Why is waste and its management such an important issue?

There is no such thing in Nature as the concept of waste: everything follows a “circle of life” where old, used or discarded materials decompose and transform into raw materials ready to regenerate life. We used to live more attuned to this law of Nature but modern consumerist lifestyle has got us obsessed with production and consumption. We are bombarded with products full of unnecessary packaging and plastics which we promptly toss in the wastebin. The more we consume and grow as a population, the bigger our waste footprint. A poor system of waste management adversely impacts health, livelihoods and the environment. This is why it becomes imperative for us to take measures to fix our current waste management system.

What’s wrong with our current waste management system?

Everybody knows that our current centralised waste management system is a failure. Never mind the irregularities with which our garbage is collected, when it is finally picked up, it is simply collected then dumped into open landfills that continue to be filled up past their life expectancy and carrying capacity. Space, as we all know, is a contested acquisition in our congested urban cities. These dump yards are unsightly and unhygienic; what is worse is that unsegregated waste releases toxic gases which are harmful for the environment and our health. The current system, with its tipping fee model, in fact, incentivizes the mixing and accumulation of waste since payment is tied to the weight of garbage collected. Safety equipment for those working with garbage are nonexistent, much like for the landfills. These are expected to be scientifically treated to minimize damages to health and environment. In practice, none of that happens. In the midst of all these, as citizens we continue with our lives, unconcerned about the consequences of our collective waste. As long as it is out of our sight, we are content complaining about the state of waste management without making any efforts to contribute towards improving it.

As a solution to this failed centralised system, the Corporation of Chennai proposes to shift towards privatisation and incineration which are both ineffective options with negative social and environmental impacts. Chennai would profit more to look towards a decentralised waste management system which includes resource recovery parks, recycling units, compost and biogas plants, segregation at source and the inclusion of informal waste pickers. With the current centralised model, Chennai spends 20% of its annual revenue budget, roughly 624.5 crore a year to which the incineration proposal made by the Corporation would require an additional 1300 crore. There is no potential annual revenue in this model whereas in a decentralised model, each ward of Chennai can recover 50 lakh from a year of composting, recycling and reusing collected waste. In environmental terms, a decentralised model would eliminate the transportation of waste by trucks and thus reduce emissions by 19 lakh metric tonnes.

What’s wrong with centralised waste disposal?

There are several reasons why centralisation is not an effective way to handle waste. The requirement of waste collection varies depending on each zone, since the nature and amount of waste varies depending on population and income levels. A central system would simply divide the money and resources without looking to flexibly adjust to the local situation. It also makes it difficult to monitor whether waste is being properly handled. Since centralisation also entails picking up waste from all the different wards and dumping it in one or two major landfills, considerable money is wasted on environmentally unfriendly options such as trucks for transportation. Anyone who has seen one of these open trucks can immediately remember that such options are unhygienic and unpleasant. Finally, and this is an important point, waste is only the end result of an entire chain of production, consumption, use and rejection. It’s easy to throw away garbage but just because it is out of our sight doesn’t mean that it has disappeared. Waste continues to accumulate while lack of available space is rapidly becoming a serious issue. As citizens, we need to collectively rethink the way we are creating endless amounts of waste since this is an unwanted problem that is not going away. Right now it is only the vulnerable and the poor who are suffering from our poor waste management system but the problem will soon catch up with us all.

What is incineration? Is it a good solution to get rid of the waste?

Incineration is a technology that relies on high temperature to combust discarded waste and is currently being advertised as a sustainable source of energy. This kind of definition can makes us feel that incineration is the perfect solution to get rid of our mounting garbage trouble. But it fails to capture the considerable downsides of incinerators. Sure this method seems to be making use of something people have rejected as unusable but the promoters of incineration fail to take into account that 90% of the waste discarded can in fact be reused or recycled. Instead of pushing for a societal change of attitude towards the way waste is generated, used and discarded, incineration encourages the continuation of the same attitude of wastefulness. Unlike in the West, we mostly produce organic or wet waste but incineration requires a high percentage of dry waste to generate electricity. As a result, instead of looking for options to reuse and recycle the existing dry waste, a demand for dry waste is created. Plastics are especially prized because they are effective in generating the most energy. As you can guess, there can be no good, environmentally speaking, coming from a demand for more plastics.

