Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

Solving India’s garbage problem

Segregation at source should be at the heart of municipalities’ solid waste management system

Illustration: Sorit

We know that we have a serious garbage problem. But the problem is not about finding the right technology for waste disposal. The problem is how to integrate the technology with a system of household-level segregation so that waste does not end up in landfills, but is processed and reused. It is clear that there will be no value from waste, as energy or material, if it is not segregated. But this is where our waste management system stops short.

It is the responsibility of the urban local body to ensure segregation of waste at source as per the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Rules, 2015. This means the body must get citizens to segregate waste at the household level and then ensure that this segregated waste—wet and dry, compostable and recyclable—is collected separately and transported separately for processing.

The easier solution is to collect and dump. Or to believe that unsegregated waste can be sorted out mechanically at the processing plant itself and burnt. Officials of urban local bodies have been given to believe this is the magic bullet: collect, sort and burn. But as experience across India—and from the rest of the world—shows, if waste is not segregated then it will make poor quality fuel. This will not work.

Segregation at source should therefore be at the heart of municipalities’ solid waste management system. The only city that has truly adopted segregation is Panaji. Municipal officials have ensured a citywide system that is designed to collect household waste on different days for different waste streams. This ensures separation. It is combined with penalties for non-segregated waste and has promoted colony-level processing as well. Most importantly, for the bulk of commercial establishments such as hotels it has a bag-marking system so that any non-compliance can be caught and fined.

In Kerala’s Alappuzha segregation happens differently. Here the municipality does not collect waste because it has no place to take it to for disposal. The city’s only landfill has been sealed by villagers who live in its vicinity. This withdrawal of the municipality from waste management has meant that the people have to manage their waste, or be drowned in it. They segregate and compost what they can. The compost is used for growing vegetables and plants in their homesteads. The problem is how to handle all the non-biodegradable waste—paper, plastic, aluminum tins, etc. This is where the government has stepped in. It promotes collection through the already well-organised informal waste-recycling sector. The municipality has ended up saving a huge capital cost it would have otherwise incurred for collection and transportation.

But this is one part of the waste solution. The other is to make sure there is no place for the unsegregated waste to go. This means taking tough steps to manage landfills in cities. In fact, the MSW (draft) Rules, 2015, accept that landfills should only be used for residual waste that is “non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible and non-reactive”. It goes on to state that every effort will be made to recycle or reuse the rejects to achieve the desired objective of zero waste to landfill. This is an important departure from previous policies, which ended up emphasising the need for sanitary landfills.

The question is how to enforce this policy. Currently, all contracts for waste management awarded by city governments to private concessionaires have a perverse incentive to bring larger quantities of waste to the dumpsite. Under these contracts the contractor is paid against the volume of waste deposited on the site. This “tipping fee” as it is known means that the higher the volume brought the greater the financial reward. City municipalities also find that the collection, transport and dumping of waste is an easier proposition than processing it for reuse.

To change this, it is necessary to impose a landfill tax. The contracts need to be redesigned so that instead of the municipality paying for the waste brought to the landfill, the contractor should be made to pay a “tipping fee” for the waste. In this way, instead of being paid to bring waste to the landfill, the contractor or city municipality would have to pay a fee to dispose of the waste. This will provide financial viability to the waste-processing industry and also ensure that as little as possible waste reaches the landfill.

We need to turn the system of garbage management on its head. Only then will we really clean our cities—not just sweep the dirt under the carpet.

Trashing the ragpicker

Trashing the ragpicker

The new rules for plastic waste management exclude the informal sector, key to their successful implementation

Recycling the bin

Recycling the bin

Several initiatives are demonstrating how the informal e-waste recycling sector can be formalised

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  • New technologies are always heard of where the waste was recycled unto something fruitful like the tetra packs could be converted into desks and benches, polyblend made from waste plastic could be used for making roads. Why cant these techniques be used to recycle all that waste. Why only a section of that particular waste material used and the rest dumped in landfills

    Posted by: Diksha Garg | 2 years ago | Reply
  • A real shame. Organic waste is still being dumped rather than processed.
    Now modern machinery makes it possible to convert organic waste into compost, odorless and on a large scale,
    at a cost lower than the dumping charges at the landfill !
    Why the authorities do not use them?

