Is waste on the govt’s mind?

The new government will need to prioritise this in the coming years, otherwise we will run out of resources, poison our environment and have landfills all around

By Priti Mahesh
Published: Friday 24 May 2019
Is waste on the govt’s mind?
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Almost three decade ago at the Earth Summit in 1992, more than 178 nations adopted Agenda 21, the basis for a global partnership to encourage cooperation among nations as they support a transition to sustain life on Earth.

An article in the journal Nature estimates that global solid waste generation will triple to 11 million tonnes a day by 2100.

The Agenda 21 pointed out that there were unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. It also recognised the need to develop effective ways to deal with the problem of disposing of mounting levels of waste.

The agenda emphasised on the need to look at the root cause of changing consumption patterns and focus on minimising waste, apart from environmentally sound recycling.

Though many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are trying to find ways to move from linear flow of materials (resources-product-waste) to a circular flow (resource-product-recycled resources), India is still managing the generated waste. To top it, the country’s poor implementation of waste rules is creating a waste burden that could become a major liability in the future.

Though the Swachh Bharat campaign did bring in some focus on waste management, but little has changed on the ground. There have been hordes of cleanliness drives that highlight the issue, but they do little to bring in the essential behavioural change.

The coming government will have to dedicatedly deal with this issue, both from the upstream and the downstream perspective. Here are some key changes that one would like to see in the next five years.

Principles of inclusive waste management

Despite the fact that India’s per capita waste generation is low, the total quantum is very high. Imagine the quantum if our per capita generation becomes as high as developed countries.

The three Rs are often mentioned in all conversations related to waste management. Though the first R — 'Recycling' — has received a lot of attention in most waste regulations in India for mandating proper segregation, collection, treatment and disposal, the other Rs — 'Reduce and Reuse' — have not been treated well.

Where is the incentive for reducing waste?  Are the products reusable?  Even, with circular economy principle, if you are able to put the resource back in the production cycle, you may achieve the required goal — but is that sustainable? Shouldn’t there be effort to, in the first place, reduce the amount that we generate? And here is where the role of government comes in. The two key principles for that are:

  • Design for environment: Promote green design or sustainable design through reward systems, whether by levying green tax or giving incentives for companies making green products. This may not help extend lives of products to be extended but also reduce the toxic materials and make products easier to recycle. Benefit all around.
  • One way to get people to produce less garbage is to charge them for it: So-called pay-as-you-throw programs, in which agencies can bill generators, especially residents for their garbage, depend on the quantum. Currently, in India, whether I generate 1 kilogram of waste daily or 100 grams, I pay my waste collector the same amount. So then, where is my incentive to move towards zero waste? The new government will need to look at this if it does not want the country to be full of landfills.

Extended Producer Responsibility has often been hailed as one of the key principles to mitigate some of the concerns arising from increasing production and consumption patterns.

In India, we have regulations which have brought in this concept but its specificities are poorly etched out and the less said about implementation, the better.

The new government has a clear role: Be a tough task master and don’t let producers get away without taking responsibility. The next few years should bring in more accountability and also increase the scope, bringing in more waste streams under this.

It is also essential to look at the recycling infrastructure in the country and bring in recycling targets as a key part of waste regulations, especially since circular economy and resource efficiency both require this. Vetting sustainable technologies is also the need of the hour.

The new administration should keep in mind that importing technologies, which may be working well in other countries, may not be a solution as these will have to be adapted to Indian conditions for sustainability.


India is a country of near-perfect regulatory frameworks for waste and under the umbrella of Environment Protection Act 1986, seven waste rules have been notified till date. But are these being implemented? Whether it is hazardous, bio medical, municipal solid, electronic, plastic or battery waste — the real story is very different from what the rules had aimed for. 

Lack of enforcement has been the key devil in this story. More accountability and transparency is needed in regulatory agencies, especially in state bodies to address what plagues the system.

Building their competencies, coordination between different regulatory bodies will go a long way in improving what we see on ground. Bringing in stricter punitive measures under EPA to help enforcement and its actual use can also act as a catalyst.

Not a dump yard

India has borne the brunt of global waste for decades and it is time to say no. There has been a start with solid plastic waste being banned and restriction on e-waste imports.

This needs to be taken forward, both in terms of investigating and closing loopholes that allow dumping and bringing in more waste streams under the ban blanket.

Informal waste pickers/processors

Whenever we discuss the unorganised sector and its involvement in waste management, there are two key aspects which appear as contrary to each other. Most believe that informal sector has done a stupendous job of processing India’s waste burden and more importantly keeping it out of landfill.

Some believe that the government has to clamp down on the informal sector as it contributes majorly to pollution by not processing waste properly. Guess, both these are completely true and hence there is need to find a solution, keeping their skills, core strengths and livelihood in mind but also knowing that environment affects everybody and cannot be ignored at that cost.

There are no easy solutions, but my wish list for the new government will include a deeper look at this sector, dealing with this issue holistically and not brushing it aside. Most waste regulations in the country have failed to recognise this and this remains a key reason why these rules fail.

New priorities

Studies indicate that food accounts for about one-fifth of what goes into municipal landfills, and still there are no steps to address these. But as droughts and changing land use challenge agricultural production around the world, it will need to be addressed.

Packaging and sanitary waste are the other two issues where there is a need to bring in specific policies, especially since there will be a massive increase in volumes because of changing lifestyles, access and knowledge.

Last but not the least, the existing Swachh Bharat Mission could probably be given a makeover by bringing in more focus on waste minimisation and campaigns to change actual behaviours and not just creating awareness.

Waste management is critical to sustainable development and the cost of inaction is fraught with serious consequences of public health. Governments cannot shirk this responsibility and expect communities alone to deal with this. So along with policy and enforcement, the government will need to allocate sufficient funds for waste management interventions.

(The author is the chief programme coordinator for Toxics Link)

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