Garbage is about recycling

It is time we accepted that each household is a waste generator

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 08 June 2016

Last fortnight, I discussed the need to reinvent garbage management in our cities so that we can process waste and not “landfill” it. This, as I wrote, required households and institutions to segregate their waste at source so that it could be managed as a resource. It also means that we need to limit how much is dumped by imposing a tax on landfill. I want to follow up on this idea this fortnight.

First, this reinvention means we need to incorporate and not negate the role of the recycling industry in waste management. Currently, it is said (data is weak however) that recycling of dry waste provides employment to about 1-2 per cent of a city’s population, often the poorest women and children. In large cities, there are two-three tiers of waste buyers, all very well organised and specialised in specific wastes. What is not recognised is that this trade, happening in the backyards of slums and shoved aside by policy, is the only thing saving cities from drowning in waste. It is also this trade which ensures that less waste reaches landfills.

There is a great need for official support to this unappreciated activity that saves at least 10-15 per cent in transportation costs daily to the city, adding up to millions of rupees a year. Over the years, civil society groups working with informal waste collectors have worked on several policies to promote this business—starting a dialogue to find out the needs of this sector, issuing ID badges to waste pickers who desire them (through NGOs or police, to prevent harassment), providing them with sorting and storage space, and doorstep pickup service for post-sorting rejects to be taken away from slum houses or waste buyers’ yards, so that these do not end up clogging the storm drains.

New ventures are also emerging to remove the stigma attached to the garbage sorting business. In the capital, ventures like Raddi Express and Raddi Bazaar, and in Mumbai Raddiwala have all made paper collection an easy and profitable business.

At the macro level, it is worth mapping, within the state or even nationally, the location of major recyclers of specific wastes and encouraging the filling of gaps. Policies are needed to help this waste-reducing and partially pollution-abating industry to become legitimate, through designated recycling eco-parks, concessional power rates and low or no sales taxes. Currently, city master plans do not even allocate space for this business. It is considered illegal, dirty and something that must go away. This is what has to change.

The Kerala government has found that the only way it can manage its dry waste is by activating its informal recycling industry. The state government’s Suchitwa Mission for a garbage-free Kerala has collated information on this industry and put the data, including the rate paid for different categories of waste, on its official website. Now households can use this service. It has also started a company to manage its plastic waste and to work with recyclers.

Secondly, we also need to accept that waste management costs. But currently municipalities hardly charge for this service. The assumption is that the cost of waste management is included in property tax. But as property tax is rarely computed for this service and in most cities rarely charged, the real cost of waste management is never realised. This is why municipalities struggle to pay for this service.

Matters are made worse because municipal accounts are a mess. Most urban local bodies do not even maintain annual accounts. This lack of finances for basic municipal services is compounded by the fact that citizens do pay for waste management—but not to the municipal body. In most cities, residents, particularly the affluent waste-generating ones, have engaged private agencies to undertake door-to-door collection. The household pays for this service. But the agency then takes the waste and invariably dumps it in the municipal secondary collection station. The transportation and processing of the waste is then left to the already depleted finances of the local body.

It is also clear that households must be made to pay for the amount of waste they generate and penalised if the waste is not segregated. It is time we accepted that each household and commercial establishment is a waste generator and so a potential polluter. The principle of polluter pays must be applied. Otherwise our cities will become giant garbage fields.

But the real game-changer in garbage management is NIMBY or not-in-my-backyard. Poor and rural communities are beginning to object to the waste being dumped in their backyard. They, like us, do not want to live near a landfill or a waste incinerator that pollutes the environment. Now that their backyard is not available, in whose front yard will waste be disposed of? If it is ours, then we will need to keep it clean. Won’t we?

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  • The article by Sunita Narain on garbage recycling is excellent and stresses on important relevant issues which need to be addressed.
    One aspect of the garbage problem is neglected - the trash on public areas which is very substantial all over India. Here the waste generators are the public at large - not only pedestrians but also all other road users. The proliferation of such waste needs to be controlled by spreading awareness by making it part of the school education curriculum, wide publicity through the print, electronic media and slides in cinema halls etc. Dustbins to be provided in all public places which must be cleared daily. The system of imposing penalties must be simultaneously implemented - Municipal laws of most states already provide for the penalties but these provisions are seldom enforced. If the above regimen is followed our cities, towns and other areas will be clean and not a cause of international shame, as at present.

