India has a population of 1.25 billion and generates 47 million tonnes of waste per year. This means less than 100 g of waste per person per day. In comparison, the figure for the US, one of the most developed nations, is a huge 2.17 kg.
Despite producing only a fraction of what the US generates, why are we unable to manage it? The problem has more to do with governance, institutions and infrastructure than anything else. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, 91 per cent of waste produced in urban India gets collected, but only 27 per cent is treated; the remaining 73 per cent is disposed of in dump yards. As far as rural India is concerned, waste collection is still a dream. The US, on the other hand, recovers 34 per cent of its total waste through composting and recycling; the rest is disposed of in landfills or sent for incineration. In fact, it enacted the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act to govern its waste management way back in 1976—some 24 years before India for the first time framed the Rules of Solid Waste Management, the implementation of which leaves a lot to be desired.
Unlike India, the US has a legal frame, works to implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) so that companies that produce packaging or products ensure that the products are properly disposed of when they reach the end of their life), packaging regulations and buyback schemes.
Twenty-five years from now, with 1.6 billion people, India will be the largest nation in terms of population. Estimates show that the quantity of waste may get doubled, but still, the waste generated will be far less than what America generates now. Being one of the largest markets in the world, the fast-moving consumer goods segment can witness a boom, and managing the packaging discards is going to be a real challenge. Currently, India generates about 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. There may be a more-than-proportionate rise in plastics and paper waste in the next 25 years. The recently concluded World Economic Forum showed its concern over plastics in the marine environment, which poses both environmental and economic threat. Estimates show that about 95 per cent of $80-120 million worth plastic packaging used worldwide is lost every year. And by 2050, the oceans are likely to contain more plastics than fish by weight. There is a growing demand to change packaging materials and product delivery systems. This requires innovation of zero-waste strategies at the global policy level. Having a long coastline, India, too, will be impacted by marine pollution. If it is to succeed in handling its garbage, zero waste is the key.
Zero waste is a paradigm shift in the approach to waste management. It is ethical, efficient and an economical use of resource to ensure environmental health. It includes EPR, resource recovery (extraction of economically usable materials and ecologically viable energy from wastes) and conservation.
In 2016, India revised its Solid Waste Management Rules, and these now have some elements of zero-waste management. They provide for segregation of garbage at source, decentralised management of discards, resource recovery and initiatives to bring waste-pickers into the mainstream for better collection and recycling. The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, and E-Waste Management Rules, 2016, also provide for EPR. These rules provide some tools for governments and communities that want to adopt zero-waste systems.
Segregated collection of waste will result in recovery of more than 50 per cent of organic waste and at least 50 per cent of rest of the waste. If this can be achieved, India will have a 75 per cent of recovery rate. It is doable. EPR provisions, if properly implemented, will eliminate a large volume of problem materials. Recovery of electronic and hazardous waste will also help in overcoming the current crisis.
The current trend, though, is a bit disappointing where decision makers yield to the luring business of projects that convert waste to energy or centralised municipal waste incineration. These are becoming multibillion-dollar businesses, with a huge scope for corruption.
Civil society groups, organisations and individuals who fight for a toxic-free world and environmental justice are trying hard to slow down the process towards centralisation and privatisation of waste management. Some in India have been successful in creating pilot models towards zero waste.
In 2000, when Thanal, a Kerala-based non-profit, launched the first zero waste pilot project of the country in Kovalam, the idea was considered utopian and/or impractical. But in 2007 the project was featured as a model in the state government's Zero Waste Policy document. The Alappuzha municipality has also shown how easy decentralised composting facilities can be.
Thiruvananthapuram too adopted zero waste principles of decentralised and source-level disposal of organic waste, resource recovery and green protocol in 2014. The city ranked in top 10 cleanest cities in India in 2015 and was the only one that did not have a centralised solid waste management system. In fact, Kerala was the first state to launch a zero waste policy in the country in 2007. In 2016, the policy was expanded to include water conservation and organic farming through Haritha Keralam Mission.
In the past two decades, India has also seen some bold efforts by local governments to control the menace of plastic. It began with Goa banning carry bags of less than 100 microns. Delhi and Chandigarh also banned disposable plastic carry bags and non-woven polypropylene bags. In 2016, Sikkim declared itself an organic state and imposed a blanket ban on not just plastic carry bags but all plastic disposable products in parts of the state. Recently, Thiruvananthapuram also banned the use of disposable plastic products. The success stories of integration of the informal sector and waste-pickers with recovery facilities in Mumbai, Pune, and Bengaluru have led to similar projects in other cities.
But we need more such initiatives to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, for food safety and for the success of programmes to combat climate change. The role of civil society groups will be pivotal in the process.
(Shibu K Nair is the programme director of Zero Waste at Thanal, a non-profit based in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. The views expressed are personal.)