Waste management rules in India are based on the principles of "sustainable development", "precaution", and "polluter pays". These principles mandate municipalities and commercial establishments to act in an environmentally accountable and responsible manner—restoring balance, if their actions disrupt it. The increase in waste generation as a by-product of economic development has led to various subordinate legislations for regulating the manner of disposal and dealing with generated waste are made under the umbrella law of Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA). Certain forms of waste are the subject matter of separate rules and require separate compliances, mostly like authorisations, maintenance of records and adequate disposal mechanisms.
With rapid urbanisation, the country is facing massive waste management challenge. Over 377 million urban people live in 7,935 towns and cities and generate 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum. Only 43 million tonnes (MT) of the waste is collected, 11.9 MT is treated, and 31 MT is dumped in landfill sites. Solid Waste Management (SWM) is one among the essential services provided by municipal authorities in the country to keep urban centres clean. However, almost all municipal authorities deposit solid waste at a dump yard within or outside the city haphazardly. Experts believe that India is following a flawed system of waste disposal and management.
The key to efficient waste management is to ensure proper segregation of waste at source and to ensure that the waste goes through different streams of recycling and resource recovery. Then reduced final residue is then deposited scientifically in sanitary landfills. Sanitary landfills are the ultimate means of disposal for unutilised municipal solid waste from waste processing facilities and other types of inorganic waste that cannot be reused or recycled. A major limitation of this method is the costly transportation of MSW to far away landfill sites.
A report by IIT Kanpur (2006) found the potential of recovering at least 15 per cent or 15,000 MT of waste generated every day in the country. This, the report said, could also provide employment opportunities to about 500,000 rag-pickers. The report added that despite immense potential in big cities in this area, participation from non-profits or community is limited.
In some urban centres, people working in the informal sector collect solid waste for each doorstep to get a collection fee and derive additional income from the sale of recyclables. The informal recycling industry plays a significant role in waste management. It also ensures that less waste reaches landfills.
Iswar Ahluwalia, in an article, points out that more than three-fourth of solid waste management budget is allotted to collection and transportation, leaving leaves very little for processing or resource recovery and disposal.
There has been a technological advancement for processing, treatment, and disposal of solid waste. Energy-from-waste is a crucial element of SWM because it reduces the volume of waste from disposal also helps in converting the waste into renewable energy and organic manure. Ideally, it falls in the flow chart after segregation, collection, recycling and before getting to the landfill. But many waste-to-energy plants in India are not operating to their full potential.
Installation of waste-to-compost and bio-methanation plants would reduce the load of landfill sites. The biodegradable component of India’s solid waste is currently estimated at a little over 50 per cent. Bio-methanation is a solution for processing biodegradable waste which also remains underexploited. It is believed that if we segregate biodegradable waste from the rest, it could reduce the challenges by half. E-waste components contain toxic materials and are non-biodegradable which present both occupational and environmental health threats including toxic smoke from recycling processes and leaching from e-waste in a landfill into local water tables.
The concept of a common waste treatment facility (ENVIS Newsletter, December 2010) is widely promoted and accepted as it uses waste as a resource by either using it as a co-fuel or co-raw material in manufacturing processes. This has led to the rise of Public Private Partnership (PPP) models in waste management which have open doors for doing business in waste management.
Bio-medical waste (management and handling) rules, 1998 prescribe that there should be a Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Facility (CBWTF) at every 150 km in the country. CBWTFs have been set up and are functioning in cities and towns. However, the establishment of functional CBWTF throughout the country must be ensured. Integrated common hazardous waste management facilities combine secured landfill facility, solidification/stabilisation and incineration to treat hazardous wastes generated by various industrial units. They contribute about 97.8 per cent of total landfill waste and 88 per cent of total incinerable hazardous waste produced in the country, as per an environment ministry report.
The way forward
Around 100 cities are set to be developed as smart cities. Civic bodies have to redraw long term vision in solid waste management and rework their strategies as per changing lifestyles. They should reinvent garbage management in cities so that we can process waste and not landfill it (with adequate provisioning in processing and recycling). To do this, households and institutions must segregate their waste at source so that it could be managed as a resource. The Centre aims to do away with landfill sites in 20 major cities. There is no additional land for dumping garbage, and the existing ones are in a critical state. It is reported that almost 80 per cent of the waste at Delhi landfill sites could be recycled provided civic bodies start allowing ragpickers to segregate waste at source and recycle it. Compost pits should be constructed in every locality to process organic waste. Community participation has a direct bearing on efficient waste management. Recovery of e-waste is abysmally low, and we need to encourage recycling of e-waste on a vast scale level, so that problem of e-waste disposal is contained.
(The writer is former Adviser, Planning Commission and Chief Executive, Haryana Environmental Management Society. The views expressed are strictly personal.)