Solving India's garbage problem

Segregation at source should be at the heart of municipalities’ solid waste management system

We know that we have a serious garbage problem. But the problem is not about finding the right technology for waste disposal. The problem is how to integrate the technology with a system of household-level segregation so that waste does not end up in landfills, but is processed and reused. It is clear that there will be no value from waste, as energy or material, if it is not segregated. But this is where our waste management system stops short.

It is the responsibility of the urban local body to ensure segregation of waste at source as per the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Rules, 2015. This means the body must get citizens to segregate waste at the household level and then ensure that this segregated waste—wet and dry, compostable and recyclable—is collected separately and transported separately for processing. 

The easier solution is to collect and dump. Or to believe that unsegregated waste can be sorted out mechanically at the processing plant itself and burnt. Officials of urban local bodies have been given to believe this is the magic bullet: collect, sort and burn. But as experience across India—and from the rest of the world—shows, if waste is not segregated then it will make poor quality fuel. This will not work. 

Segregation at source should therefore be at the heart of municipalities’ solid waste management system. The only city that has truly adopted segregation is Panaji. Municipal officials have ensured a citywide system that is designed to collect household waste on different days for different waste streams. This ensures separation. It is combined with penalties for non-segregated waste and has promoted colony-level processing as well. Most importantly, for the bulk of commercial establishments such as hotels it has a bag-marking system so that any non-compliance can be caught and fined.

In Kerala’s Alappuzha segregation happens differently. Here the municipality does not collect waste because it has no place to take it to for disposal. The city’s only landfill has been sealed by villagers who live in its vicinity. This withdrawal of the municipality from waste management has meant that the people have to manage their waste, or be drowned in it. They segregate and compost what they can. The compost is used for growing vegetables and plants in their homesteads. The problem is how to handle all the non-biodegradable waste—paper, plastic, aluminum tins, etc. This is where the government has stepped in. It promotes collection through the already well-organised informal waste-recycling sector. The municipality has ended up saving a huge capital cost it would have otherwise incurred for collection and transportation.

But this is one part of the waste solution. The other is to make sure there is no place for the unsegregated waste to go. This means taking tough steps to manage landfills in cities. In fact, the MSW (draft) Rules, 2015, accept that landfills should only be used for residual waste that is “non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible and non-reactive”. It goes on to state that every effort will be made to recycle or reuse the rejects to achieve the desired objective of zero waste to landfill. This is an important departure from previous policies, which ended up emphasising the need for sanitary landfills.

The question is how to enforce this policy. Currently, all contracts for waste management awarded by city governments to private concessionaires have a perverse incentive to bring larger quantities of waste to the dumpsite. Under these contracts the contractor is paid against the volume of waste deposited on the site. This “tipping fee” as it is known means that the higher the volume brought the greater the financial reward. City municipalities also find that the collection, transport and dumping of waste is an easier proposition than processing it for reuse. 

To change this, it is necessary to impose a landfill tax. The contracts need to be redesigned so that instead of the municipality paying for the waste brought to the landfill, the contractor should be made to pay a “tipping fee” for the waste. In this way, instead of being paid to bring waste to the landfill, the contractor or city municipality would have to pay a fee to dispose of the waste. This will provide financial viability to the waste-processing industry and also ensure that as little as possible waste reaches the landfill. 

We need to turn the system of garbage management on its head. Only then will we really clean our cities—not just sweep the dirt under the carpet.