Neglect of sustainable, scientific waste treatment behind India’s unscientific landfills: CSE analysis

Management of legacy waste should be combined with integrated waste management facilities that can take care of both daily as well as old waste, CSE analysis notes

By Zumbish
Published: Thursday 15 September 2022
CSE’s report on legacy waste being released
CSE’s report on legacy waste being released CSE’s report on legacy waste being released

Chronic negligence of sustainable and scientific treatment has resulted in an ever-growing mass of municipal solid waste (MSW) making its way into dumpsites in India, a report released by Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) September 15, 2022, noted.

The management of legacy waste should be combined with integrated waste management facilities that can take care of both daily MSW as well as waste trapped in dumpsites, the report, titled Legacy Waste Management and Dumpsite Remediation to Support SBM 2.0, urged.

Although the term ‘legacy waste’ has not been defined in any official government document in India, it typically refers to aged MSW in landfills or dumpsites.

There is no information on how old waste must be in order to qualify to be called legacy waste. Legacy waste is a mix of partially or completely decomposed biodegradable waste, plastic waste, textiles, metals, glass and other components.

“The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has recognised that unlined dumpsites are causing air and water pollution and creating long-term environmental and health hazards,” the analysis, said.

The operational guidelines of the Centre’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 had made it mandatory for cities with a population of less than a million to clear legacy waste sites by March 31, 2023. Cities with a population of more than a million are to remediate their dumpsites by March 31, 2024.

The analysis noted that the composition of legacy waste varied according to the region and age of a dumpsite. For example, the proportion of fines in Hyderabad and Delhi was nearly 75 per cent, which indicated that the dumpsites were old and organic waste had been degraded over many years.

“However, the proportion of fines is relatively lower in the case of Ahmedabad and Mumbai, reflecting that these dumpsites are newer. The quantity of recyclables depends on the activities of the informal sector engaged in extracting recyclables,” it said.

It also mentioned the phenomenon of fires in dumpsites. The reason for this was methane produced by dumpsites and landfills as a result of a biochemical process called ‘methanogenesis’.

This process took place because of the action of a specific class of bacteria known as methanogens. Methanogenesis is responsible for mineralisation of the organic portion of MSW in a dumpsite.

Therefore, aged waste or legacy waste has nominal carbon content (in the range of 3–9 per cent).

The analysis added:

Infamous dumpsites like Deonar in Mumbai; Bawana, Bhalswa, Ghazipur, Narela and Okhla in Delhi; Bingipura and Laksmipura in Bengaluru; and Dhapa and Garden Reach in Kolkata are a few examples of unscientific landfills in India.

These dumpsites were often in the news for the wrong reasons. Dumpsite fires were reported at Deonar in 2016 and again in 2018, which severely affected the air quality in the adjoining areas.

In another incident at the Ghazipur dumpsite in Delhi, two people died due to the collapse of 50 tonnes of garbage that came crashing down like a 16-storey building.

A study conducted on the Ghazipur landfill area of Delhi estimated that methane emissions flux was 18 microgram/square metre per hour (μg/m2/h) (lowest, in winter) and 264 mg/m2/h (highest, in summer).

Research author Richa Singh told Down To Earth:

While the cities in India dive into remediation of legacy waste, it would be critical to ensure gainful application and final disposal of the extracted fractions received from the existing garbage mountains. The challenge would be to create a value chain and perspective planning involving multiple stakeholders in the process.

Also the management of fresh municipal solid waste was extremely important because it was practically impossible to complete the biomining (extracting valuable metals) of legacy waste if the dumpsites received a significant fraction of fresh MSW every day, she added.

“Collected waste might include recyclables picked up by informal sector workers as well as waste that finds its way into aquatic and terrestrial systems such as drains, rivers, ponds, lakes, sewer lines, empty plots of land and garbage heaps alongside roads and highways,” according to the 2019-20 Central Pollution Control Board Annual Report. 

It added that smaller garbage heaps alongside roads and streets were not typically identified as dumpsites but needed to be cleared by adopting the appropriate process.

In 2019–20, more than half of the waste (80,000 tonnes per day) generated in India was disposed of in dumpsites or remained unattended.

“Interventions under Swachh Bharat Mission have increased the quantity of waste treated every year, but a substantial fraction of waste remains unprocessed across the country,” the report has noted.

On July 17, 2019, the National Green Tribunal passed an order directing that capping of legacy waste would lead to huge environmental and health consequences. The tribunal suggested biomining and bioremediation as environmentally safe and the most preferable approaches to dumpsite remediation.

The order also stated that there was hardly any situation where bioremediation was not possible. It directed bioremediation of all dumpsites by October 2020.

It directed that action plans be prepared and implemented by all municipal corporations of Delhi. CPCB was to verify waste clearance according to norms and submit a report.

“Management of legacy waste should be combined with integrated waste management facilities having adequate capacities for collecting, transporting and disposing of municipal solid waste produced on a day-to-day basis as well as legacy waste trapped in dumpsites,” Singh said.

CSE’s analysis was released at a national symposium on legacy waste being held at the India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road September 15.

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