The State of Recycling in India: Slow Improvements

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In 2009, we wrote a series of articles called “Trash Planet” on recycling and waste management efforts in several countries around the world. We got curious to see how those countries are doing today, so we went and took a second look at India, a country that’s had its struggles with waste.

Eight years ago, the state of India’s waste management and recycling programs were well summarized in this opening statement from our original article:

“Waste management is a major problem in India. Faced with rapid population growth, disorganization of city governments, a lack of public awareness and limited funding for programs, cities have struggled for years to find a way to responsibly manage the country’s ever-increasing amount of trash.”

Unfortunately, that statement also summarizes India’s current waste management situation. But it’s not all bad. Before we dive into the improvements that have materialized over the past eight years, let’s take a look at how India has set up its waste management programs.

Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000

As India’s population grew during the 1990s, its lack of nationwide waste management rules became evident from the overflowing dumps surrounding just about every city.

In 1996, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court against the government of India, state governments and municipal authorities, claiming they were not fulfilling their waste management duties in an acceptable manner.

This piece of legislation prompted the Indian government to establish nationwide rules governing waste management. These rules gave municipalities certain requirements for managing their city’s waste. The primary piece of this legislation was four steps every municipality must take to improve the waste management in their city. Those four steps are:

    1. Set up waste processing and disposal facilities.
    2. Monitor the performance of processing and disposal once every six months.
    3. Improve existing landfill sites.
    4. Identify landfill sites for future use and make the sites ready.

This legislation required cities to segregate their waste for proper disposal, and also required that they send reports to their states on their waste management improvements.

Reading through this legislation, it seems as though the nation was on the right track. Unfortunately, 17 years after this was passed, there has been minimal improvement across the country.

What Is an Effective Waste Management Program?

In order to better understand India’s struggle with waste, let’s take a look at what components make up an effective waste management program:

  • Collection: both the collecting of waste within a home or business and the gathering of it to a more centralized location
  • Segregation: separating waste by material for disposal
  • Transportation: moving waste from collection points to treatment and then to disposal
  • Treatment: treating the waste so that it can be disposed of without damaging the environment
  • Disposal: recycling, landfills, waste-to-energy plants, etc.

An effective waste management program must have all of these components. If any are missing or unable to handle the volume of waste, the entire system will fall apart. As we look at India’s waste management and recycling programs, we’ll examine each of these steps to understand where they are improving and where more work needs to be done.

Waste Management in India Today

With more than 1.2 billion people, India is the second most populated country in the world. As such, the volume of waste generated here is astounding. Some estimate that the amount of waste generated by India’s cities will grow at a rate of 5 percent per year. With 5 percent growth looming over its head, it’s important for India to get a handle on its waste management programs.

Another major challenge to India’s waste management programs is the growth of megacities. These are cities like Hyderabad, with over 7.7 million residents, and Kolkata, with over 14 million residents. These massive cities generate huge amounts of waste, and all of it must be managed by the municipal government.

India is separated into several states, each of which is made up of many, many cities. Each city has to provide its residents with waste management services. There is a small amount of assistance the state provides, but for the most part, municipalities are on their own. The services municipalities must provide include:

  • Waste segregation and storage at the source
  • Primary collection
  • Street sweeping
  • Secondary waste storage
  • Transport of waste
  • Treatment and recycling options for solid waste
  • Final disposal

Waste Collection and Segregation

In India, waste collection and segregation are generally found in the same step. Street sweeping is the process by which waste is collected in many cities across India. Street sweepers are employed by the city and are assigned a certain area where they sweep and then pick up all the waste in their area. This waste is then picked up by trucks — but more on that later. Street sweepers generally don’t do any waste segregation themselves; instead, their sole job is to pick up all the waste people set out for collection.

A large percentage of waste segregation is done by waste pickers. These are generally among the poorest of city residents. They go through the city’s trash and collect all the discarded waste that has monetary value. This is generally recyclable materials like plastic and metal, but it could also be organic waste that’s used for composting. These people may do this on their own and then sell it to a recycler or they may be employed by a company to do the sorting. For most, this is their only source of income. Unfortunately, India has become somewhat dependent on this group doing their part to remove recyclable materials from the waste stream.

