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Re-imagining Cities towards Zero Waste - A roadmap to resource recovery

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

COVID-19 has only burdened the health infrastructure of our cities but the pandemic has further amplified the challenges of waste management. Increased use of PPEs such as disposable masks, protection kits including cleaning supplies, alcohol-based sanitizers, as well as the purchase and consumption of canned and packaged food, has created many tonnes of additional waste, much of it hazardous.


But this also raises the need for our cities to have effective systems in place that are resource efficient, circular, and inclusive. By shifting to zero waste strategies, municipalities can immediately begin reducing the costs of their waste management and device steps that focus on rethinking and reinventing waste management.

How can cities adopt zero waste concepts?


To start with make segregation mandatory not optional. As per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, every generator needs to segregate waste into wet (biodegradable), dry (non-biodegradable) and domestic hazardous waste.

Characterisation of waste at the landfill site conducted by volunteers under the ‘Waste Wise Cities: Tackling Plastic Waste in the Environment’ Project lead by UN-Habitat India in Mangaluru, Karnataka © Swati Singh Sambyal

To mainstream segregation and to focus on waste reduction at source, price incentives can be explored as a key driver of behavior. For instance, in countries such as Sweden, South Korea, excessive generation of waste is disincentivized as citizens pay more user-fee over those who generate less. Also, unique initiatives like the one being practiced in Mangaluru could be explored, wherein there is a 50 per cent concession on property tax for households that segregate and compost their waste, also mixed waste is not collected. These efforts must be complemented with continuous advocacy and awareness such as by focusing on ward level committees that monitor and supervise segregation at source. Creating a segregation incentive system will ensure maximum recovery of wet and dry waste and ensuring that minimum goes to the landfills.


Secondly, setting up effective collection and transportation (C&T) systems to support segregation, end to end, right from collection, processing till disposal. This will help in reducing contamination of resources (especially dry waste) and will further create systems so that resources could be reutilized and recycled.


Also, increasing collection efficiency in cities by route optimization which will also help in saving resources such as fuel. This has been explored in cities such as Surat (Gujarat), Indore, Madhya Pradesh) and Nagpur (Maharashtra). Further, a robust Management Information System (MIS) to enhance accountability and transparency and to get data on percentage of waste segregated, collected and processed, for instance in the case of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.


Third, build systems for maximum resource recovery in cities. Change the infrastructure in line with the new paradigm to support maximum resource recovery with a phase out plan from being heavily dependent on disposal infrastructure such as landfills or incinerators. Create decentralized infrastructure, wherever applicable to reduce costs on C&T, as in long term over 50 per cent savings in C&T have been observed in cities that have moved to decentralized systems for instance (eg: Alappuzha, Kerala, Ambikapur, Chattisgarh). Further, cities can encourage residents, bulk generators to treat wet waste at source and may consider creating systems for subsidies and incentives for adoption of decentralized technologies such as biomethanisation, composting etc.


Composting has a huge potential to reduce and upcycle waste into fertilizers that remains untapped. Compost as a service can be provided in cities, for instance StoneSoup, a Bengaluru based company provides home composting facility to households for a monthly charge. Going further, create market linkages for compost. Arrange a system to procure compost and give coupons that can be used in all Milk Booths/Grocery counters or similar outlets. On a trial basis, this model can be run in a few RWAs/societies in each local authority. Also, urban local bodies can provide a list of local vendors and technologies available to manage resources on their website so that information is easily accessible. Suchitwa Mission in Kerala, responsible for providing technical and managerial support to the Local Self Governments of the State have list of vendors shared on their website.


For dry waste, ensure further sorting into fractions and setting up recovery infrastructure by integrating informal sector. For instance Panaji, Goa launched the ‘Shop with your waste campaign’ wherein households can barter their clean dry waste for grocery items from assigned shops, the shopkeeper further gets incentivized by the recycler and the recycler gets a clean dry stream to process further- a win-win-win situation for all. [1]


Additionally, impose a landfill/incineration tax per tonne of waste disposed/incinerated in order to reduce dependence on land, and dis-incentivise dumping and waste incineration. Tipping fee shall not only be related to the quantum of waste supplied to the concessionaire/operator but also to the efficient and regular collection of segregated waste.


Fourth, integrate informal sector as they are the real resource managers in our cities. One option could be to integrate waste pickers directly into collecting waste at source, with a right over recyclables and a guarantee of regular access to waste also incorporating this in city SWM byelaws. Another, and a better option would be to associate with them as co-operatives or societies, municipalities could also support informal sector in establishing cooperatives or SMEs ( eg: Ambikapur model where a 440 women led SHG manages resources in its 17 decentralized resource centres). Last, provide them with training to build their skills in upcycling interventions so that they can be integrated with private run facilities.


Fifth, awareness and social engineering has to be continuous not intermittent. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission and state led interventions, various campaigns and programmes have been under way however, more outreach efforts are needed to change behaviour at grassroots. Local resident/RWA committees can play a key role in ensuring citizen commitment towards waste segregation. Also, educating waste collectors is important to ensure they do not mix waste. Media can play an important role in creating awareness by sharing success stories of interventions.


Informal sector is critical to waste management in Indian cities, a worker sorting waste from a dry waste recovery centre in Mangaluru, Karnataka © Swati Singh Sambyal

Lastly, integrating city specific local sanitation and solid waste management byelaws with zero waste strategy incorporating various steps that will help in transforming the city into a zero-waste city. The regulations must be supported by evidence and local context. Cities need to undertake data inventorisation and waste characterization studies to estimate the existing quantities of waste that will help to prepare effective implementable strategy on zero waste systems for a city. UN-Habitat[2] has developed the Waste Wise Cities Tool (WaCT), based on SDG indicator 11.6.1 parameters, to support cities and countries in undertaking a comprehensive diagnostic of MSW to aid scientific and evidence-based development of projects and investments.[3] In India, the tool has been applied in Mangaluru city to understand waste leakages and support the city in effective action plans and planning for circular investments.


As per UNEP[4], the urban population, as a proportion of the overall population, is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050, by which time the world’s cities will be generating 75 per cent of global waste and greenhouse gas emissions.


About time, cities commit to become zero waste, as this will also give urban local bodies an opportunity in showcasing their leadership and willingness to tackle the existential threat that climate change poses, by helping to support maximum resource recovery (over 80 per cent), empower livelihoods and make resource management wealth generating.


Swati Singh Sambyal is a Waste Management Specialist with UN-Habitat India

[1] http://ccpgoa.com/index.php [2] https://unhabitat.org/waste-wise-cities [3] https://unhabitat.org/wwc-tool [4] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/7621/-UNEP_medium-term_strategy_2018-2021-2016MTS_2018-2021.pdf.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

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