India’s garbage mess: Why we need to start doing more at our homes and work-places

The cost of a centralised landfill is very high, both financially, and environmentally. We must implement decentralised waste collection and recycling.
India’s garbage mess: Why we need to start doing more at our homes and work-places
India’s garbage mess: Why we need to start doing more at our homes and work-places
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Pelican’s Nest is a 150-flat community on Old Mahabalipuram Road, Chennai, which is one of the few apartments in India working towards implementing a totally segregated waste management solution. Starting from source-segregated waste, to a composting system within their community, they are ensuring the garbage they produce does not get burned, or go into the landfill.

Describing their waste management journey, Varshini Neeti Mohan, a resident of the community says, “We started segregating our waste into wet and dry back in 2015, when a couple of residents embarked on a door-to-door campaign to encourage segregation. Slowly, this got implemented, and over time, we created a solid waste management committee within the community. We have now found a solution for our wet waste too. We are going to install a composting solution within the community.”

This method of community-led decentralized waste management is slowly catching up in a few Indian cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad. One of the key ways in which garbage can be better managed in our cities is by source segregation and community-led initiatives to get a perspective of the waste generated by households.

Based on her experience of working with her community, Varshini adds, “Everybody is agreed to the concept intellectually. But, when it comes to spending an additional 5 minutes actually doing the job, there comes a lapse. If there was some way in which people can visualize the massive impact of the waste that they are generating and how long it is going to take for it to go away, maybe they might sense the urgency of it.”

The distance that garbage travels in a city

Shekar* is a sanitation truck driver with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. His work starts at the Yousufguda transfer station, from where his vehicle (a 25-tonne tipper, which carries about 10 tonnes of mixed waste) gets loaded with the garbage at 6 am, and he needs to drive it to the landfill at Jawahar Nagar.

One trip back and forth is a distance of 75 km.

While in the early mornings, this gets completed in two and a half hours, the second trip, which starts in the afternoon takes him 5 hours to finish. “Due to the traffic, we can only do two trips at max in one day. Sometimes, the vehicle might just breakdown, and we end up doing just one trip that day. The night times are better to drive”, he says.

Scenes at the Yousufguda Transfer Station

While the drivers work in 8-hour shifts, the vehicles never get a break. Some of these vehicles are very old and are pulling along. However, these vehicles can never stop. Two of the vehicles belonging to the Yousufguda transfer station are under major repair and unused.

Every day, in the city of Hyderabad, 4700 metric tonne of solid waste is transported from individual households to the central landfill at Jawahar Nagar. If this waste is spread over a piece of land, bundled up to a height of one metre, it will cover 2.5 acres of land – every single day. In just one year, this would go on to cover 881 acres of land, which is the size of 16 NTR Gardens.

Centralised waste disposal is not the solution

The cost of a centralised landfill is very high, both financially, and environmentally. According to data from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), for the financial year 2016-17, 120 vehicles of 25 tonne capacity, and 8 vehicles of 10 tonne capacity, ply across the city, making 3-5 trips to ensure all the waste reaches the landfill. Apart from the pollution that these vehicles contribute to the environment, the gases that the mixed waste emit across large distances of transportation are also quite significant. Public bins often overflow, and since the vehicles transporting are not completely covered, they also litter along the way.

The quantity of waste that travels many kilometers across the city will not reduce any time soon. In fact it is only bound to increase as consumption increases. An assistant engineer from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation says, “Until segregation of waste at source is fully implemented, the amount of waste collected and disposed will continue to increase.”

According to a 2006 World Bank report titled, Improving Management of Municipal Solid Waste In India, the cost of transportation of waste, as a percentage of total municipal solid waste management expenditure is 20-25%. This means that nearly 25% of all expenses earmarked for solid waste management just goes into transporting the waste from different parts of the city. Often, this leaves very little budget for disposal and treatment.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published a report in 2016, titled “Not In My Backyard – Solid Waste Management in Indian cities”. The report says, “It is not surprising to know that while the efficiency of daily collection is around 50-60 % on an average, and 90% in a few cities, only 10% of the collected waste receives treatment and virtually nothing is scientifically disposed of in engineered landfills.”

The report goes on to explain the concept of a landfill site in India: “Most of the so-called landfill sites that exist in India are usually dumping grounds which were originally low-lying area, and waste was used to fill them up, hence the name.”

So, it is common to see landfills emanating severely harmful gases and leachate, causing air and ground water pollution. In fact the 351-acre of land that is the Jawahar Nagar landfill (to cater to all of Hyderabad’s waste) has now gone beyond its capacity, and the municipal corporation is in the process of finalising two other spaces where garbage could be diverted.

Decentralised waste collection: The Bengaluru example

Although the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, and Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, encourage a decentralised approach to managing waste, it has really been implemented in few cities. However, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) – the Bengaluru municipal corporation, has been working on implementing this since 2012.

