The Scenario of Solid Waste Management in India

A Robust Waste Management System is the Need of the Hour

The Scenario of Solid Waste Management in India
The Scenario of Solid Waste Management in India

According to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of USA solid wastes refer to those wastes that includes “garbage, refuse, sludge form a waste water treatment plant, air pollution control facility and other  discarded materials including solid, liquid, semi-solid  or contained gaseous material, resulting from industrial, commercial, mining and agricultural operations and from community activities.

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Rising incomes, uncontrolled and unplanned urbanisation, and changing lifestyles have resulted in increased volumes and changing composition of municipal solid waste in India. About 62 million tonnes of waste is generated every year in India, of which less than 60% is collected and around 15% processed ultimately finding its way into landfills. Landfills in India rank third in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in India. The Government of India has revised the Solid Waste Management Rules after 16 years to deal with massive heap of solid waste. However, its implementation remains far from what was targeted.

This article discusses the present scenario of the waste management system of India, the provisions of Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, to deal with the solid wastes, the administrative hurdles in implementing these policy measures and finally concludes with suggestions to  create a comprehensive and robust waste management system .

The solid wastes are primarily classified into 3 categories:

Municipal Solid Wastes

Which includes “household waste, commercial and market area waste, slaughterhouse waste, institutional waste (eg: from schools, community halls), horticultural waste (from parks and gardens) waste from road sweeping, silt from drainage, and treated biomedical waste”

Hazardous waste

Which includes household items such as “discarded cans of paint and pesticide, sanitary wastes such as disposable diapers and sanitary pads, items of biomedical waste such as expired or discarded medicines, broken mercury thermometers, used needles and syringes, e-wastes such as tube lights and CFL bulbs and also items like leftover paints and varnishes. The wastes also include industrial wastes such as those generated from “metal, chemical, paper, pesticide, dye, refining and rubber goods industries”

Healthcare Wastes

They are also known as biomedical wastes. They include “hospital waste generated during diagnosis, treatment or immunization of human or animals or in research activities or in the production or testing of biologicals”. These also includes chemicals like formaldehyde, phenols, which are used as disinfectants, mercury used in thermometric equipments, wastes like “solid wastes”, “disposables”,” anatomical waste”, “human excreta” etc.

The scenario of generation and management of solid wastes in India is very bleak. The tendency of  “hyper-consumption” have resulted in “unplanned urbanization” and this when accompanied  by the exponential growth of population have resulted in not only large and continuously increasing volume of solid wastes but also to a continuously changing  “composition” of  these wastes which are getting increasingly difficult to manage with the present infrastructure in India. According to an estimate made by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) , India will generate four times more waste  by 2030 than what it does today.

As far as the management of these wastes are concerned, there are several challenges and hurdles and neither the centre nor the states have been able to arrive at a foolproof and robust waste management mechanism till now.

Also the consumer behaviors are yet to be adapted towards the scientific management of the domestic wastes particularly in one of the primary areas of management of domestic waste i.e segregation of biodegradable wastes from other wastes at the very source of the generation.

Impact of increasing accumulation of Solid Wastes

In order to understand the impacts of the rising accumulation of solid wastes we will look at the three dimensions namely human health, environment, effect on people, particularly the waste-pickers and their families.

As far as human health is concerned different studies have identified links of garbage accumulation and garbage burning to diseases like asthma, heart attack etc. Human fecal matter which is found frequently in municipal as hospital wastes along with the accumulated garbage attracts rodents which in turn causes diseases like dengue, malaria etc.

Also, garbage dumps, which is one of the most common methods of garbage disposal are frequently found to catch fire. The Deonar Dumpyard fire incident, in Mumbai in the year 2016, where the fire raged for almost three months and covered a large portion of the city of Mumbai in toxic fumes can be cited in this regard.

Impact of increasing accumulation of Solid Wastes Info 1
Impact of increasing accumulation of Solid Wastes

As far as the environmental impacts are concerned, burning of garbage releases carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carcinogenic hydrocarbons into the air. Garbage burning is a major contributor to the Green House Gas Emissions in India. The leachate materials obtained from rotten garbage contains heavy metals and toxic liquid which, when absorbed into the soil or flows into water bodies, affects entire food chains involving human, animals, birds etc.