Why not go for privatisation?

If you have had any experience with existing private enterprises dealing with waste, you would know that privatisation does not imply an accountable and successful waste management system. Private companies also have fewer obligations than the government to give their workers proper work conditions. It’s unjust that vulnerable and poor communities have to deal with harassment and insecure livelihoods. Put yourself for a minute their place: would you be motivated to give your best at work if you were poorly paid and weren’t given full work benefits? There are important reasons to value waste pickers, not only are they taking care of our own waste, but they are currently the only ones recycling in India. They find wealth in our waste, collecting materials that can be reused and thus reducing our collective problem of growing waste. Furthermore, private companies follow a tipping fee model that encourages malpractices such as leaving waste unsegregated or mixing waste with sand in order to increase the total quantity of waste. Finally, the very composition of a private company does not require it to be answerable to anyone but its shareholders, which is why private enterprises have poorer accountability towards citizens and the government than public ones.   

Okay, but why can’t the government take care of this?

While it’s true that the government is responsible for handling the city’s waste management, this cannot be done without the cooperation and active participation of each individual. It’s virtually impossible to expect the government to separate the waste if we as citizens are handing out all our plastic, kitchen and sanitary waste mixed together. Mixed waste is extremely dangerous for the environment and consequently our health since it releases dangerous toxins into the earth, the water bodies and the air. There’s no reason why we should not do our bit when we are all equally affected by the consequences, especially when it is something as simple as separating our own waste at the time of disposing it. All it takes is three different sets of bins and forming the habit of throwing our dry, wet and sanitary waste in the right ones. Finally, expecting the government to take care of everything makes us forget that we are currently buying and throwing things in an irresponsible manner since we do not take full responsibility of the consequences of our waste. With a little bit of effort and initiative on our part, we can make the shift to a decentralised and sustainable mode of waste management.

What does decentralisation entail?

A decentralised system follows the ‘Proximity Principle’, meaning waste is treated as close to the the place of generation as possible. Logistically it means doing away with large scale polluting methods such as using vehicular means to transport waste to a centralised dump yard. Instead it means leaning on methods such as segregation at source. Mixed waste results in toxics negatively affecting the environment and public health so the simple act of separating one’s waste would contribute enormously to avoid that. Furthermore it is only through segregation that the use of precious resources can be maximised with the help of options such as composting, recycling and biogas. Centralisation is a very top-down model that cannot take into account the specific requirements of each locality. This is necessary since the nature and quantity of waste depends on the socio-economic habits of citizens.

In contrast, a decentralised system would require stakeholders to take ownership of their area and actively coordinate and participate in creating a clean and hygienic environment. It would be easier to ensure that there is regular door-to-door collection, proper segregation, suitable treatment of labour, and qualified standards for the different waste management methods. Fundamental to the idea of decentralisation is the idea that each waste generator tries to minimise and manage the waste to her/his own capacity: the householder segregates and composts, the producer designs less wastefully and creates a take-back system for the waste her/his product generates, and the corporation ensures door-to-door collection and a more sustainable infrastructure for waste management. We cannot reverse all the waste generated nor the harmful practices of dealing with it but we can work together towards a system of waste management that does not deny us our right to a clean and pollution-free environment.

Has decentralization worked anywhere?

The capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, is an excellent example of a nearly successful decentralised system. It’s an example of the wonders that can be achieved if the government, citizens, social enterprises and NGOs worked together to tackle a collective problem. Like Chennai, Trivandrum also used to have a regular centralised system. However, the city was forced to look for an alternative system when the villagers living around its dump site drew a human chain and fought against the continuation of mindless dumping. Now, thanks to government subsidies or free distributions, most households have opted for either pipe composting or compost bins. Former waste pickers have been given a social upgrade as they have been trained as technicians to assist citizens on issues of setting up and maintenance. There are social enterprises who service their waste management, picking up citizens’ garbage and their excess compost. They also offer people technical support for their compost bins. The city has a community biogas plant, resource recovery facility, community composting unit, and an organic market. Several of Trivandrum’s bulk waste producers such as resorts and gated communities have their internal biogas plant or composting unit. This is not to say that Trivandrum has a perfect decentralised system: it needs to find a way to deal with its sanitary waste which is currently being burned in households. However Trivandrum is definitely an example that proves that if all the different stakeholders come together, there is no reason why the impossible shift can’t be achieved.

