Urban Waste Management – India’s Struggle For Survival

waste management practices

waste management practices

India is at war.

If that statement made you think of our northern frontiers and booming gunshots, think again. If you think we’re referring to insurgency in the heartland, reconsider your answer. We, the people of India, are indeed in a state of war. This war, however, has nothing to do with arms and ammunition. It does have everything to do with our survival, though.

India’s waste management crisis is spiraling out of control. So much so that experts are now starting to believe that we may be drowning in waste. Alarmist opinions aside, the lack of a cohesive waste management plan and a slothful, unmindful approach to whatever garbage disposal systems we have has led us to the brink of a major challenge. It is time we wake up to reality and face it.

India’s Giant Challenge

According to recent news reports, India generates about 1,00,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) each day. This is higher than the MSW output of many countries put together. Class I cities (urban centres with population of 0.1 million and above) are responsible for about 80 percent of the country’s entire MSW output. Metros such as Delhi and Mumbai produce over 9000 metric tonnes of waste each day.

The problem with such a high MSW output is that a great deal of it is dumped untreated. Most cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru are fast running out of dumping grounds or landfills. Proper waste treatment facilities, in such a scenario, are a far cry. Only about 24 percent of the MSW output of India is treated and the rest is merely dumped in the landfills.

Waste management in the large urban tracts and cities of India are managed by the local municipal corporation. These civic bodies are often ridden by a number of issues such as lack of funds, fierce political and internal rivalries paralyzing their activities, differences with state government preventing cohesive action, and lack of awareness and know-how.

Where Goes The Garbage?

A recent study undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) reveals that by 2050, the quantity of urban waste is likely to grow to such an extent that a landfill that measures about 88 square kilometre will be required to manage the waste disposal. To give us a better idea, the study reveals that this is roughly the area currently under the administration of the Delhi MCD. Let us keep in mind that Delhi is one of the largest cities in India.

By 2050, it is expected that nearly 50 percent of the country’s population will live in cities. With this expectation, the study estimates that, “The expected waste quantity we are looking at for the year 2021, 2031, and 2050 are 101 million metric tonnes (MMT) per year, 164 MMT, and 436 MMT per year respectively.

A garbage dump as large as our capital city looks like a staggering prospect. This too might not have been a terrible prospect till we start to look at the following facts –

  • This “Delhi sized” landfill is likely to be distributed across cities of the country.
  • Unless we come up with a dramatic solution for waste segregation and processing of this garbage, these landfills are going to pose a major threat to the health of urban dwellers in India.
  • The MSW generated in India is increasingly composed of plastics and plastic waste. This will render the land used for the landfills unfit for any other use for at least 50 years. In fact, some plastics could take up to 5 centuries to decompose.
  • Not only does this have severe implications on the quality of air, water, and soil in urban regions but also will bring development of the local economy to a screeching halt.

The Explosive Plastic Waste Situation

Once we have started to comprehend the MSW problem let us take a look at hazardous waste produced by industries and plastic wastes from cities as well. Factories and industries across India generate about 7.46 million metric tonnes of hazardous wastes each year. Of this 45 percent is recyclable but about 46 percent goes to landfills. Further, some 10,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste is generated each day.

The greatest challenge faced by municipal corporations in terms of plastic recycling and waste management is non-segregation of plastics – both by households and by industries. Most of the waste segregation is made by rag pickers and urchins who act as manual segregators. This process lacks precision and exposes them to various diseases and health issues.