With a lot of push from the Solid Waste Management Round Table, and other citizens’ group, BBMP had started formulating plans to establish dry waste collection centres across the city. Currently, the city has 180 dry waste collection centres, to cater to the 198 wards. The principle is to ensure that any dry waste or leaf waste from the ward does not leave the ward. These centres are set up with the infrastructure provided by BBMP, but exclusively run by waste pickers.

As these centres started being established, citizens’ group worked together to arrive at the best and easiest method to implement segregation at source in order to ensure the success of the DWCCs.

Archana Kashyap, a member of the Solid Waste Management Roundtable, and a member of Kasa Muktha Bellandur, a citizen action group that works on good waste management practices for the Bellandur community, says, “We tried various combinations to figure out what would work best. Initially, we tried a seven-way segregation; eventually we arrived at saying that the three-way segregation works best. That is how 2bin 1bag was born.”

The Bellandur DWCC

In 2015, the Karnataka High Court mandated that the 2bin 1bag method of waste segregation for all households, and the BBMP has implemented it across the city.

The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation has also been trying to implement waste segregation at homes. In 2015, every household got two colour-coded bins for two-way segregation. However, the efforts to ensure its implementation have been minimal. So, the implementation is almost negligible.

Dry waste collection centres for better livelihoods and environment

M Manjunath was a small-time scrap dealer until a few months ago. Starting in April 2017, he now runs the dry waste collection centre at Bellandur. He has been given a direct MoU from BBMP, and he now caters to 31,500 households to exclusively collect their dry waste. While I see two members of his staff segregating a mound of dry waste, he says that the mountain is the amount of garbage generated by just half of those households. Every day, he collects 2 metric tonnes worth of waste, all of which goes for recycling. Manjunath says, “It is a good source of income for us, and we also know that we keep the city clean.”

Archana, who resides in Bellandur says, “When people visibly see a separate vehicle coming for dry waste, it makes a difference. The chances of people segregating their waste are higher.”

Has it really worked? Manjunath says that it has. When he started collecting dry waste, only 30-40% of the households practiced segregation. But now, this has gone up to 70-75% households. They managed to reach these numbers through several awareness drives with volunteers from the area. Manjunath also accompanies the drivers to continue the awareness during everyday collection as well.

Manjunath and the team

The presence of a dry waste collection centre has seen instant results in the area. Until the active working of this centre, all waste was collected together. So the high value waste (such as plastic bottles) would have the most takers. Manjunath says, “Six months ago, we saw a lot of waste lying on the roads. But now, since we collect everything, the amount of waste lying on the streets have visibly reduced.”

Odette Katrak is a resident of Bellandur, and an active volunteer in the community too. She says, “I live in the section of Bellandur that faces the lake. Before the dry waste collection centre came up, every evening we would rush to shut our windows since garbage was burned at the lake and the fumes would enter our houses. Within a month of the dry waste collection centre coming up, this burning stopped.”

The data supports their claims. When the DWCC started operations in April, they received only 160 kg of dry waste everyday. But by August, this number had increased by more than 10 times, and they are now collecting nearly 2 tonnes of dry waste daily.

Waste entering the Ward 150 DWCC Bangalore

Since the segregation levels have increased, the community volunteers now want to focus on the shops and establishments and paying guest accommodation in the area to ensure they segregate and dispose waste appropriately. Odette also adds that they need a solution for wet waste too. She says, “As a ward, we would become perfect if we have a guarantee that all the wet waste is getting composted or going into a biogas plant, instead of the wet waste needing to be transported across town which is both expensive and unhygienic.”

Manjunath emphasizes on the impact the DWCCs have on the environment. He says, “At this ward, we are diverting 2 metric tonne of waste away from the landfill. If the same thing happens in 198 wards, that is nearly 400 metric tonnes of waste that is recycled and diverted from the landfill.”

Decentralised waste management with the aid of dry waste collection centres is not only about better recycling, but it is also an important step in integrating the informal sector of waste workers into the city’s solid waste management efforts.

R Annamma was a waste picker before she started running the dry waste collection centre at Kamakshipalya in Bengaluru, four years ago. She says, “When the proposal of starting a dry waste collection centre first came up, my husband and I refused. Later we thought about it and realised that we know all aspects of the business. Why should we not do it? I am very happy that we now own a business and are giving employment to others.”

Annamma and her team

Hyderabad’s attempt

The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation is also trying to replicate this model, although the proposal currently involves having a Dry Resource Collection Centre (DRCC) at every circle and not ward. One such DRCC is located near Sanjeeviah Park at Tank Bund, which is run by a group of 13 members from the Swachh Auto Tipper Union. Having established this unit in June 2017, they are currently handling 1.5 tonne of dry waste every day. However, their major concern is that waste segregation rates are very low.

V Nagraj, the person in charge of running the centre says, “Waste collection takes a lot of time. So, source-segregation is very important. Every household should know that until they give us segregated waste, the impact of a DRCC will continue to be below the standards we wish to achieve. ”

The team at DRCC

While GHMC has been trying to implement these DRCCs at all the transfer stations (20 of them), they are facing resistance from the general community as well.