    Posted by: Harish Capoor | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I know not, but if some money of Swachh Bharat is spent on helping Middle Class India to segregate waste at source, it could perhaps become a major answer to the intractable problem of urban waste management?

    Posted by: Vinay Tandon | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji
    It was a very informative article and innovative. I have written on this subject several times on the need of recycling waste. If swarchhta abhiyan is to succeed merely building toilets is not enough. There should be proper system for the efficient disposal of solid and liquid waste otherwise toilets will be continued to be used for other things than defecating. I would appreciate if you can find some time to discuss it in details on this subject.
    Thanks and regards

    Posted by: Pooranchandsarin | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita,

    Most MSW or garbage has calorific value. We know that usage of this to generate power has been a failure so far in India due to varied reasons. Mostly technical apart from political but more techno commercial. The tipping fee political angle apart the incineration of Indian waste even if converted to RDF for higher pressure and temperature cycles has not something to write home about.

    We also know that as we urbanize more our 50 - 60% power needs shall be for cooling purposes - mainly comfort cooling. Europe has an excellent model of district heating and Gulf has had successes in district cooling.

    We have cooling guzzling increasing amount of power ( 68% from coal) with about 30% AT&C losses

    We have open MSW yards spewing Methane in atmosphere ( many times more harmful than CO2)

    Incinerating MSW RDF for low temperature / Pressure steam generation is a proven option. Incineration with right equipment like ESP / FGD/ scrubbers can capture the pollutants within norms.

    Low pressure steam using absorption chilling to replace electrical chilling and chilled water circuits to give comfort cooling will replace additional electrical usage ( curtailing coal based power generation stream of environment issues) while also neutralising waste that we will generate more as we "progress" or urbanize. the solid waste produced ( mainly ash and gypsum) can be neutralized / sequestrated with integrated building material plant at source. The technology of which has moved way ahead globally.

    A closed circuit of waste and waste to energy / cooling will thus solve two growing environmental hazards and neutralize them.

    The initial commercial viability is exceptionally viable and does not need any subsidies (unlike RE) - only a political will to implement.

    Posted by: Vivek Taneja | 4 years ago | Reply
  • A nicely written article.
    Personally, I feel the waste management efforts need to move away from MACRO to MICRO. What we need is Block by block management, complete with Segregation, Desiccation, Compacting and Delivery of Recycle items.
    Only then we can tackle the menace of Streets filled with garbage.
    Lastly, hefty, unaffordable fines must be imposed for all kinds of littering, for that matter any kind of uncuvic behavior.
    Keep up the good work!

    Posted by: Jaywant Karajgikar | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain

    When will CSE push for large scale centralized waste-to-energy plants? That is the only solution for future, if we want to address this burgeoning waste management problem. Despite all efforts for recycling and/or reuse, waste generation has been increasing consistently and posing all kinds of insurmountable challenges. As India develops, waste generation will increase. Recycling/reuse are part of solution and does not preempt necessity of wast-to-energy plants which are scientifically set up and managed.

    Enough of damage has been allowed by all of us to environment while we wait for sorting of waste in 3, 4, or 5 different kinds; people have been dying due to health problems created by pollution; and unsafe conditions prevail all around dump sites.

    We are in the era of waste emergency and accordingly immediate steps are needed to be taken. Municipalities should come out of politics and declare WASTE EMERGENCY in respective cities/towns. That would pave the way for creation of stricter laws and regulations and evoke higher level of community involvement automatically.

    Secondly, our local bodies are still in pathetic state. No resources and not enough knowledge. They need institutional push and strengthening in all manner.

    Otherwise, I expect to see a similar article 5-year after. I am 100 % sure. Because, I have been seeing them for past 20 years already !!!!

    Yours sincerely,

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: K D Bhardwaj | 4 years ago | Reply
  • This article is excellent... And this is really what should be promoted for "Swach Bharat Abhiyaan"..Waste segragation. instead of just posters and all the crap...

    Also i fully agree that ....households should be penalized ......if they don't segragate... as this is a huge cost to our health and environment...!!!

    Well done Sunita... but i just hope this can be made compulsory... AS is done world over...where they have 5 bins for different wastes.

    Posted by: Hridai Somani | 4 years ago | Reply