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Waste matters

India generates 70 million tonnes of waste a year, which is around 200 tonnes a day, and 91 per cent of this waste, is dumped in open landfills. Of this waste, Chennai generates 1.8 million tonnes of waste per annum, about 4500-4800 tonnes a day. While our archaic waste management systems have been a cause for concern for decades, the need to address the issue has increased now post the December deluge in Chennai.

In the aftermath of the floods, tonnes of household waste — damaged furniture, appliances, e-waste, plastic, clothes, and even automobiles made its way to our already overflowing dump yards. In many areas, waste from the landfills and dump yards flowed on to the streets and neighbourhoods. Several of our lakes, rivers and other water bodies ended up being converted into drain points for trash from the city’s neighbourhoods, says Arun Krishnamurthy, founder, Environmentalist Foundation of India. “From domestic trash to urban sewage, an unaccounted amount of waste was drained into our natural resources. This collected trash ended up in our landfill.”

The city was able to collect and recycle only 25 per cent of the entire volume of waste generated during the floods. Many expected the city Corporation to step up waste management processes but nothing has improved. Writer and Activist Nityanand Jayaraman says the city has done nothing different than what it routinely does, i.e. collect and dump. “It is difficult to do the right thing while in the midst of a crisis. But now that the crisis is over, nothing is being done either.”

So what is the solution to resolve this mounting issue of waste management? Experts are unanimous that source segregation and recycling are two key factors. Our waste economics doesn’t focus on segregation, and this is the main issue. Siddharth Hande, founder, Kabadiwalla Connect, says, “Since the floods, there has been no systemic change in the way we handle our waste. The only visible change we see is an increase in public interest and awareness in tackling this problem.” Siddharth along with his team at Kabadiwalla Connect are capitalising on this interest and organising simple workshops across the city that help residents connect to local scrap dealers. Of the waste Chennai generates a year, over 380K tonne is recyclable and based on their research, the local scrap dealers or kabadiwallas source back nearly 33 per cent of this waste informally. “We organise fortnightly talks with community members to educate them on segregation, composting and recycling, and furthermore to start a conversation on longer term waste solutions for the city. We communicate through a Whatsapp group and a Face book page, and the response has been tremendous.”

While segregation is important, Mathew Jose, CEO and Founder of Paperman, believes there is no single solution to tackle this issue. There needs to be a vibrant ecosystem in place that comprises individuals, NGOs, companies, and the government, that collaborate to address the problem. “People should be fined heavily for not segregating their waste. We should, as a city, sign a vision statement for waste management within the next six months. The statement should have a list of projects with timelines and we must work towards resolving the matter within that time frame.”

It’s time we realise that our overall consumerist mindset needs to change and only then can we expect people to be sensitive towards such issues. Firstly, we need to reduce the quantity and kind of things that are being consumed, says Jayaraman. “We must begin designing a society in which never-ending consumption is not the engine of prosperity.” When waste is generated, the first step is segregation. The compostable component should be composted, ideally in a highly decentralised manner. Things that can be safely recycled or down cycled should be reprocessed in a safe manner. Things that cannot be recycled, composted, or reused safely should be identified for a phase out and alternatives must be phased in. In the meantime, this fraction could be stored in scientifically designed landfills.

In the overall sequence of activities, starting from collection of recyclable materials to the final disposal and recycling of waste, significant contributions should be made by a range of private stakeholder groups, apart from municipal authorities, says A Shankar of JLL India. These stakeholder groups should monitor the informal sector for recycling trade activities namely segregation, collection, sale and purchase of recyclable materials, and the actual process of recycling at recycling units. Recycling must be treated as a separate industry and in order to encourage citizens, they should be incentivised for source segregation. Krishnamurthy adds, “We need to develop modules at the school level to education children on waste management. Large-scale policy level changes towards waste management are important and public outreach, execution is the need of the hour.”

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 8:40:48 PM |

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