Expensive technologies cannot solve India’s waste problem

The core question India needs to address: how to reduce the generation of waste in an economy, which thrives on spiraling consumption and production

India generates over 150,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) per day. According to the World Bank, India’s daily waste generation will reach 377,000 tonnes by 2025 . To tackle this challenge, several Indian municipalities have invested in smart bins. While Bangalore, Raipur, Dehradun and Dharamsala have already installed these bins, Chennai, Surat, Mumbai, Chandigarh are all set do the same. These smart bins are different from the usual bins: they have twin underground chambers (one for biodegradable and the other for non-biodegradable waste) and are fitted with sensors, which sends out alerts when a bin is about to get full. These bins are expensive: the cost of procurement and installation of one bin is between Rs 4 to 8.5 lakh and a special crane-mounted truck, which pulls out the bins from the chambers and carries them to a landfill, is between Rs 50 and Rs 55 lakh.

Unfortunately, these bins don’t contribute much to managing municipal waste because there’s no segregation at source — household or commercial. So having two bins does not serve any purpose as users/collectors dump mixed garbage in them. Moreover, in most cities, the waste finally goes to landfills or dumping grounds without any processing.

For any recycling, sorting/ segregation, human handling is a must and this task is carried out by waste collectors/pickers, either from dustbins or at processing sites. The smart bin, however, eliminates the possibility of human intervention at the site, thus impacting the livelihood of the waste picker community. Landfills are more dangerous areas for them to work in and the quantum of waste to deal with is larger, more varied there.

Dharamshala, which made to the smart city list in 2016, initially planned to install 225 bins. So far the municipal corporation has installed about 70 bins at the cost of Rs 7 crore. However, its smart bin experience was marred in the first month after a few of the underground concrete structures caved in due to the hilly terrain and lack of consideration for underground drainage in an area that sees heavy rainfall. A city that has only one disposal site and is yet to plan the setting up of a waste processing unit, it makes little sense to spend crores on the new bins.

It is also an oversight of the Solid Waste Management rules 2016, which requires segregation, processing and recycling of waste. The rules hold urban bodies, administration as well as users at source, responsible for managing the waste. However, instead of focusing on implementation, policy makers and urban bodies are focused on facelifts.

Instead of these expensive bins, the government must initiate other steps: segregation and processing, organising and capacity building of citizens and waste handlers, and come up with a strong regulatory system. The core question of how to reduce the generation of waste in an economy that thrives on spiralling consumption and production, will also need to be faced sooner or later.

Manshi Asher is with Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective, based in Himachal Pradesh.

This article was first published in Hindustan Times

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