|Urban waste management in India – is biomethanation the way out?|
62 million tonnes of waste is generated annually in the country at present, out of which 5.6 million tonnes is plastic waste, 0.17 million tonnes is biomedical waste, hazardous waste generation is 7.90 million tonnes per annum and 15 lakh tonne is e-waste. Per capita waste generation in Indian cities ranges from 200 grams to 600 grams per day.
Collecting, processing, transporting and disposing this municipal solid waste (MSW) is the responsibility of urban local bodies (ULBs) in India.
Current waste management plans are created on the basis of a standardized model of flows of waste in Indian cities. This model fails to accurately reflect the situation on the ground in a number of important ways. As a result, attempts to address threats to the environment, health and livelihoods of local residents are being threatened, and opportunities for innovative solutions are being overlooked.
Patterns of urban consumption, and the waste generated, have changed rapidly. We now require sustainable urban waste management solutions which will simultaneously ad- dress environmental and social challenges, embrace oppor- tunities to reuse and recycle, engage with citizens and be responsive to changing circumstances.
What are the key concerns ?
- Inreality, wastes flowsand associated risks are far more complex than thought. The environmental health risks and social justice con- cerns exist throughout the waste chain.
- More than three-fourths of the municipal budget on solid waste management goes into collection and transportation, which leaves very little for processing/resource recovery and disposal.
- Privatisation does not replace the informal sector – new conflicts between formal and informal are created and opportunities overlooked.
- Some waste streams – such as bio medical waste, e-waste, plastic waste, construction and demolition waste – need technical interventions which work best at larger scale because of the kind of technologies needed and the regulation required to keep their operations within discharge and emission limits.
- Multiple schemes for people’s participation in urban development decision-making have failed.
- Environmental and social justice movements offer key insights into alternative waste management pathways – but are not supported to work together in constructive ways to develop sustainable waste management strategies.
- Current policies and rules on urban waste suggest waste is seen solely as an environmental policy issue.Policies focus on specific aspects of the management of urban waste (collection, segregation, storage, treat- ment, and its disposal by different agencies), prescrib- ing standards for treatment and its disposal, regulation of these standards.
How does biomethanation help?
- The biodegradable component of India’s municipal solid waste is currently estimated at a little over 50 per cent. Biomethanation offers a major solution for processing biodegradable waste. If only we were to segregate our biodegradable waste from the rest, this could reduce the dimensions of the challenge of solid waste management to half
- Biomethanation is a process by which organic material is microbiologically converted under anaerobic conditions to biogas. Three main physiological groups of microorganisms are involved: fermenting bacteria, organic acid oxidizing bacteria, and methanogenic archaea.
- Biogas is a mixture containing carbon dioxide and methane in varying proportions and a small quantity of hydrogen sulfide gas. Methane is a harmful gas if released in the environment as it is one of the four major gases responsible for global warming. But it is an excellent fuel.”
- Notwithstanding their limited share in the total waste that needs processing, the decentralised plants have made a significant contribution in solid waste management of the city in so far as they use methane as a source of renewable energy to produce electricity which is used to power street lights in surrounding areas.
- Not only do these plants provide a major energy saving from reduced transportation, but they also generate additional annual revenue of close to Rs 3 crore from electricity generation besides meeting their own demand for electricity.
- But, it is too early to tell how much difference these new ventures of biomethanation will make.But, any solution will only work if we are able to segregate municipal solid waste at source. Reform must begin at home.
What else can be done ?
- A productive start to containing the problem could be made if urban governments show the political will to rein in bulk generators of municipal solid waste.
- For instance, the provisions in the new rules for hotels and restaurants to support composting, or biomethanation, and for large housing societies, commercial establishments and other bulk producers to segregate waste, need to be rigorously enforced.
- Cess funds collected for the Swachh Bharat programme could be deployed to scale up infrastructure for composting, biomethanation and recycling.
- Evidently, the Centre and the State governments have not so far taken the existing rules seriously: less than a third of the collected waste is being processed.
- Even where environmentally conscious citizens segregate at source, the chain of management dumps it all in landfills.
- The central monitoring committee under the Ministry should ensure that local bodies do not continue functioning in business-as-usual mode.
- They should align their operations, including waste management contracts, with the new rules under the annual operating plan.
- There is a need to incentivise small-decentralised projects supporting other local technologies as well as other ‘solutions’ for different stages of waste management. These can include community-led initiatives for implementation of waste management practices, economic incentives such as subsidizing compost and an incentive structure around the land needed.
- The energy from waste is a crucial element of waste management because it reduces the volume of waste for disposal and also helps in converting the waste into renewable energy and organic manure. It is not necessarily the most efficient or most economical means of generating energy.
- The Environment Ministry should also enlist the services of ragpickers under formal systems such as cooperatives. Although there are provisions for fines for littering and non-segregation, this should be a second-order priority for municipalities, which should focus principally on creating reliable systems to handle different waste streams.
- There are multiple schemes of people’s participation in the process of policy formulation, project development and implementation. On the basis of 74th Amendment of the Constitution, the elected representative of the people (in the case of Delhi, the Municipal Councilor) is entitled to represent people’s voice in the process of policy formulation and implementation. However it has been observed that often the elected Municipal Councilor after getting elected enjoys the power by overlook- ing its responsibilities. There should be a mechanism of making the elected representative accountable of its duties.
- If India could start with the separation of its ‘wet’ waste from the rest and produce good compost, that could transform cities and towns into clean and green havens filled with trees, gardens, lakes and rivers.
- It would also salvage millions of tonnes of recyclable plastic, precious metals and other materials.
- Social incentives, such as encouraging people to separate their dry and wet waste at the source and buying compost and organic manures rather than inorganic fertilizers for kitchen garden, can help.
- Garbology studies confirm that landfills swallow precious wealth every day. The time has come to recover it.
Several cities in India have successfully demonstrated that the challenges of solid waste management can be addressed through streamlining operational and contracting procedures, by involving the informal sector in waste management and making the community active partners in the process. It is necessary to document such initiatives to facilitate discussion and promote these ideas. Dissemination of innovative practices encourages city managers to adapt and evolve new ideas in the local context leading to more efficient and effective urban governance and management.