The Alchemy of Waste

We Indians are quite good at handling waste, relatively speaking. Most of us reuse stuff (the hand-me-down salwar being used as rag to wipe the kitchen counter), sell our newspapers (that manifest into their new avatars as tiny paper covers to hold groundnuts) and are careful about how much food we waste. But times are changing, and three emerging trends are likely to challenge our waste-credits.

One: there are a lot of us, and we are increasingly moving to cities which increases the quantity of waste and makes the dynamics of waste very different from what it is in smaller rural settlements. Second: the convenience and economics of plastic packaging make it increasingly ubiquitous in modern living. But plastic is very different from “wet” waste like produce, peels and sewage, and needs to be handled very differently. Lastly, we are becoming wealthier and changing our lifestyles. We consume more for starters. As food makes up a progressively smaller share of our earnings, we become more blasé about wasting more of it. This is only encouraged by enticing marketing campaigns that induce us to make impulsive purchases that translate into yet more waste.

Just how much waste are we talking about? In an earlier article, we saw that the total food waste in the world was a third of all the food produced, or about 1.3 billion tonnes a year; equivalent to junking 100,000 Taj Mahals. But waste from the household includes other forms of waste: there’s sewage (that Israel has managed to convert to a precious resource), there is food waste (rotten produce, peels and leftover food), packaging, paper in its various forms and specialty waste (consisting of medical, hazardous and e-waste). Consider the solid (non-sewage) waste generated daily in India’s metros: Delhi leads the pack at 8,500 tons per day, Mumbai comes second with 7,000 tons per day Calcutta and Bangalore follow at 5,000 tons each daily, while Chennai generates about 3,000 tons of waste a day. That’s 10.5 million tons (hard to imagine, isn’t it?) of garbage a year. That’s a lot of garbage. Most of this waste ends up in the landfill.

Why is this bad? Many reasons: first, it provides a great breeding ground for all kinds of pests, including mosquitoes. Given the suffering inflicted by the current dengue epidemic, that should be reason enough to manage our garbage better. There’s more. The liquid generated from solid waste, full of harmful chemicals, can seep into ground water and streams and poison us. The bad odour arising from rotting refuse pollutes the air and exacerbates asthma while the garbage lying around and in our landfills looks unsightly. Last but certainly not the least, is the unenviable plight of the rag pickers. They brave wounds and bruises from working in hazardous conditions and burns and cancer dealing with harmful substances that come with our waste. They deserve more than our pity. But this is a climate change column: what is the climate impact of waste?

Globally waste management accounts for ~3% of greenhouse gas emissions and landfills account for about half of that. So, is it really that big a deal? Well, yes. Because for one, India may not have enough gas to power its LPG-cylinders-for-all campaign, and here is a readymade source with a working technology, developed by the Bharat Atomic Research Centre, ready to provide substantial fuel to further that dream. For another, this is one of those relatively easy wins, where there is a working solution and plentiful other benefits that come with addressing the climate problem.

The good news is that there are plenty of people, Startups and NGOs, working on solving different bits of this problem. There is the humble raddiwala who picks our segregated waste newspapers from our doorstep. Bangalore has a thriving solid waste ecosystem. For instance, Saahas, a NGO-turned-Start up, offers a waste management service to large waste generators like corporates and apartment complexes. For a fee, it will collect your garbage, segregate it and make money out of it. There are others who collect excess food from wedding or other functions and distribute it to the poor. There are still others running energy-from-waste plants generating gas from segregated wet waste. But do you see one word repeat itself consistently in the different solutions? Segregation. This word, this act holds the alchemical key in turning waste to gold. The moment you mix wet waste with dry waste, you diminish any potential for a solution. But the second you segregate, you’re sitting on a pile of money in your trash cans. Next time, I want to walk you through a very personal experience, how we brought down the waste we sent into the corporation from our home.

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on November 27. Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 7:37:16 AM |

Next Story