Published in Hindustan Times, Opinion, March 30, 2023: We need an urgent paradigm shift in current practices of linear waste management to more effective and efficient zero-waste models in cities. This can be done in three steps.
Waste management is a critical issue in India, with a burgeoning population and rapid urbanisation leading to a meteoric increase in waste generation.
The world is facing a waste crisis. Unsustainable consumption and production patterns are worsening the triple planetary disasters of the climate crisis, biodiversity and nature loss, and pollution. Recognising this, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in its 77th session, declared March 30 as the International Day of Zero Waste (hereafter Zero Waste Day). The resolution, put forward by Turkey with 105 other countries, including India, was adopted unanimously by UNGA, signifying the societal shift towards circularity of waste and raising awareness about zero-waste initiatives that advance the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
Waste management is a critical issue in India, with a burgeoning population and rapid urbanisation leading to a meteoric increase in waste generation. Swachh Bharat Mission 2023 data says urban areas in India, representing about 377 million people, generate 55.6 million metric tonnes (MMT) of municipal solid waste (MSW) each year. While the collection efficiency has improved significantly— about 70% is collected countrywide — MSW recovery and end disposal processes need to be strengthened. The waste generated by cities is projected to grow by 5% per year until 2050 to reach 436 MMT per year by 2050.
The informal sector — which includes waste-pickers, itinerant buyers, and small junk shop dealers — plays a significant role in waste management, but remains largely unregulated, leading to waste leakages. Therefore, we need an urgent paradigm shift in current practices of linear waste management to more effective and efficient zero-waste models in cities. This can be done in three steps.
First, empower local stakeholders. Consistent and effective local action can have a significant positive impact on a city’s, a state’s, and eventually, a nation’s waste-management efforts. Local stakeholders – be it government agencies, local businesses, non-governmental organisations, or citizen groups – have a critical role to play in implementing and enforcing waste management policies on the ground and ensuring that waste is collected and disposed of properly. They can facilitate the creation of local circular economies, by supporting businesses that utilise waste as a resource and encouraging sustainable production and consumption patterns among the locals. Through a residents’ welfare association-led initiative, for example, Navjeevan Vihar, a 250-household colony in South Delhi, is among the first zero-waste wards in the Capital. This has been made possible by prioritising segregating and encouraging residents to compost at source and minimise single-use plastics.
Two, promote small- and medium-scale initiatives. Businesses can contribute to the transition by developing proficiencies in circular innovation (downstream, mid-stream, and upstream) and design to implement product reuse, recovery, and recycling (3R). The work done by Phool, a social enterprise that makes incense products from flower waste by integrating informal women workers, is an example of zero-waste and frugal innovation.
And three, bolster municipal systems. Segregating and collecting waste at the source level minimises waste in landfills and maximises resource recovery. For instance, in Indore, India’s cleanest city, six Aatmanirbhar wards (zero-waste wards) were piloted. In each ward, waste was segregated into six fractions — wet, dry, plastic, hazardous, sanitary, and e-waste. Wet waste was processed via home or community composting. Dry waste was further segregated and channelised for recovery. Additionally, 3R activities and regular meetings were also organised regularly in such wards.
Ambikapur, a zero-landfill city, made women informal workers an integral part of its door-to-door waste collection and segregation systems by formalising them into a self-help group (SHG). MSW in the city is collected and further sorted into 156 categories, a first-of-its-kind initiative.
Cities must learn from each other’s successes and failures for effective zero-waste implementation. While India still has a long way to go in becoming a zero-waste nation, current initiatives led by the government coupled with effective waste management at the local level point to a hopeful future.
Swati Singh Sambyal is waste management specialist, UN-Habitat India. Parul Agarwala is country programme manager, UN-Habitat India