India faces a mammoth solid waste disposal problem. While the volume of waste generated in the cities is projected to reach 125 million tonnes per annum by 2031, from the 64-72 million tonnes at present, the disposal system today focuses on collection and transportation of this waste only. Waste segregation being virtually absent has resulted in resource wastage, environmental pollution and health/safety hazards, thanks to leaching and methane (a greenhouse gas, or GHG) generation from wet solid waste in the landfills. Due to unscientific disposal, GHG emissions from solid waste in India increased by 3.1% yearly between 2000 and 2010. Unsegregated waste also undermines the waste-to-electricity option of disposal, given high wet waste content pushes the overall calorific value to a level below the required threshold.
An Icrier working paper by Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Utkarsh Patel says that an effective waste management strategy must figure waste segregation at source and appropriate treatment of different components. The wet solid waste, primarily biodegradable organic waste, can be then processed in a decentralised manner through composting and biomethanation. Given wet waste constitutes—as per Ahluwalia-Patel’s estimate—nearly 55-60% of the overall municipal solid waste generated in the country, if waste segregation and treatment gets implemented, it would mean phenomenal gains. While 95 commercial composting plants, with an aggregate processing capacity of 2.37 million tonnes of organic waste annually, exist, only 14% of the capacity is utilised.
While Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad generate 21% of the total municipal solid waste generated across the country even when they account for just 16% of the total urban population, only Bengaluru has been able to manage 50% waste segregation at source. Many mid-sized and small cities have made significant efforts—for instance, while Indore and Mysore have achieved 90% and 95% segregation, Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu and Uttarpara-Kotrung in Bengal, among many other small cities, have managed 100%. Significant as they are, these efforts are not adequate.
India could learn from Japan that managed to reduce its waste generation by a fifth over 2000-2013 by, among other measures undertaken, promoting Extended Producer Responsibility—its Containers & Packaging Recycling Act aims at reducing the generation of packaging waste by mandating thinner and lighter packaging, use of returnable containers, and even recycling packaging from imports made by a firm. It also places some responsibility on consumers—the Automobile Recycling Act of 2002 requires automobile buyers to deposit a recycling fee and mandatorily return an end-of-life vehicle to the dealer.
The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016 clearly specifies what kind of waste is to be dumped at a landfill. However, this observed is in clear and significant breach. India, as of March 2018, had no operational sanitary landfill though these are mandated by the SWM Rules. Ahluwalia-Patel highlight that SWM Rules directs urban local bodies (ULBs) to fix and levy user charges but this is hobbled by the fact that most state governments have not devolved that power to local governments.