As far as the effects on the waste pickers and their families are concerned, it is quite evident that these people are at extremely high health and economic risks. This is because they live near to dump yards and their livelihoods mainly depend on the collection and sale of recyclable. the total population of waste pickers in India is about 2 million and they have no access to any protective equipments like for example masks, gloves etc. and have to carry out their livelihoods at grave risks of not only their but of their families as well. Thus, it is no wonder that they succumb to malnutrition, poverty, infections etc. Also, the rising instances of dump yard fires pose life risks to the waste picking populace living nearby.

The Most Prevalent Methods of Disposal of Solid Wastes Prevalent in India And Their Associated Challenges

Let us discuss some common and prevalent methods of disposal of garbage in India.

Firstly, we have the “open dumps” which are mostly vast and uncovered areas, that are used to dump solid wastes of all forms.

The problem with these dumps is that they contain mixed i.e. unsegregated wastes. They become therefore the breeding hubs of different diseases. During rainy season seepage of rainwater runoffs through these heaps of garbages, results in infection of nearby residential areas. Also, frequent fires are rampant in these areas due to the generation of combustible gases like Methane during decomposition of these wastes, which poses life risks to the nearby populace and polluting the air of the neighborhood.

Another common method of disposal of the garbage is by constructing “landfills”. Pits are dug into the ground and wastes are dumped there. The problem of rainwater seepage (leaching) and infection is partially addressed by covering the pit with soil. Once the fit is completely full, thick mud is poured to completely seal the pit, which can thereby transform into construction sites of public places like parks, parking lots, etc.

However even in this method as well the problem of rainwater seepage is there and in particular when the seepage causes ground water pollution then it becomes a major health hazard also this method does not eliminate or reduce emission of harmful greenhouse gases due to anaerobic decomposition of  the garbage.

Using “incineration plants” is also a popular and common method of garbage disposal. The recyclable wastes are segregated first followed by burning of the organic content. However, majority of these plants are not properly equipped to deal with the harmful gases generated during combustion of the garbage and the harmful ash leftover after combustion.

Issues with the Waste Management System in India

In order to, look for solutions to improve the waste management scenario in India, we need to understand the issues or the problems that this particular sector is facing first.

In India less than 60% of the wastes from the urban households is collected and out of which only 15% goes through the mechanisms of treatment and processing. The reasons behind this are the loopholes in the present waste management systems and lack of awareness among the community. Even the wastes that are collected are mostly not segregated. The onus of these does not fall alone on the community but also on the contractors who are in charge of collection and transport of the wastes. In order to maximize their profit and reduce transportation expenses they not only do not segregate the wastes collected by them but also illegally dump them into unauthorized areas.

Again, the waste producers i.e. the community households, hospitals etc. do not segregate the wastes produced by them, even though the waste collection services are offered free of cost to them by the local bodies.

It is not that we don’t have alternative eco-friendly waste management procedures, but they are neither very cost effective, nor they are being properly incentivized by the government.

Legal Regulations in Place for Managing the Solid Wastes

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has notified a series of regulations for managing different categories of wastes like plastic, e-wastes, biomedical wastes, hazardous wastes, construction and demolition wastes, solid wastes etc. In this article we shall focus on the Solid Waste Management (SWM) rules, 2016, which was notified in the year 2016 and replaced the previous Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000.

These waste management rules seek to enforce and promote various key aspects of scientific disposal methods of domestic solid wastes.

It enforces the segregation of wastes  at the at the source into three main categories namely, Biodegradable wastes, Dry wastes (like paper, plastics etc.) and domestic hazardous wastes  (like mosquito repellant cans,  etc.), before handing over the wastes to the waste collectors.

 The responsibility of setting up a proper disposal mechanism for sanitary wastes has been given to the manufactures of the sanitary products.

Hotels and restaurants are mandated to set up a system for ensuring proper disposal of food wastes.

The local bodies have been empowered to charge “user fees” for the collection and disposal of wastes from the waste generating community and also to levy fines (known as “spot fines”) for deviances against the mandates of  SWM, rules 2016.