Nagraj tries to offer a perspective to create urgency among people to care for this. He says, “Let us take the example of paper. If you segregate your waste and we are able to recycle all the 100% of the paper, 90% of it becomes recycled paper. This will be able to meet the demand for paper and we will end up cutting lesser trees. That will imply better climate and lesser greenhouse gas emissions. We will have appropriate rainfall and our crops won’t fail. It is all linked. Every household needs to know the value of segregation.”

Policy and Awareness Is Key

One of the primary reasons why centralised waste disposal continues is because it is easy and convenient, and the responsibility of waste disposal is handed to contractors. These contractors are paid on the basis of a tipping fee – a fee that is arrived at based on the weight of the waste disposed.

The CSE report quotes the financial issues associated with the tipping fee system: “The cost of collection and transport of waste in best practice would be Rs 600-800 per tonne, while treatment and disposal should be Rs 400-600 per tonne. Currently most cities, which have contracts for transport, pay Rs. 800-900 per tonne only as tipping fee. In most contracts this increases at a rate of 5% annually. There is a clear incentive for more waste to be transported even if segregation never happens.”

The report further suggests that contracts need to be redesigned keeping in mind a zero-landfill future and removing the currently existing concept of the tipping fee. The BBMP has now altered this system, and has set up a man and material contract – where payment is not based on the weight of the garbage transported.

Often, municipal corporations also cite the lack of space as a reason for not setting up dry waste collection centres. Nalini Shekar, founder of Hasiru Dala, a waste pickers’ organisation, says, “When we brought up the need for dry waste collection centres, BBMP kept telling us that the city has no space. But now, they have found the space in 180 wards.”

While tipping fee and space is one side of things, active policies to implement household segregation are also important. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, say that segregation is one of the duties of anyone generating waste: “Every waste generator shall segregate and store the waste generated by them in three separate streams namely bio-degradable, non biodegradable and domestic hazardous wastes in suitable bins and handover segregated wastes to authorised waste pickers or waste collectors as per the direction or notification by the local authorities from time to time.”

However, these rules are not implemented in most municipalities since it takes active measures to work with communities to ensure its implementation. For instance Manjunath talks about the awareness sessions that worked in aiding increased segregation in Bellandur. He says, “There were sessions with the community volunteers and Hasiru Dala. In a few cases the health inspector had also fined the households who did not practice segregation properly.”

But, what about the cases where citizen complain that while they segregate waste, the waste collectors puts the waste together? Archana has an answer for that. She says, “This is like the chicken and egg story – people don’t segregate since they say that the municipal corporation puts the waste together, and the municipality says, that they cannot collect in a segregated fashion, since people do not segregate at source. The point is you do your job. Even if the person collecting your waste mixes it, you should still do your job of keeping it segregated. Let the municipal corporation figure out what to do next.”

The CSE report also encourages a model where households must be penalized for not segregating. It says, “It is also clear that households must be made to pay based on generation of waste, and penalized if waste is not segregated. The waste charge can be varied based on the size of the property, category of colony, or simply on the quantum of waste that is generated. It is time that we accept that each household is a waste generator and so a potential polluter. The principle of polluter pays must be applied.”

According to the principles of environmental law, the 'polluters pays' principle is an accepted practice that those who produce pollution should be made responsible for paying the costs of preventing damage to human health or the environment.

This is especially true since the patterns related to waste generation clearly shows a correlation between high income and high amounts of inorganic waste generation.

Citizen action groups could play a big role

As Bengaluru has shown with several citizen-led changes, citizen action groups play a big role in ensuring appropriate solid waste management practices.

Varshini describes the efforts that their solid waste management committee put together to make the community see the value of a good system. “We are a group of 12 women in the committee. We get together, and discuss the issues. As we met more often, we put together a format and evolved a process for implementing solutions. When we raised the issue of managing wet waste within the community, we faced many questions. It took us a while to get the conversation going. But in about 4 months, everyone was convinced.”

Currently, they are working with children from the community to create drawings and visualisation charts to continually keep the community educated about the value of segregation.

Like the group at Pelican’s Nest, other citizen action groups could also play a big role in implementing appropriate solid waste management solutions for their community. Odette refers to this as a three-way partnership. “This is a partnership between the community, the dry waste collection centre operator (or scrap dealer/waste picker) and the municipal corporation. If everyone performs their role, it will function perfectly and we can achieve 100% recycling,” she adds.

Archana adds that sometimes the job of the citizen action groups is not restricted to just encouraging segregation. Their group, Kasa Muktha Bellandur was primarily responsible to get the dry waste collection centre up and running. They continue to work alongside Manjunath in presenting his demands to the BBMP. For instance, the DWCC currently needs electricity, water supply and a compound wall.

So, what can citizens do to ensure that they are doing their bit for solid waste management in their community? Archana has an answer. She says, “There are several levels at which one can contribute. For starters, manage your own waste at home – segregate, sell your dry waste to a scrap dealer and try to compost within your home. If you want to do more, find out at the ward level why your waste does not get taken in a segregated fashion. There could be a lack of vehicles or that others are not segregating. If you wish to go further, you can work on pushing for policies at the city level.”

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