Why is garbage such a big problem?

There are two types of waste produced in any household ­– biodegradable and non-biodegradable. Biodegradable waste mostly comprises organic material such as vegetable skin or leftover food

Published: 18th December 2011 12:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 03:35 PM   |  A+A-


Illustration: Amit Bandre

There are two types of waste produced in any household ­– biodegradable and non-biodegradable. Biodegradable waste mostly comprises organic material such as vegetable skin or leftover food. Non-biodegradable waste can be anything made of plastic or glass – bags, toys and so on. Larger items that you cannot throw into the dustbin like old television sets, cell phones, refrigerators and electrical spare parts are non-biodegradable materials.

Garbage can also be categorised as recyclable and non-recyclable material. Most non-biodegradable material comes under the recyclable category.

What happens to waste

Collected garbage is usually dumped in landfills. This is  the oldest form of waste management. Organic waste can be burnt in incinerators to produce energy. Both these methods of waste disposal are harmful to the environment, human beings and animals.

Landfills are pits where organic waste that cannot be recycled is dumped and the compacted waste is covered with a layer of mud for it to decompose. Organic waste produces a liquid called leachate when compacted. In older landfills and those with no membrane between the waste and the underlying land, leachate can contaminate the groundwater. High concentrations of leachate are often found in springs and flushes near the landfill. Leachate can be black in colour, anoxic and may be effervescent with dissolved and entrained gases.

Health hazards

Gases that escape from landfills contain pollutants that can cause cancer, asthma and other serious health hazards. Studies say that living near landfills can cause cancer because the escaping gases typically carry toxic chemicals such as paint thinners, solvents, pesticides, and other hazardous volatile organic compounds. Landfills are the largest global source of human-made methane emissions, a toxic climate-changing gas that is 25 to 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Some landfills have systems that attempt to capture the toxic gases they create. However, in India hardly any measures are taken to prevent the by-products of landfills from contaminating the air, ground water and soil.

According to the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) waste disposal in landfills and dumps drives a lifecycle climate-changing system that is steeped in unsustainable patterns of consumption, transportation, energy use, and resource extraction. The amount of waste we contribute to landfills represents only the tip of a very large iceberg. For every ton of municipal discards wasted, more than 70 tons of manufacturing, mining, oil and gas exploration, agricultural, coal combustion, and other discards are produced. Our use of landfills thus feeds a system in which a constant flow of resources need to be pulled out of the Earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and buried in our communities.

Incineration isn’t a sustainable solution either. It involves the combustion of organic substances contained in waste materials. Incinerators produce a variety of toxic discharges to the air, water and ground that are significant sources of a range of powerful pollutants, including dioxin and other chlorinated organic compounds that are well-known for their toxic impacts on human health and the environment. Many of these toxins enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain. Incinerators also produce toxic by products. In addition to air and water emissions, incinerators create toxic ash or slag that must then be landfilled. This ash contains heavy metals, dioxins, and other pollutants, making it too toxic to reuse, although industry often tries to do so.

The GAIA says people selling incinerators claim that generating energy by burning trash is a solution to our waste and energy crises. The truth is that incinerators actually waste energy. When burning materials that could be reused, recycled, or composted, incinerators destroy the energy-saving potential of putting those materials to better use. Recycling, for instance, saves three to five times the energy that waste incinerator power plants generate.

India’s solution

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000  were framed based on a report to the Supreme Court on the waste management practices in major cities in the country. The Central Government notified the rules which apply to all municipal authorities responsible for collection, segregation, storage, transportation processing and disposal of municipal solid wastes.

According to the rules, every local body is responsible for their implementation and for developing the infrastructure required to do the same. The local bodies were to implement the rules by the end of 2002. An extension was granted but compliance has been staggeringly low

What do the rules say

The rules advocate source segregation of garbage -- bio and non biodegradable wastes to be seperated at homes -- followed by door to door collection of biodegradable or wet waste from households. The biodegradable waste is to be composted while landfills are to be used only for disposal of non biodegradable waste. This would prevent the creation of toxic gases that form when the two are mixed. The landfills are to be identified and developed for long term use adhering to technical specifications.


According to Almitra H Patel’s website (she was involved in pushing for the rules) the MSW rules have not been followed anywhere but for Suryapet in Andhra Pradesh and Namakkal in Tamil Nadu.

She says, “Both of these towns both self-motivated “Zero-Garbage Towns” since 2003 without any external funding whatsoever, with almost complete compliance with MSW Rules.  This has been achieved simply through the political will of the elected members, the sincerity of the municipal staff, and excellent cooperation from the public.  Both are dust-bin-free cities where cleaning is done every day of the week and no waste is burnt anywhere.  Sorting space has been provided for rag-pickers and kabadiwalas to store and dispatch their different kinds of waste, preferably sheltered from rain.  Almost everyone keeps the wet food wastes free of plastics etc so that low-cost vermi-composting is easy.”

In Chennai

Needless to say the Chennai Corporation’s municipal waste management practices have not complied with these rules. Under the above rule the Corporation was responsible for improving the condition of the existing landfills by 2001, identify new landfill sites by 2002 and set up waste processing and disposal facilities by 2003. Till date none of the mandated requirements have been fulfilled. The Corporation officials blamed a legal tussle for the delay in initiating action. You may have read of a protest held by the residents of Kodungaiyur recently. Kondugaiyur dumping yard and the struggles of the residents show the problems improper waste disposal can cause.

The Kodungaiyur dumping yard in north Chennai is located across from quarters built by the government for slum dwellers. The smell from the dump is the least of the residents’ worries. The ground water and the soil near the garbage dump have been contaminated. According to a report published in Express the waste is currently burnt in the open, resulting in poisonous fumes spreading through the area. There are no facilities contain the by-products from the landfill.

Another landfill in Chennai is located in Perungudi very close to the Pallikarani marsh. Since the dumping started in Perungudi the marshland has shrunk in size and the sewage treatment facility that is located nearby only makes matters worse for the flora and fauna. Studies that were conducted around Perungudi revealed alarming facts. The level of dioxins and furans that were found in breast milk samples collected from the vicinity were 25 times higher than WHO’s recommended limit. Dioxins are by-products of industrial process and municipal solid waste and are said to be one of the most harmful chemicals to humans. 

How to solve this problem

The problem is that often the government and society shrug off responsibility for the waste they generate and hence we find ourselves in crisis. Remember the scenario in Disney’s Wall-E? We could end up like that one day.

Products these days are built in such a way that they don’t last for too long. An old cell phone, a television that does not work all adds to the increasing waste generated by society.

The GAIA says most things can and should be safely and economically recycled, reused or composted. We also need to simply use less and redesign our products so that they are toxin-free and built to last. Many cities around the world, including Buenos Aires, Canberra, Kovalam and San Francisco, have already passed zero waste resolutions and have devised innovative plans to reduce their waste disposal levels to zero. The leadership in these cities realises that waste is a sign of an inefficient system.

We need to manufacture products with non-toxic materials and make sure the products last longer. Reusing and recycling things can help replace incinerators and landfills. The only feasible solution to deal with garbage is to reduce, reuse and recycle.

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