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Cleaning up the mess: the need for a waste management policy

A father and son pack a huge sack with recyclables, aside a hill of earth and rubbish. The outer edges of the landfill are exceptionally unstable and prone to landslides caused by loose layers of waste, a constant danger to the workers.

A father and son pack a huge sack with recyclables, aside a hill of earth and rubbish. The outer edges of the landfill are exceptionally unstable and prone to landslides caused by loose layers of waste, a constant danger to the workers.

Hyperconsumption is a curse of our modern times. Humans generate monumental amounts of waste, a sizeable portion of which is disposed in landfills and through waste-to-energy incinerators. However, billions of tonnes of garbage, including microplastics, never make it to landfills or incinerators and end up in the oceans. This garbage chokes marine life and disturbs zooplankton, which are vital to the elimination of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Landfills are seedbeds of methane and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. These toxic chemicals poison the soil and their leached run-off makes its way into the oceans. And while they do generate energy, waste incinerators cause health issues such as cancer. In India, nearly 60% of the household waste is wet organic waste, with low calorific value. This makes options such as waste-to-energy incinerators inefficient. We need to design incinerators that are suited to Indian conditions.

It does seem overwhelming, but there are solutions to the garbage pandemic through the crucial processes of material recycling and composting. Efficient composting is possible through an optimal combination of microbes and temperature to produce a nutrient-dense soil conditioner.

Mathangi Swaminathan, in her article in Economic and Political Weekly , sheds light on India’s broken waste management system. In India, less than 60% of waste is collected from households and only 15% of urban waste is processed.

There are several problems in India in how waste is treated. First, segregation of waste into organic, recyclable and hazardous categories is not enforced at source. As a result, mixed waste lands up in the landfills, where waste-pickers, in hazardous conditions, try to salvage the recyclables, which are of poor quality and quantity by then. Second, ideally, waste management should not be offered free of cost to residents. Only if residents pay will they realise the importance of segregation and recycling. Third, there is the issue of logistical contractors who are motivated to dump more garbage in landfills as their compensation is proportional to the tonnage of waste. They are also prone to illegally dump waste at unauthorised sites to reduce transportation costs. Fourth, and importantly, organic farming and composting are not economically attractive to the Indian farmer, as chemical pesticides are heavily subsidised, and the compost is not efficiently marketed.

We need a comprehensive waste management policy that stresses the need for decentralised garbage disposal practices, This will incentivise private players to participate. Unless these concerns are addressed, what will we tell our children who inherit this planet? That our greatest existential challenge, climate change, was also facilitated by garbage?

The writer is based in Chennai


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 2:25:30 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/cleaning-up-the-mess/article26763338.ece