by Sunita Narain

Glass Beach Fort Brag CaliforniaWe know that we have a serious garbage problem. But the problem is not about finding the right technology for waste disposal. The problem is how to integrate the technology with a system of household-level segregation so that waste does not end up in landfills, but is processed and reused. It is clear that there will be no value from waste, as energy or material, if it is not segregated. But this is where our waste management system stops short.

It is the responsibility of the urban local body to ensure segregation of waste at source. This means the body must get citizens to segregate waste at the household level and then ensure that this segregated waste—wet and dry, compostable and recyclable—is collected separately and transported separately for processing.

The easier solution is to collect and dump. Or to believe that unsegregated waste can be sorted out mechanically at the processing plant itself and burnt. Officials of urban local bodies have been given to believe this is the magic bullet: collect, sort and burn. But as experience shows, if waste is not segregated then it will make poor quality fuel. This will not work.

Segregation at source should therefore be at the heart of municipalities’ solid waste management system. The cities can initiate a citywide system that is designed to collect household waste on different days for different waste streams. This can ensure separation. It can be combined with penalties for non-segregated waste and has promoted colony-level processing as well. Most importantly, for the bulk of commercial establishments such as hotels, a bag-marking system can be introduced so that any non-compliance can be caught and fined.

But this is one part of the waste solution. The other is to make sure there is no place for the unsegregated waste to go. This means taking tough steps to manage landfills in cities. The landfills should only be used for residual waste that is “non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible and non-reactive”. Every effort should be made to recycle or reuse the rejects to achieve the desired objective of zero waste to landfill.

The question is how to enforce this policy.

We need to turn the system of garbage management on its head. Only then will we really clean our cities—not just sweep the dirt under the carpet. To change this, it is necessary to impose a landfill tax. The contracts need to be redesigned so that instead of the municipality paying for the waste brought to the landfill, the contractor should be made to pay a “tipping fee” for the waste. In this way, instead of being paid to bring waste to the landfill, the contractor or city municipality would have to pay a fee to dispose of the waste. This will provide financial viability to the waste-processing industry and also ensure that as little as possible waste reaches the landfill.

So it is an established fact that there is a need to reinvent garbage management in our cities so that we can process waste and not “landfill” it. This requires households and institutions to segregate their waste at source so that it could be managed as a resource. It also means that we need to limit how much is dumped by imposing a tax on landfill.

First, this reinvention means we need to incorporate and not negate the role of the recycling industry in waste management. Currently, it is said (data is weak however) that recycling of dry waste provides employment to about 1-2 per cent of a city’s population, often the poorest women and children. In large cities, there are two three tiers of waste buyers, all well organised and specialised in specific wastes. What is not recognised is that this trade, happening in the backyards of slums and shoved aside by policy, is the only thing saving cities from drowning in waste. It is also this trade which ensures that less waste reaches landfills.

There is a great need for official support to this unappreciated activity that saves at least 10-15 percent in transportation costs daily to the city, adding up to millions of rupees a year.

Informal waste collectors, for instance, could be issued ID badges who desire them (through NGOs or police, to prevent harassment), providing them with sorting and storage space, and doorstep pick-up service for post-sorting rejects to be taken away from slum houses or waste buyers’ yards, so that these do not end up clogging the storm drains.

The stigma attached to the garbage sorting business must be addressed. It could all be made an easy and profitable business.

At the macro level, it is worth mapping, within the provincial or even nationally, the location of major recyclers of specific wastes and encouraging the filling of gaps. Policies are needed to help this waste reducing and partially pollution-abating industry to become legitimate, through designated recycling eco-parks, concessional power rates and low or no sales taxes. Currently, city master plans do not even allocate space for this business. It is considered illegal, dirty and something that must go away. This is what has to change.

The Kerala government in India has found that the only way it can manage its dry waste is by activating its informal recycling industry. The state government’s Suchitwa Mission for a garbage-free Kerala has collated information on this industry and put the data, including the rate paid for different categories of waste, on its official website. Now households can use this service. It has also started a company to manage its plastic waste and to work with recyclers.

Secondly, we also need to accept that waste management costs. But currently municipalities hardly charge for this service. The assumption is that the cost of waste management is included in property tax. But as property tax is rarely computed for this service and in most cities rarely charged, the real cost of waste management is never realised. This is why municipalities struggle to pay for this service.

Matters are made worse because municipal accounts are a mess. Most urban local bodies do not even maintain annual accounts. This lack of finances for basic municipal services is compounded by the fact that citizens do pay for waste management— but not to the municipal body. In most cities, residents, particularly the affluent waste-generating ones, have engaged private agencies to undertake door-to-door collection. The household pays for this service. But the agency then takes the waste and invariably dumps it in the municipal secondary collection station. The transportation and processing of the waste is then left to the already depleted finances of the local body.

It is also clear that households must be made to pay for the amount of waste they generate and penalised if the waste is not segregated. It is time we accepted that each household and commercial establishment is a waste generator and so a potential polluter. The principle of polluter pays must be applied. Otherwise our cities will become giant garbage fields.

But the real game-changer in garbage management is nimby or not-in-my-backyard. Poor and rural communities are beginning to object to the waste being dumped in their backyard. They, like us, do not want to live near a landfill or a waste incinerator that pollutes the environment. Now that their backyard is not available, in whose front yard will waste be disposed of? If it is ours, then we will need to keep it clean. Won’t we?