At the current rate of urbanisation and industrial growth in the country, India will need a 32 feet high landfill site equivalent to the size of Bengaluru to manage its waste. According to the World Bank, in 2010, India was generating approximately 1.1 lakh tonnes of waste every day, and with the consequent increase in waste production, this number is expected to triple by 2025. Existing waste management infrastructure and systems are unable to manage these volumes, negatively impacting the environment and public health, along with the quality of life of sanitation workers.
This is a fairly complex problem to solve, as issues crop up at every stage of the waste management process, from the segregation and storage of waste to its collection, transportation and disposal. Here’s a look at some of the major issues:
Limited capacity to collect waste
Urban local bodies seldom have adequate funds and rarely charge a user fee to finance solid waste management activities. The Ministry of Environment states that currently, only 50-80% of generated waste is collected, and only about 40% is segregated. Gaps in service provisioning for collection are often filled by unauthorised waste collectors, who carry out collection for a small fee. This often creates more problems downstream due to improper disposal such as open dumping and/or burning, resulting in air pollution and an increased likelihood of diseases.
Skewed and inadequate budget for waste processing
As a result of deficient budget allocation, less than a quarter of collected waste is treated and processed, with the rest ending up in landfills. Over 80% of the municipal solid waste management (SWM) budget is allocated for collection and transportation, leaving little for processing and disposal. This is a critical issue, as land for developing sanitary landfills is running out, while most of the existing ones are over-capacity.
Segregation woes remain
Segregation, a necessary step for good waste management, is rarely undertaken. For instance, there is no incentive or penalty enforcement that would encourage people to practice segregation. With limited efforts to sensitize citizens, the lack of knowledge about environmental consequences leaves them apathetic to segregation. Moreover, as waste collectors are paid by the tonnage, there is often a perverse incentive to not segregate and dump waste. While a network of ragpickers carry out some amount of segregation, a sizeable portion of recyclable and organic waste still reaches the landfills, making them a ticking time bomb of toxic waste, slowly seeping into the ground, contaminating ground water sources, increasing emissions and leading to fire hazards.
Reforms till date
The revision of solid waste management rules (2016) seeks to address gaps in the previous rules (2000), and stipulates a few changes. For example, the rules expand the coverage area at the macroscale from the municipal level to urban agglomeration. It also requires bulk generators and manufacturers to earmark space for segregation and waste processing. Acknowledging the primary role of the informal waste collection and recycling network, states are required to develop an SWM policy and strategy, in consultation with waste pickers. There is also a strong push for waste-to-energy (WTE), through support for infrastructure development and the compulsory purchase of power from WTE plants. Beyond this, the rules require extended producer responsibility for brands that use non-biodegradable packaging material and also, bio-remediation or capping of old or abandoned landfills.
While the 2016 rules seemingly address all the gaps in the 2000 iteration, it has no real teeth, as it does not capacitate and empower agencies to implement or penalize for poor implementation.
Potential for private sector interventions
India’s growing urban population with its increased disposable income is seeing a shift in waste composition, with increasing volumes of recyclable plastic, metal and e-waste. This in turn has given rise to a number of enterprises involved in waste management for urban consumers. Of the waste management enterprises in India monitored by Tracxn, a third of them focus primarily on waste collection and about another third on recycling. A popular model that has emerged is the development of platforms or virtual marketplaces linking waste generators (both private and institutional) to kabadiwallas. The change in waste composition towards higher calorific value waste also creates an opportunity in the waste-to-energy sector. Thus, 60% of the waste processing companies being monitored by Tracxn work in waste-to-energy.
Without an active recycling habit, the scope for growth of recycling businesses remains limited. Some enterprises are forced to support their collection platforms and composting pits with awareness and education programs, to drive behavior change at the household level.
Besides this, the salvaging and recycling arm of the trash economy functions largely through personal and informal relationships. While regularizing these networks may bring some benefits for the waste-pickers in terms of health and safety standards and financial security, there is a reluctance among existing setups to engage with the organized sector. Currently, despite the visibility and “likeability” of the problem, waste management fails to attract much private investment, with few enterprises sustaining past the three-year mark. For those that do, high capital costs and the lack of private funding opportunities leaves them dependent upon public-private partnerships.
‘What a Waste 2.0’, a recent report from the World Bank indicates that a potential solution to waste woes in our cities, is a push for more private sector investment and entrepreneurial engagement in waste management. Despite the many challenges ahead, enterprises such as SWaCH (Pune) and Saahas (Bangalore) are gradually finding traction and becoming prototypes for other cities.
The success of these models is promising, as innovation and investments coupled with access to data, is set to spike in the next few years. Showcasing efficient ways for cities to collaboratively solve their waste problem while preserving the wellbeing of the environment and sanitation workers at the core, should be the way forward for Swacch Bharat 2.0.
SWaCH was a finalist of the inaugural WRI Ross Prize for Cities, a global competition for transformative projects and initiatives that have ignited citywide change. For more information, visit wrirossprize.org.