What does the future hold?

Finding the right technology for waste processing is not the challenge. The challenge is to integrate the technology with a system of household-level segregation, collection, and transportation of waste, and all this in ways that are both affordable and manageable by invariably weak and financially stretched city local bodies. India’s waste management needs to be reinvented. The elements of this strategy will be as follows:

Agenda 1: Landfills are not the answer
To minimise use, impose a landfill tax, build sanitary landfills for disposing of residual waste so that there is less pollution. Ensuring a zero-landfill future has to be the aim of a reinvented waste management system.

The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, accept that landfills should only be used for residual waste—“non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible, and non-reactive waste”. They go on to state that “every effort will be made to recycle or reuse the rejects to achieve the desired objective of zero waste to landfill.” This is an important departure from previous policies emphasising the need for sanitary landfills. 

How will this policy be enforced? Currently, all contracts for waste management awarded by city governments to private concessionaires have a perverse incentive to bring larger quantities of waste to the dump site. Also, municipalities find that collection, transport, and dumping waste is easier than processing it for reuse. To change this, a landfill tax is needed—the contracts need to be redesigned so that instead of the municipality paying for the waste that is brought to the landfill, the contractor should be made to pay a “tipping fee” for the waste. In this way, instead of being paid to bring waste to the landfill, the contractor or city municipality would have to pay a tipping fee to dispose of the waste.

Moreover, to protect against groundwater contamination, impermeable lining at the base and sidewalls of the landfill site needs to be laid and the entire leachate needs to be carefully collected and treated before letting it into the environment. Also, it is equally important to lay the final cover over the landfill because once the landfill is filled to capacity, it needs to be closed with synthetic membranes, clay, and topsoil in a way that no more waste enters that system and the landfill becomes stable.

Agenda 2: Segregate, segregate, segregate
This must happen at the source, only then will there be integrity in the waste stream. It is the responsibility of urban local bodies to ensure compliance with segregation of waste at source, as per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. It must be made mandatory for citizens to perform segregation at source. Door-to-door collection and transport must ensure that this segregated waste is not mixed. 

Even when the waste is to be incinerated to generate energy, segregation is the key. But ensuring segregation at source requires tough compliance systems. It is also clear that municipalities will need to put into place systems that will transport segregated waste and then ensure processing is done. In our survey, the only city that has truly adopted segregation is Panaji. 

Our municipal bye-laws, the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000, and Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, stress the need for segregation but do not suggest ways to incentivise this. For instance, in Sweden, to enforce segregation, houses pay less user fee for segregated waste and end up paying a higher amount for unsegregated waste.

Agenda 3: Charge and penalise
To minimise generation and to ensure segregation, impose a user fee and penalties for non-compliance and littering. Waste management costs a lot. But, currently, municipalities hardly charge for this service. The assumption is that 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 accounted for.

This is why municipalities struggle to pay for this service. Matters are made worse because municipal accounts are not properly maintained—most urban local bodies do not even maintain annual accounts. The 2016 Handbook on Urban Statistics, published by the Union Ministry of Urban Development, finds that in 2006–08 the average per capita municipal income in the country was roughly Rs 2,500; the per capita municipal expenditure was also the same, more or less. In most states, the per capita income and expenditure was less than Rs 1,000. The only way out of this is to ensure that household pays directly to agencies that are responsible for transportation and processing. Only then will the full costs of the service be accounted for. 

The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, prescribe that urban local bodies should impose user fees for waste generation and also levy spot fines on people who litter. But the operative problem is that all this needs to be done through the revision of bye-laws of the municipal body. In most cases, the revisions do not happen. 

To further strengthen the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has proposed to make littering, throwing waste in the open, dumping electronic waste, defacement of public places, and use of banned plastic bags “minor offences” with fines on the spot. 

Agenda 4: Informal is critical
Informal waste recycling sector is the real game-changer for India’s waste story. It is said (the data is weak, however) that recycling of dry waste provides employment to about 1–2 percent 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 specialising in specific wastes. What is not recognised is that this trade—which happens in the backyards of our slums and is shoved aside by policy, is the only thing saving cities from completely 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 10–15 percent in transportation costs daily to the city, adding up to millions of rupees a year. New ventures are also emerging to remove the stigma attached to the garbage-sorting business. In the capital, ventures like Raddi Express, Raddi Bazaar and in Mumbai Raddiwala have all made paper collection an easy and profitable business.

Agenda 5: Re-design contracts
Waste management contracts must be structured to ensure segregation happens at all costs. Most contracts between the concessionaire and the municipal authority focus on segregation at source, but only on paper. For every tonne of waste managed by the concessionaire, the municipality gives a “tipping fee” (between Rs 500-800/MT), and it states that it will pay more for unsegregated waste. The reinvented contracts must pay for segregated waste disposal and processing. 

Ideally, the contracts should not pay for the quantum of waste collected, but for the quantum of waste processed and recycled. Any waste that is taken to the landfill must be charged through the landfill tax. 

Agenda 6: Good management is the key issue 
It is clear that the issue is not whether waste management should be decentralised or centralised. The question is how waste will be processed and reused. It is clear that decentralised solutions will cut costs of transport and make households and institutions part of the solution. The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) view that decentralised plants are not environmentally sustainable is incomprehensible. However, NGT is right in stating that clear availability of land will be at a premium. This, however, does not mean that the “cluster approach” will make this problem go away. As more waste gets generated, more land will be required in this scheme of things. 

Many clusters will be required. It is also clear that the cost of transport is a key component of waste management and the farther the site, the more will be the transportation charge. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) knows that management of such common facilities is difficult. This is clearly the experience in the country as accountability is divided between multiple agencies and in this case, multiple city governments. They will all have to adhere to common minimum standards of waste composition and ensure terms of the contract are fulfilled. In its action plan, CPCB should have also suggested a suitable management framework for such common waste facilities so that these do not become new urban nightmares. 

Agenda 7: Celebrate NIMBY
Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) is a game-changer in waste management. The global history of waste management is a testimony to this fact. In the early 1980s, garbage ships travelling from rich cities of the US and Europe to Africa had become a global scandal. This led the world to agree on the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal. The fact was that NIMBY of the global rich had pushed the waste into the backyards of the poor of Africa. But as the poor rose in protest, the rich had to take back their waste and devise ways of management that would not lead to stink in their front yards. This is how waste management has evolved in the western world; so that they have no option but to reuse, recycle, and incinerate, but all in their own backyard. This is why India should be celebrating its own NIMBY. For long, we have used the backyards of our cities, where the poor live, or villages. 

(Views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)
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