In one study of waste pickers in six Indian cities, it was discovered that they recovered approximately 20 percent of all waste. Across these six cities, it was estimated that about 80,000 people were responsible for recycling about 3 million tons.

In their book, Not in My Backyard: Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities, authors Sunita Narain and Swati Singh Sambyal write that the steps of collection, segregation and transportation need to be taking place in residential homes rather than on India’s streets. Indians need to take greater responsibility for the waste they generate and its proper disposal rather than relying on street sweepers and waste pickers to clean up after them.

Waste Transportation

In most Indian municipalities, waste bins are provided for biodegradable and inert waste. The waste from these bins is loaded onto trucks and taken out of the city for treatment and disposal. In many cases, these are open-top trucks, which allows waste to blow out the back of the truck during transport. India is still in desperate need of improved infrastructure in order to better transport waste from collection points to proper treatment and disposal destinations.

Waste Treatment and Disposal

In an effective waste management program, all waste that makes it to the disposal stage should be treated and sent to either incineration or a landfill. In India, it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of waste is dumped in an unsatisfactory manner. While waste disposal has improved slightly since 2009, this is still a major issue. Many cities have landfills that are backed up right against the city, and in far too many cases, people are actually living in these dump sites.

When many of these landfills were built, they were far enough from the city that this wasn’t an issue. But over the past decade, more technology jobs have appeared within cities, causing more and more people to move. With new buildings going up, the buffer zone between the city and landfill has vanished. This leaves municipalities in the difficult position of having an overflowing landfill right next to town.

In 2016, the Deonar landfill next to Mumbai caught fire and burned for 10 days before it was finally put out. The resulting smog caused the city to shut down 70 schools. The Deonar dump is one of three serving Mumbai and covers a total of 325 acres. Dump sites like this are spread across India and are often susceptible to catching fire, just like the Deonar landfill did.

What About Recycling?

When it comes to recycling, there is actually some good news. Thanks in part to the waste pickers, India has one of the highest PET recycling rates in the world. According to one report, India recycles or reuses over 90 percent of all the PET that’s manufactured in the country. In fact, the waste pickers in India are the largest driving force behind recycling, given that they are the ones sorting through trash and pulling out recyclable materials. While this does work for now, I think we can all agree there are better solutions out there that don’t force the poorest among a nation to sift through trash to earn a living.

In recent years, India has also made major strides in improving electronics recycling. New legislation requires the recycling of electronics, which is a fantastic step forward. There is, however, still room for improvement in these laws. The incentive as it stands now leads people to disassemble the device on their own, removing the valuable components, and then tossing what’s left into the landfill. So on your laptop, for example, an individual might strip it of its motherboard and a few other internal components and then throw away the frame, keyboard and some of the internals into the trash.

This isn’t quite how we want electronics recycling to go. We’d much rather see the entire device recycled. Hopefully in the coming years, India will make the necessary adjustments to the law to incentivize people to properly and completely recycle their electronics.

Moving Forward

As India continues to try to solve the waste management and recycling challenges they face, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Improvements are being made, and some cities across India are beginning to build sustainable waste management programs.

About 70 waste pickers work in clean, hygienic conditions at a waste recycling unit in Bhopura. Only 10 to 15 percent of the waste their facility receives is sent to landfills. The rest is sent to either recycling or composting. Facilities like this one in Bhopura are doing an effective job at reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills. As more and more cities across India adopt proper waste segregation and treatment facilities like this one, the need for landfills will decline and India will work its way out of this crisis.

By learning to extract greater value out of its waste through recycling and reuse, India will reduce the amount of trash going straight to the landfill. Hopefully over the next eight years, we’ll see India make even greater strides in waste management and recycling.

Feature image courtesy of Dipak Shelare / Shutterstock.com

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Brian Brassaw

Brian Brassaw

Brian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts. Brian also shares DIY projects on Little Pilots Lounge.
Brian Brassaw