal kabaadiwala aggregators (now known as ‘swachhata warriors’) who struggle to meet operational costs as they are dependent on a single steam of revenue: selling the waste.

If the ecosystem emphasizes revenue generation, not only will India’s informal waste collectors be compensated better, impacting their life positively, but what all is salvaged from the country’s garbage would improve too, as the system’s accountability to principles will make burning less likely.

All these efforts, whether at a business or collective level, are necessary for us to make a much-needed breakthrough on waste. Processes that lacked holistic approaches are now backed by a dedicated effort to make them sustainable and impactful. Change is needed and must be made to happen. And we must support the individuals and businesses in this sector. How we deal with our waste says a lot about us.

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