With new waste management rules, making producers pay their own tab

The new rules spread the burden of trash more equally, but will they be successful?
With new waste management rules, making producers pay their own tab
With new waste management rules, making producers pay their own tab
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In the last house I lived in, the waste collectors and colony manager routinely complained about neighbours that would not pay the monthly waste collection charges, but instead got their house help to throw trash in an “accepted corner” of the colony.

Or take the case of the organiser of a running event, who, said that any paper cups dropped en route would be cleared by the municipal corporation. The organiser did not understand that if his event generates waste, he is responsible for clearing it too.

These incidents and the behaviour they typify, is hardly rare in India. It is fairly common to behave as if once trash has left one’s hands, home or compound, it is none of one’s business. There is very little responsibility placed on those who create waste.

But the new Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 (released earlier this year and updated for the first time since 2000), could finally have the teeth to check this kind of behavior, as they put the focus back on the waste generator.

The waste generator and waste segregation

An entire section has been allotted to defining the duties of the waste generator encompassing a wide range of people and entities from residential premises to a variety of non-residential establishments (including such organisations as Indian Railways and defense establishments) to all events attended by more than hundred people.

Although the earlier MSW Rules mentioned segregation of waste, segregation at source was not mandated. As has been discussed earlier, segregation at source is essential for ensuring waste is recycleable, as well as to provide decent working conditions for waste collectors, who sort and segregate waste with their bare hands.

According to the new rules, all waste generators now have to start segregating their waste into biodegradable, non-biodegradable and hazardous waste at source itself. Garden waste has to be stored separately, and resident welfare associations, gated communities and restaurants should treat biodegradable waste, through composting or bio-methanation, within premises as much as possible. Waste generators have also been mandated to pay user fees for solid waste management.

Ask Bharati Chaturvedi, Director of Chintan Environmental Research & Action Group, if this signifies a big change and she says, “Yes it is. But I am missing the role of the producer in reducing waste, which is the foundation of circular economy.”

 Circular Economy & Extended Producer Responsibility

The circular economy that Chaturvedi refers to is an economic model in which products are designed and produced with minimum waste, to be used for as long as possible, be repaired easily and be effectively recycled to initiate new lifecycles for new products. In a nutshell, it is an economy that produces no waste.

 This is done by maintaining a clear distinction between biological components that can re-enter natural cycles (such as by composting), and technical components that should be repurposed in new manufacturing cycles.

 However, this is only possible by increasing the extent of responsibility that waste producers have, through Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

Extended Producer Responsibility is a policy approach that places the responsibility for the waste generated by products whose life-cycle has ended on the original producers of said product. Thus, for instance, the manufacturer of your cellphone would have to bear the burden (financially or physically) of recycling all the metallic and plastic parts of your cellphone once you’re done using it.

While in many countries, EPR has been effectively implemented for packaging waste, some have gone beyond to include such other products as used oils, used tyres, and textile.

 In fact, in the E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, and the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, some small steps towards EPR have been taken, with producers required to play an active role in the collection and treatment of the waste they produce. This applies to e-waste, plastic waste and non-recyclable waste.

In the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, manufacturers and brand owners have to provide the necessary financial assistance to local bodies for establishment of a waste management system. Additionally, for any non-recyclable waste generated from their packaging, they have to put a system in place to collect back the waste.  

But, isn’t such collection of packaging waste an impossible task in the Indian context?

Bharati says, “The challenge here is not collection, which they can do quite easily, using the organized informal sector, citizen groups etc., by paying a rate that is attractive for collection. But, the part which is hard is what to do after that. That requires customization regionally or locally. Even if there is a technology, for that matter, a lot of tetrapaks are not collected yet. And when we talk technology for multi-layered packaging, you cannot just give it to some bhatti and burn it. We need really high quality technology that has acceptability with the public at large.”

Sanitary waste still lumped with dry waste

Although the new rules mandate segregation of waste at the source, sanitary waste (diapers, sanitary napkins, etc) continues to be classified as dry waste, which is to be collected under the non-biodegradable category. This classification ignores the fact that soiled diapers, condoms and sanitary napkins expose waste workers to several disease-causing microorganisms, a grave error considering that most waste workers work without protective gear.

 Bharati agrees that the current classification of sanitary waste is problematic. She says, “Certainly, sanitary waste has to be wrapped up and disposed off either on its own or with hazardous waste, and all of this waste has to be covered by extended producer responsibility.”

Last year, a Bangalore High Court ruling, which mandated segregation of waste, also mentioned that all sanitary waste including sanitary napkins, diapers and condoms should be wrapped in a paper marked X with red ink to prevent staff from opening it.

In the past, waste pickers’ collectives have tried to engage with manufacturers of sanitary products to discuss appropriate disposal of sanitary waste. But, manufacturers and brand owners refused to engage in any discussion. In fact, this led to SwaCH, a waste pickers’ collective, starting the “Send It Back” campaign, where they sent used sanitary napkins in boxes to the companies’ corporate offices.

This has been addressed in a small way in the new Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. Manufacturers of sanitary products such as sanitary napkins and diapers have to provide a specific pouch or wrapper for disposing off used napkins or diapers. “This is only viable in urban India, but in many other parts of the country, menstrual waste is still burned secretly, so we need to say that sanitary waste can be wrapped and put in with hazardous waste,” Bharati adds.  

Waste pickers recognized

Finally, waste pickers have been recognized in the official Solid Waste Management Rules. Waste pickers have directly been responsible for recycling all our waste for several decades, and waste pickers’ collectives are happy about being eventually recognised, and have welcomed the inclusion of kabadiwallas and scrap dealers in the definition of an informal waste collector. Additionally, the rules have also mentioned issuance of identity cards for waste pickers and their integration into door-to-door waste collection.

Bharati added, “The challenge for us now is to find ways of mainstreaming this idea into the thinking of the municipalities.”

The new rules have met with widespread approval and organizations working in the field of solid waste management are genuinely excited about the avenues it offers to improve work. But, will these new provisions translate into ground realities?

Bharati says, “Things are changing, and they have to. I do think we can segregate. Aurangabad and Mysore are good examples for us. The key is to do things ward by ward, or it will be too big a first step to succeed.”

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