While dire images of plastic in water bodies and open piles of garbage pop up with alarming regularity, there are no proper systems in place in India. Namita Devidayal speaks to Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, authors of Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India. Excerpts:

Why did Indians start generating so much waste? This was certainly not the case in the 1960s.

The growing production and use of consumer goods after ‘liberalisation’ in 1991 is the reason. Toothpaste is a telling example. In the 1970s, one estimate reckoned that India produced 1,200 tons of toothpaste a year. By 2015, estimates suggested that India consumed 80,000 tons of toothpaste a year. That would mean 800 million tubes. Toothpaste tubes don’t decompose and are notoriously hard to recycle. It’s not hard to think of similar examples that mark the arrival of a manufactured, packaged, consumerist way of life.

What are the biggest challenges in India’s waste management?

For household waste, perhaps the greatest challenge is getting people to change their habits. Behavioural change is difficult to instigate. Even poor people have come to depend on fast-moving consumer goods which come in disposable sachets — from packets of paan masala to shampoo. The resulting waste is pervasive, yet its everyday quality makes it unnoticeable, compared to the spectacular nature of Delhi’s air pollution in the winter.

For industrial-scale waste — construction and demolition, toxic and hazardous — regulation and enforcement are difficult. The cost of neutralising or re-purposing such materials is often a disincentive for businesses. They break the rules, and regulators are unwilling or unable to enforce compliance.

What is the next best alternative to landfills, given the tremendously short supply of space in cities?

The quick — and wrong — answer is often: incineration. Burn things. There’s even the promise of generating some electric power out of the combustion. High-temperature incineration works in Japan, Singapore and parts of northern Europe. But these incinerators are expensive, and need relentless maintenance.

A better way, especially for India — and authorities try to practise it in some places — is decentralised processing, down to the ward level.

Much of India’s household waste is biodegradable and can be turned into good compost and even made to produce a little electricity.

Decentralised sorting stations for waste-pickers enable recyclables to be collected and moved economically. What’s left can be compressed into bales and turned into fuel useful in cement factories. ‘Scientific landfills’ are a last resort. They are expensive to establish and maintain, and take up big areas.

How is the challenge of urban waste different from waste in rural areas?

In the old days, rural waste was either vegetable matter or easily recycled (eg, glass bottles, paper). The arrival of plastic and widespread consumerist opportunities has changed that. Much of India that was once ‘rural’ is now ‘peri-urban’, connected to towns and cities. In the worst cases, some rural communities are dumped with urban waste, even when they can barely manage their own discards.

In the countryside, uncontrolled human waste is a major concern. There appears to be a clear connection between random defecation, internal parasites and stunted growth in infants and children. It is one thing to build toilets and another to make people use them. And every toilet needs to be looked after — either by being hooked up to sewage treatment plants or by maintenance of the receptacle into which excreta is deposited. There are lots of experiments going on, but we are still waiting for The Perfect Toilet.

How can we empower the informal army of waste collectors and recyclers?

Remarkable things happen when waste-pickers get organised. Collectives can extract identity cards, recognition, uniforms and appropriate equipment and a flourishing collective may be able to contract for the management of waste for a neighbourhood, or a ward. The negative aspect of such organisations may be that newcomers, or those not in the collective, are excluded. If businesses, under corporate social responsibility (CSR), invested in advisers to work with waste-pickers, we might see better results.

Can you spell out three simple ways to reduce one’s garbage footprint?

1. Become jholawalas. A fabric bag is something to be proud of.

2. Get to know your waste-pickers and safai karmacharis and learn how local sanitation works.

3. Ensure that wet waste ends up as compost — at home or at a neighbourhood composting centre.


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