The garbage doesn’t really bother us until it raises a stink, quite literally. A couple of weeks back, the population in Delhi, once again witnessed a major problem of disposing its garbage. Sanitation workers refused to pick up garbage, citing non-payment for three months, and the garbage had spilled onto the roads for a whole week before the pleas of the workers were heard.
What is it that the city corporation and the state government fail to pay the ‘safai karmacharis’ every now and then? This problem is just the tip of a proverbial iceberg of India’s struggle to manage its waste.
In January 2015, Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, said that India’s cities are drowning in rubbish because the country does not have a garbage management system. So what happens to the garbage that is collected from our home by the municipal truck or the ‘kudeywala’? Well, they just end up in one of Delhi’s four landfills whose closure is long overdue.
Unlike the developed countries of the West, India’s garbage problem is unique; 70% of India’s garbage is wet, that consists of biodegradable items such as food waste. While the solutions offered to convert waste to fuel oil or gas is often talked about, when it comes to implementation, nothing really happens.
Although we would like to believe that a nation like the US must be managing its waste well, that’s far from the truth. From 2007, America sold its trash to China for seven years, until one day in 2013, China refused to continue the deal. Surprising though it may seem, the US had sold $10.8 billion worth of metal and paper scrap to China in 2011!
The incineration plant in Delhi’s Okhla area was set up near residential colonies without any consent from the residents. The plant was mired in controversy, although it claimed that by burning the garbage, it will generate around 21 megawatts electricity a year.
The health risk created by growing size of open garbage piles in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, is greater than the risk of malaria. In India, due to lack of existing alternatives, the waste problem can be partially tackled by resorting to recycling. Finding new landfills is almost impossible because in India, landfills just become open dumpsites that breed diseases.
The irony is that despite their inability to manage waste, most municipal corporations consider waste as ‘wealth’ when approached by private partners. Some time back, the popular TV show Satyamev Jayate had shown a businessman who had the resources to convert waste to energy. But when he approached municipal officials to procure waste, they refused to help, stating that the waste has been contractually given to ‘someone else’. But if that is true, why do the cities’ landfills continue to grow?
Due to the lack of proper waste disposal in India, a lot of the wet waste decomposes and catches fire. About 50% of such emission is methane. Studies say landfills account for 15% of methane emissions in India, which is a big health threat to the ragpickers to work without any protective gear.
Around 50% of the biodegradable waste could be turned into compost at the local level, without burdening landfills. But this doesn’t happen due to lack of waste segregation. What we get instead is the likes of the Okhla plant which was put up with aid from the government. The plant was built cheap, at one-tenth the cost of a world-class waste-to-energy facility, by using China-made equipment.
Apparently, the incinerator can power about 19,000 homes in Delhi by burning 8,000 tonnes of garbage daily. But the price for the electricity would be failing health and we are not ready to pay with our health!