Have we understood the importance of waste segregation?

One year of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is it headed in the right directionBy M. Asokan via Wikimedia Commons
Blog Swachh Bharat Thursday, October 01, 2015 - 16:28
Written by  Swetha Dandapani

Shekar is a waste worker whose help I regularly enlist for waste management initiatives. As part of his everyday work, he oversees and executes collection, segregation and disposal (appropriately) of waste from 600 households. He recently told me that a while ago, the organization that takes care of door-to-door waste collection in the locality provided 3 bins for every household – an attempt to make people segregate their waste into wet, dry and sanitary. “All the households started using the brand new bins to store kitchen groceries and continued to throw in their garbage together,” he says.

While the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has reached its one-year mark, it continues to draw criticism owing to how the campaign has positioned & communicated itself in the area of Solid Waste Management.  Of the 6 components explicitly stated in the mission, one of them includes Solid Waste Management. However, a quick search on the document reveals just two mentions of the word ‘segregation’ and absolutely no mention of the largely informal sector of waste pickers, sorters and scrap dealers (or kabadiwaalas).

While it is tough to find exact data on the number of waste pickers who work in this informal sector, several segmented studies put the number at 1.7 million. According to reports, waste pickers collect close to 10,000 tonnes of reusable waste everyday across the country. And it is important to note that this entire industry came into existence owing to the inefficiencies of the municipal corporations.

These waste workers contribute to cleaning and greening the environment we live in, though their contribution remains largely unaccounted for and under-appreciated. A large percentage of them continue to work in unhygienic working conditions. Despite their valuable contribution to the recycling industry, more than 91% of the municipal solid waste gets dumped in landfills or dumps.

This is fundamentally owing to the fact that though the Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000 insists on segregation of waste, it is hardly ever implemented. Segregation of waste at source improves the recyclability of waste itself and ensures that workers do not have to sift through decomposing waste in order to sort and pick out recyclable materials.

Marwan Abubaker, who is part of the Solid Waste Management Round Table, Bangalore, gives more insight on why exactly segregation at source still continues to be a challenge.

“One of the biggest reasons why implementation of segregation is still an issue is that the contractors who have been given the job of door to door collection are paid according to a tipping system. According to this system, they are paid according to the quantity of waste disposed off in the landfill. So, more they manage to collect and dispose, they get paid more. Instead, they should be paid according to the amount of segregated waste they collect. This also happens because of the centralized approach to waste disposal that we follow,” he says.

While the mission has explicitly stated incentive mechanisms for waste to energy, there is absolutely no incentive mentioned for recycling. And the centralized disposal of waste leads to an increase in transporation cost and also causes air, water and solid pollution.

Despite these realities, the government continues to talk about technologies for waste management. In recent reports about re-energising the Swachh Bharat Mission, the government talks about cleanliness and wants to showcase technologies for waste segregation.  When Marwan was asked about it, he says, “The government wants a quick fix solution to everything. This will be temporary. People working in the field of waste have regularly been talking about long-term solutions, which include segregation and recycling of waste and decentralized approach to implementing these.”

Probably it is time to revamp the Swachh Bharat Mission along with re-energizing it?

(Names changed to protect privacy)