Segregation of waste, reforms, implementation, and actions with regard to Indian horizon
‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together’ – Vincent Van Gogh
As India etches its post-COVID recovery and growth story, circular economy is no less than a protagonist. NITI Aayog, the country’s apex public policy think tank, and the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India have set up eleven committees to prepare comprehensive plans to enable the transition to a circular economy. The term has also featured in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s 2022 budget speech and hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech in 2021, showcasing its key position in the country’s policy agenda.
Circular economy functions well if solutions are available across the value chain. In the case of the municipal solid waste value chain, segregation of waste at source is the first and most effective solution. This is what is lacking in the waste management systems of India. In recent years though, waste collection efficiency has improved across the country, and this success is largely attributed to the Swachh Bharat Mission. One of the key focus areas of this mission is the improvement of solid waste management infrastructure in the country. However, it is high time we move ahead, build and strengthen source segregation systems in India.
In 2021, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India launched the ‘Swachhata Sankal Desh Ka, Har Ravivaar Vishesh Sa’ campaign. One of the key features of this nation-wide campaign was awareness activities on source segregation of waste. This strong advocacy needs to be translated to action and consistent efforts still need to be made to implement source segregation of waste across all communities in the country. The simple act of waste segregation at source is entrenched in several social challenges, but this one simple act will catalyse our transition to a circular economy, reaping benefits in the long term. The ambitious mandate from the centre and state for this transition needs to be embedded in the city’s priorities. Behavioural change is touted as the main ingredient that can deliver this change. But we need a more nuanced and structured approach if we are to sustain the benefits that emerge from this transition.
Reform the source-segregation narrative
To transcend social barriers, the narrative on source segregation of waste needs to extend beyond its environmental benefits and include its social and economic benefits. These social and economic benefits demonstrate its true potential as an impactful tangible solution for waste management. A Social Return on Investment (SROI) study conducted in the Indian city of Gurugram found that for every rupee invested in awareness for source segregation a social value worth 2.6 rupees had been created in one year. This value included the additional income that waste collectors earned due to the availability of uncontaminated dry waste and the money they saved on health expenditures, that were earlier a result of injuries and infections due to exposure to mixed waste. The study was conducted as part of the Alag Karo initiative, which is implemented by Saahas, an NGO based in Bengaluru. It is supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Coca-Cola and TetraPak within the framework of the develoPPP funding programme, which GIZ implements on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Wards as anchors for implementing source segregation
The potential of decentralised waste management systems has been well established. In this regard, the ward, which is the smallest administrative unit of a city, has emerged as an ideal starting point for creating such systems. Source segregation demands intensive awareness and monitoring activities, and at the ward level, these can be designed based on the ward’s characteristics and demographics. A key part of ward-level waste management systems are community volunteers, who are in a way ‘champions’ propounding waste segregation in the community, enhancing participation and thereby bridging the gap between promotion and action. Their connection within the community paves the way for accountability. Furthermore, each community consists of individuals who reciprocate and lead action at the forefront. These individuals also end up becoming ‘trendsetters’ and can fast-track action and significantly contribute to behavioural change at the community level.
The country has many successful models to learn from such as the Muzzafarpur waste management model, which provides promising insights on mechanisms that can be adopted to facilitate the creation and functioning of ward-level waste management systems and establishes the viability of such an approach. The Alag Karo project focuses on creating a model ward for waste management in Gurugram. An important learning emerging from these models is that the ward is an ideal scale to set goals, based on the ward’s composition. The need for infrastructure can be identified and outreach programmes can then be designed based on the ward’s waste characteristic audit, and these can be tied to the ward’s waste management goals. Local communities can relate to these goals, and not get lost in the overwhelming numbers at the city or national level.
Additionally, challenges and missteps identified at this scale can be overcome with precision. An endorsement of this ward level approach for sustainable waste management by the municipal administration can also send a clear message to waste collectors on the need to conform to these changes and upgrade infrastructure to support segregation.
Take measures across the value chain
Source segregation does not end at the household level. It is pertinent that the collection infrastructure ensures that the waste remains segregated until it reaches its destination where it can be recycled or processed using other technologies. That’s where we again come to our point about the need for solutions across the value chain. Waste getting mixed after collection is a major deterrent to citizens and can undo all efforts towards awareness raising. The push among citizens to segregate their waste must be supplemented with the requisite infrastructure to motivate them and sustain their efforts.
Segregation of waste supports implementing national policies
Most recently, MoEFCC has amended the Plastic Waste Management Rules, issuing guidelines on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for plastic packaging. EPR mandates companies putting plastic into the market to make efforts to prevent it from reaching landfills and water bodies. Improving source segregation will play a key role for EPR to work, as it would ensure the delivery of uncontaminated dry waste including plastics, and thereby provide high-quality feedstock to recyclers. Better quality feedstock will motivate investors and support the creation of infrastructure. This in-turn would keep citizens motivated to segregate, creating a ‘success loop’.
Source segregation of waste demands unlearning and relearning of habits, which is challenging, and which also means that to bring in the habit of source segregation efforts need to be persistent and consistent.
In the grand scheme of things, such as addressing climate change and creating a circular economy, the simplest act of segregating waste at source is instrumental.
Vaibhav Rathi, Technical Advisor, GIZ India & Jasprit Kaur, Junior Technical Expert, GIZ India