How and from where do I start?

A good starting point is learning to segregate your waste correctly. This will ensure that there is no mixed waste reaching landfills thus preventing harmful toxins from being released into the surrounding atmosphere, ground and water. Get yourself three containers. One is for wet or biodegradable waste which is essentially your kitchen waste, vegetables and fruit peels, etc. Biodegradable waste is usually plant or animal matter which breaks down naturally with the exposure of heat, oxygen and microorganisms. The other bin is for the dry or non-biodegradable waste, products made of plastic, metal or glass that do not have the capacity to naturally decay and decompose would fit that category. It is important to that non-biodegradable waste should be further divided into medical waste and e-waste since the last two contain hazardous properties that need to be treated separately. Dry waste can be stored for long periods without fear of smell and decay and should be periodically sent off for recycling. Finally there must be separate arrangements made for your sanitary waste keeping in mind that there are human beings handling our waste. Therefore let us be careful to wrap sanitary waste and mark it so that waste pickers are not forced to deal with unpleasant and unhygienic materials. Making segregation our second nature will already make a huge contribution towards a more sustainable waste management system. It will hopefully lead us to become  aware of our consumption and waste habits and helps us make more conscious decisions regarding those patterns.

Is there no easier alternative to composting?

When most of us think of composting there’s an kneejerk reaction of wrinkling up the nose and letting out a heartfelt “Eww” but this just shows how alienated we’ve made ourselves from Nature. If you take a minute to think about it, there’s no reason why it should be revolting. You unpeel a banana and toss the peel into the bin. So far nothing disgusting. But would any of us volunteer to dig our hands into that bin to pick it up? Waste acquires its “yuck” factor when it's all mixed up. Now imagine if you were to take that peel and instead place it in a compost bin and find a few weeks later fresh and free nutrient-rich humus. Sure it’s not as simple as that but all composting really requires is for us to get the hang of the four necessary elements to it: the right amount of aeration, carbon/brown organic matter (dry leaves, straw, paper, coco peat) nitrogen/green organic matter (vegetable leftovers, fruit peels, tea bags, plant cuttings) and water (moisture). There’s no denying that the initial stage of composting requires a lot effort but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. The benefits are multiple: the waste content that needs to be thrown away reduces and so does the smell. Then there is free compost that is excellent for gardening, consequently a great push to maintain a little garden of your own--nothing like safe chemical-free vegetables or flowers! Finally there is a sense of satisfaction of knowing you are contributing positively towards the environment: wet waste in itself decomposes naturally but buried under solid or sanitary waste in landfills, it produces methane which is worse for our planet than carbon dioxide.

What if I don’t have the space and time for this?

Composting isn’t a time-consuming activity. It requires a minor adjustment of tossing your wet waste into the the compost pit instead of the dustbin and the occasional, perhaps weekly, mixing of the heap. It’s true that the process of decomposition requires a delicate balance of the amount of moisture and dryness to be maintained but successful composters swear by a few attempts of trial and error to inculcate a sense of what to feed into the compost according to its requirement. If you focus on four things--organic matter, moisture, oxygen, and bacteria--then pretty soon it becomes second nature to know exactly what needs to be supplemented to avoid a stinking or rotting batch. But in the worst case scenario where someone just doesn’t have the time or space to compost personally, a decentralised model includes community composting. This means people just need to find a convenient time to drop off their organic waste. With a system like that, all it takes is a quick stop during the morning walk or on the way to work and you would essentially reduce the accumulation and smell of waste in your house and contribute to a more sustainable and useful waste management system.