The recurring fires at the Doenar land dump (it cannot be called a landfill) in Mumbai have fuelled a political blame game. Smoke is difficult to ignore and it is literally in one’s face, especially since it can be seen from afar and travels long distances. Even though land dump fires are not uncommon, they take place as the escaping methane gas catches fire spontaneously; but in this case, the thick smoke is unusual. It is like the body bag of evidence that things are going wrong. What is forgotten is that all land dumps regularly leach toxic effluent into the surrounding land and ground water. The fire is, in fact, deep in the heart of our waste management systems. The crisis is an opportunity to re-construe systems and mindsets, which have led to such a situation.
Over the past 20 years, ever since urban municipal waste became a public issue (post the 1994 Surat plague scare), little has been done to implement sustainable solutions, despite new national waste management laws, and special funds being made available to city governments. Not only Mumbai, but each of our large and small cities follow the faulty practice of collecting waste and dumping it in some low-lying area. Delhi, for example, has three and is looking for a fourth. Valuable urban land is converted into ‘wasteland’, and serves at best to sweep the problem under the carpet—out of sight, that is. Even this is no longer true, however, for human settlements are everywhere in our cities, and if not the elite, the poor pay the price in terms of the stink and contaminated environments.
A basic mantra of waste management is that it must be diverted away from landfills. Only waste, which has no other possibility of being recycled, reused or processed should find its way there. This is in sharp contrast to the ongoing practice, where everything, which is not extracted by wastepickers, is dumped. Our dumps contain plastic, paper, food and construction malba, all of which are recyclable. Diversion of waste away from here is more complicated than it sounds, and needs new systems. Dry waste has to be segregated at source and collected separately (not all into one dumpster) to be sent off to different and safe plastic and paper recycling plants. Hardly any of these exist today. Toxic waste such as batteries, mercury thermometers and florescent lighting, styrofoam etc. needs to be kept and collected separately. Organic waste should be processed into compost or biogas, locally or in centralised plants. Special waste like construction debris needs to be recycled and reused for roads and new constructions. Above all, waste reduction measures such as minimising packaging waste should be initiated.
Achieving this has implications. New roles are required for the private sector to invest in recycling and processing, and citizens to take local ownership of the waste, while the local government must facilitate and regulate transparently. New models of funding and cost sharing to make these viable, such as landfilling tipping or collection fees have to be put in place. A European can pay more than `50 per kilo for her waste, while our waste management costs are not charged separately, even from those who can afford to pay.
Alongside is the important question of wastepickers who make their living off it. There have been various experiments and models developed over the years, through citizen initiatives, to include them in local collection of waste and help provide better healthcare and dignity to their work. These need to be scaled up and institutionalised. In any future systems, wastepickers can be the backbone.
Clearly, the way we have managed waste thus far is not working. Municipalities are not geared to deal with 5-10,000 tonnes of waste on a daily basis. They need to change their role from being the central player to initiators of multiple levels and types of waste systems, which are managed by other stakeholders. There is no real evidence of this happening yet, though the smart city concept is an opportunity. Currently, at best, some municipalities are subcontracting their collection functions to private agencies, or allowing NGOs to employ wastepickers locally. While paying lip service to ‘segregation’, they have also been busy installing polluting mass burn incinerators where unsegregated waste is burnt. Also even where manufacturers have been legally mandated to set up collection systems as in electronic, car battery and plastic wastes, as part of a life cycle approach (extended producer responsibility), they have defiantly not done so, while the regulator has looked on. Such tinkering as against initiating real changes falls short of the challenge. In a country where half its population is expected to live in its cities in the coming decades, bolder and smarter initiatives are required.
Agarwal is founder-director at Toxics Link