    Posted by: Jan Coenen | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Since returning from India, I have been reading many articles about waste management, except for a few organizations that are working with educating children, almost none of them mention the ubiquitous habit of just throwing one's garbage onto the ground or in a local sewer.
    One of the biggest problems I witnessed is that there just was NOT ANYWHERE to put garbage. So everyone from people walking and living on the streets to the many tiny cottage industries, thought is was OK to just throw their garbage anywhere into the landscape, into the rivers, sewers, railway tracks or any fragment of non paved land that they could find. In places even the trees were laden with all sorts of lightweight refuse that had been blown into the branches. Besides figuring out better ways to recycle and where to put everything, the country has to make an effort to provide more garbage pick up and especially places for people to put their daily garbage and MOST of all a serious awareness of the effects of the toxic garbage that is blanketing the country and a powerful impetus to start people thinking that it is not OK to just throw everything and anything out the window.

    Posted by: Fern, CANADA | one year ago | Reply
  • Chandigarh adminstration is dumping whole garbage of city on the doorsteps of local residence of sector 38(west) from more than 40 years, they burns garbage in routine to dump more and more garbage in openly.
    People are suffering from serious breathing and skin infections and many had been died so far, you can see the data of local hospitals.
    This is very shameful for our system that one side they says we are no. 1 city and giving best facilities to our youths and on the other hand you giving them a slow and painful death from last 40 years and nobody is answerable for this mentality, some time it seems that all are buntch of crooks...

    Posted by: Rajesh Chauhan | one year ago | Reply
  • Improper management of waste disposal is generated throughout decades. It is like a chronic disease and not acute. There is no magical stick or trick to solve the problem. To solve the problem everyone has to take responsibility of its own garbage sorting and then disposing it in proper manner. The process will take time, but will be permanently solved. Changing habits is solution and not blaming the authorities.
    If you study the management of developed countries about waste disposal then it took them 10+ years to implement proper management and they learnt from their mistakes. It is difficult to manage and maintain but not impossible.

    Posted by: Pankaj Sharma | one year ago | Reply
  • Nice to hear words from the head directer and also got to know whats currently happenings on these type of situations.

    Posted by: Naman Singh | 12 months ago | Reply
  • In rains the garbage becomes heavy due to the open garbage system hence difficult to carry and heavy therefore petrol consumption of the transport vehicle increases.

    Posted by: Sunita Dsouza | 11 months ago | Reply
  • Why not use existing technology to solve the problem of organic waste?
    Mobile machines that are easy to operate, work efficiently, odorless and affordable.
    They exist and are in use in Europe for several years.
    Perhaps it's a lack of interest with the authorities?

    Posted by: Jan Coenen | 11 months ago | Reply
  • We have completely no land fill zero pollution msw management Systems.

    Posted by: AMARDEEPSHARMA | 9 months ago | Reply
  • What will you do if you see the garbage in your locality

    Posted by: Varun | 8 months ago | Reply
  • India have such a huge desert. Moving the garbage from City’s to desert from train will benefit both cities and deserts.
    After few year desert may get converted to forest.
    But waste must be segregated

    Posted by: Pritam | 8 months ago | Reply
  • Its good that our country is processing further

    Posted by: Krushna | 7 months ago | Reply
  • This is also our responsibility to keep our India good

    Posted by: Adil | 5 months ago | Reply
  • Your concern & write up is good, but I need a detailed project report on handling about 300/400 tons of solid waste everyday.If you know any company who can guide us to installing plant to handle all types of waste. Best who have been successful unit's contact nos for reference.

    Posted by: Ajay Patnaik | 3 months ago | Reply
  • I need this for my school project. I like this essay so much and submit it. I get the highest marks in class.

    Posted by: Akash | 3 months ago | Reply
  • very useful essay. got three ⭐️⭐️⭐️for project

    Posted by: Angel | 3 months ago | Reply
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