Provisions of  promoting  a proper market infrastructure, for the sale of by-products of  eco-friendly waste disposal mechanisms like composting, biomethanation etc. (discussed later in the article) have also been put in the notification so as to encourage and incentivize these mechanisms.

A central monitoring committee has been set up by the government, under the chairmanship of the Secretary, MoEFCC and comprising of stakeholders from the centre and the states, to monitor the implementation of these rules.

Challenges in The Implementation of The Rules and Regulations

Although SWM rules, 2016 addresses most of the major issues and loopholes of the waste management system in India, yet some major hurdles have come out in the effective implementation of these rules.

Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016 Info 2
Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016

One of them being that these rules have failed to impose strict penalties for poor implementation of these rules, thus instances of blatant disregard for these rules have been observed every now and then since their implementation.

Also, these rules have mainly pushed for a centralized waste management system rather than a decentralized one. And since the present centralized waste management mechanism operating in our country is not adequately equipped to deal with the increasing heaps of garbage, it is no wonder that we find instances of complete failure of the system and hyper-saturation of the land-fills and garbage dumps.

The informal sector, which mainly includes the waste pickers which form a main pillar of the waste management mechanism of the country have also been neglected by these rules.

Conclusion and the Way Forward

What follows from the above discussion is that, there is a need for a foolproof and comprehensive system to manage the wastes generated. The system should not only have an effective and decentralized garbage disposal mechanism but should also have strict monitoring mechanism for the implementation of solid waste management rules. The administrators of the system should be given authority to impose stringent penalties upon those who would defer from the rules.

Massive awareness campaigns should be employed to encourage community participation in the disposal of wastes and health and economic wellbeing of the waste picking informal community should also be taken care of. Lessons in this regard can be drawn from the massively successful initiatives of small cities like, Pune, Mysuru, Vellore etc. which have achieved massive successes in areas like segregation of wastes at the source and employing the waste picking community to collect the recyclable wastes  along with providing proper working conditions to these informal community.

As far as the disposal of the wastes are concerned one needs to consider two dimensions before coming out with a disposal policy. The first is “Environmental sustainability ” and the second is “financial sustainability” of these policies or measures.

One may achieve environmental sustainability by adopting the concept of “reduce and reuse”, which basically means reusing the recyclable wastes (mainly the non-biodegradable wastes  like plastics )  for further use and reducing the environmental impact of the by-products of  organic waste disposal like ash, green house gases etc.

In India a significant portion of the plastic wastes are left untreated. These wastes either end up in landfills or open dumps or goes to the drainage systems thereby clogging them, which in turn leads to runoff and seepage of the contaminated drain-water into neighbouring areas. Also burning of plastics releases harmful substances like “Dioxins”, “Furans”.  It is true that recycling of plastics is not always “technically and economically feasible”, but there are options where these waste plastics can be reused. For example, in the laying of roads, one may use plastic pieces to make the roads durable and operational in all weathers and in particular rainy season.

States like Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu have already started construction of such ‘plastic based roads ‘ since long.

In the case of organic wastes for which we have no alternatives for recycling, and we need to employ eco friendly methods of disposal. Some of these methods include composting (which involves the decomposition of the organic matter, in the presence of oxygen, with the help of microorganisms or worms to produce, a humus rich soil conditioner also known as compost. These can be used in organic farming), Biomethanation (which is essentially a “bio-chemical” method of organic wastes to methane rich “biogas”, which can in turn be used as fuel) etc. Proper market infrastructure should be developed for the sale of the useful byproducts of these processes.

Next comes the issue of financial sustainability. Appropriate legislations should be framed to delegate greater power and autonomy to urban local bodies particularly in the area of resource mobilization. The urban local bodies are the principal stakeholders in the waste management system of India, yet they are suffering due to lack of adequate finance and appropriate support from the government both at the central and the state levels. Also, a major portion of the municipal expenditure on waste disposal and management goes into collection and transportation of wastes leaving very little finance to effectively treat these wastes. In this respect appropriate financial interventions on the part of the centre and the state governments along with providing suitable subsidies for promotion of more and more eco-friendly waste disposal measures will go a long way in addressing the issue of the garbage ‘pandemic’ in our country.

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