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Combating Open Waste Burning to Reduce Air Pollution

Air pollution is a major environmental and health concern globally. In India, 1.67 million deaths were attributed to air pollution in 2019. Various sources such as vehicular and industrial emissions, dust from construction and roads, and open waste burning contribute to air quality deterioration.

Municipal solid waste burning contributes significantly to air pollution, releasing harmful particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM 10), carbon monoxide and other non-methane, volatile organic compounds (NMVOC). The toxic fumes and particulate matter released from these fires pose severe health risks. These can trigger respiratory problems, cardiovascular complications and cognitive impairment, putting vulnerable groups like the elderly and children at greater risk.

Studies suggest that depending on the city, 2% to 24% of the municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in cities gets burned, adding to the local air pollution. This is also the case with the cities recognized as the cleanest in India by the MoHUA Swachh Survekshan, where up to 4% of MSW gets burned in the open every day. While MSW burning is a significant health and environmental concern, it also points to inefficiencies within the waste management system which can be addressed as part of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) agenda.

Burning of garden waste is a common occurrence across many cities. It is of utmost importance that municipal corporations and city governments acknowledge this problem and take proactive steps to eliminate it. Such measures must be prioritized throughout the year and not just deployed as a reactive measure when air pollution levels peak. Through recognizing and acknowledging these problems, we can work towards greater awareness and underscore the need to address the problem at its very root. This entails waste segregation at source, decentralization of waste management, addressing behavioral issues and engaging with individuals as well as the wards and resident welfare associations (RWA).

City agencies and other departments collectively can help implement various measures to curb the burning of solid waste, some of which are listed below.

Verify and Acknowledge the Problem: Relevant departments within the municipal corporations can conduct comprehensive surveys to estimate the amount of solid waste being burnt in a city. This includes identifying burning hotspots, characterizing the burned waste, determining probable sources and forecasting future waste generation. By creating a network of air quality monitoring stations and through cross collaboration with other departments, city agencies can help correlate real-time burning instances with air quality, allowing for targeted actions. This can also aid the assessment of the effectiveness of implemented measures.

Establish a Robust Workforce: Municipal authorities can revise agreements with municipal waste contractors to ensure door-to-door collection of all types of waste. Establishing incentives for supervisors and sanitation inspectors can encourage on-ground monitoring, possibly even leading to the recruitment of individuals from local communities. Periodic trainings should be provided to ensure that the workforce can educate the public in a friendly manner and address grievances, and to empower them to impose fines on offenders.

Encourage Waste Segregation: Cities can encourage waste segregation at source and collection of segregated waste to enable better solid waste management. Dealing with each type of waste individually enhances resource recovery and recycling efficiency. Municipal authorities can strengthen the infrastructure by providing separate bins to households, expanding collection network, investing in composting facilities for wet waste and recycling plants for dry waste.

Decentralize Waste Management: Promoting decentralized waste management systems at the community and ward level can reduce the burden on centralized locations, lower transport costs and decrease the likelihood of dumping and burning. This approach creates job opportunities for informal workers and can be tailored for local waste streams.

Prevent Fires at Dumpsites: To prevent fires at dumpsites, measures like reducing unsegregated organic waste and promoting biomining of legacy waste must be implemented. In collaboration with state pollution control boards, air quality monitoring devices can be added within the premises for real-time alerts of smoke, enabling quick response, and dumpsite offices should be equipped with fire engines. From a long-term perspective, ensuring the proper design of landfills, including a system for collecting and processing the methane produced in them, can help prevent combustion.

Create Behavioral Nudges: Actively promoting positive behavior such as waste segregation at source and discouraging burning can enable behavioral shifts. Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) initiatives by cities should highlight the negative aspects of waste burning and motivate communities to adopt responsible disposal practices. Identifying behavioral biases and reasons for waste burning could help design the nudge to bring positive changes. This can be supplemented with creating social norms emphasizing good behavior and highlighting role models and influencers who endorse waste management practices, along with sharing success stories. Clear and easy-to-remember messaging in everyday spaces and door-to-door campaigns and community events can help communicate these messages.

Adopt Technological Solutions: Cities can adopt technologies that supports the shift towards a circular economy, such as automated resource recovery, waste-to-energy solutions like bio-methanation, and construction and demolition waste processing plants. Coordination across industries to establish cohesive backward and forward linkages can ensure the viability and sustainability of these activities.

Explore Affordable Heating Solutions: Addressing open waste burning for heating purposes requires cleaner heating options that are available, affordable and accessible to people. Cities can collaborate with entrepreneurs to develop customized solutions for heating.

These solutions can be planned and implemented based on local needs as the challenges vary from place to place. Zero waste burning is a feasible goal that every Indian city can attain by establishing clear intent and implementing visible measures. Raising awareness and building public consensus should be at the forefront of this approach. Achieving zero waste burning in cities will not only improve air quality but also contribute to the Swachh Bharat objectives of the national government, ensuring a healthier and more sustainable future for all.

All views expressed by the authors are personal.

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