A vision for waste management in India

The first half of 2016 saw significant changes in waste management rules, after a gap of almost 16 years. Almost two years thereafter, the market is currently abuzz with KKR, one of the world’s largest investment firms completing the first PE buyout in India’s environment sector. It is planning to invest in Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, India’s leading waste management company, valuing Ramky at $925 million. These two interspaced events are a signal of the growing seriousness about pollution and waste management in India and for good reasons. Envistats, a recently published report by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has shown a 72% jump in municipal solid waste generation against a 25% increase in population across the top 10 cities of India in the last decade. The quantum and complexity of waste generation is only set to increase significantly with higher urbanization and affluence.

The waste management rules covering hazardous waste, e-waste, construction & demolition waste, plastic waste, bio-medical waste and municipal solid waste are quite detailed outlining the responsibility of waste generators, waste handlers, recyclers and administrators. It is intriguing however to note that there is no overarching policy on waste management for India. The responsibility of formulating waste management policies has been left to the State Governments under the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016.

A policy and shared vision for waste management is a sine qua non when confronting one of the biggest challenges facing the nation. Countries operating in a federal structure like Brazil have outlined a National Policy for Waste that encompasses critical aspects like the “need for a systemic vision to consider environmental, social, cultural, economic, technological and public health variables”. The fifteen principles outlined in the Policy discuss in a systemic manner the need to reduce, recycle and derive value from waste. Another case in point is South Korea that has legislated ‘The Promotion Law for Achieving a Resource Circulation Society’. One of the stated objectives of this law is to ‘Construct a Resource Circulation Society’ as opposed to the earlier ‘Create clean living conditions’.  Australia is in the process of updating its 2011 policy for waste management to prepare better for a sustainable future; some of underlying principles include focus on waste minimization, resource recovery and reduction in per-capita waste generation.  

A vision for waste management is urgently needed for the Government and Private sector to work collectively towards a pollution controlled and sustainable future. A few underlying principles for such a vision, that could be further emulated by the States, are outlined as follows:

1. Moving towards zero waste: Moving towards a zero-waste society can start with ‘sub-systems’ turning zero waste or net positive for the environment. Many organizations have turned water positive and generate more energy than they consume. Large public events and conferences can be planned as zero-waste or net-positive events. The upcoming Ardha Kumbh in Allahabad is being planned to be plastic-free. It is a good start, but there is a far bigger potential, if the scope is enhanced to beyond just plastic and is aligned with a broader and powerful vision. For example, all the human waste generated over the course of the mela can be treated in decentralized sewage treatment plants to produce clean water, biogas and fertilizer. 

2. Improved data collection and analytics: India’s statistics on waste generation, recycling and reuse are not in place. Improved data is needed at local, district and state levels to understand the different sources of waste generation, being a prerequisite for intelligent analytics. It is also important to map out the channels taken by different waste elements or categories in the recycling and reuse or disposal process.

3. Focus on waste minimization: Indians have thrived for hundreds of years on frugality and harmony with nature, to their advantage. These embedded societal values need to be communicated strongly to minimize waste generation wherever possible.

4. Focus on technology retrofits: A useful and increasing popular concept in wastewater treatment has been the upgradation of existing sewage / effluent treatment plants with advanced technologies that result in 2-3x capacity increase, with higher standards of treatment. Existing landfills and waste treatment sites should focus on upgrading technology and ‘squeezing the lemon’ further to treat more waste in the same or lesser land area.

5. Market creation for recycled goods: While discouraging consumption of single-use materials is good, it is also important to actively encourage the consumption of recycled products. The Government can play a strong enabling role in improving the market for recycled goods by at the very least incentivizing procurement from recycled sources.

6. Skill development for waste management: Waste recovery has till recently been practiced in back-alleys by unskilled people working in extremely hazardous conditions. From slums of Dharavi to the shipyards of Alang, the processes involved are labour-intensive and primitive, to extract maximum value from the waste products. Given the increasing complexity of waste, it is important to create specialized technical streams that impart deep knowledge of waste and value extraction processes.

Waste management in an opportunity to boost the economy to extract value, generate employment and create a cleaner environment. A National Waste Management Policy with a powerful vision and underlying principles can lend clarity and provide stimulus to the waste management economy. 

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