A rag-picker walks though garbage at the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai, India.  (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Take Out Your Trash, But Do It Right!

Mumbai and Delhi, India’s two largest cities, generate nearly 10,000 tonnes of garbage each, every day. That’s equivalent to dumping roughly 2,500 average-sized African bull elephants at landfills daily.

More than 3.5 crore people contribute to the waste in the two metropolises. The problem isn’t that, though. It’s the disposal that’s the primary concern. Environmentalists and town planners say that such a level of unplanned waste management is not sustainable. Yet, it can be fixed through simple solutions like segregation and composting.

Municipal corporations in Delhi and Mumbai spend a large amount of funds simply to transport waste to dumping grounds, said Rishi Aggarwal, an environmentalist and town planner. “That number needs to be flipped in order to set up composting and bio-methanation facilities. And that’s it. Bingo! All your waste starts disappearing and becomes a resource.”

Wet waste refers to organic matter, usually leftover food, while dry waste is recyclable and comprises materials like plastic, glass, and wood. To enforce better management, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation earlier this year said it would stop collecting wet waste from October 2. The birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is observed as ‘Swachhta Divas’ or cleanliness day.

The deadline has been deferred, a person in the BMC administration told BloombergQuint.

Aggarwal said stopping waste collection is not the right way to go about it. “I’m extremely disappointed with what the municipal corporation is doing now,” he said. “Essentially, what the law states, and it has been consistent since 2000, that you will not collect mixed waste. It does not state that you will not collect wet waste. You’re supposed to collect all waste that is being generated.”

This is not the first time that Mumbai’s managers attempted to enforce waste segregation at source. In 2002, the BMC made it mandatory for societies to segregate waste into wet and dry. Residents were asked to separate it into two demarcated dustbins to be collected by the BMC’s waste disposal teams. The effort failed.

Most people tend to put one polythene bag in the dustbin, with wet and dry waste together, said Aggarwal. The result is that there is no effective segregation, and it is all taken to landfills collectively, where rag-pickers sort through it to find recyclable material.

How Composting Works

Composting near the source of the waste is an effective solution. While large societies are not yet mandated to have such facilities, a few are already doing it in Gurugram. Among them is the National Media Centre Co-operative Housing Society.

“We were challenged by a lot of waste that was generated—a lot of horticulture waste. We have a green expanse and always struggled to manage it,” said Harsaran Bir Kaur Pandey, a resident at the society, and also a representative of the United Nations’ health and risk department. “We collectively thought about how to turn it into a resource. And this is exactly what we’re doing now.”

The society created composting pits. Food waste and other organic matter is collected from residents and dumped on a layer of dry leaves. It’s covered under soil to avoid the odour of rotting waste. The mixture turns into compost in about 45 days.

An instance of composting pits. The pits pictured above have been created by residents of a society in Gurugram. (Photographer: Aayush Ailawadi/BloombergQuint)
An instance of composting pits. The pits pictured above have been created by residents of a society in Gurugram. (Photographer: Aayush Ailawadi/BloombergQuint)

“Decentralised management of waste, closer to housing societies is the key to ensure it’s done in a more efficient manner,” said Suneel Pandey, director-environment and waste management department at the Energy and Resources Institute. “This way, less waste reaches the disposal sites, and there is less damage to the environment.”

There have been instances where in smaller jurisdictions, a collective effort to segregate waste at source has borne positive results within three months, said Aggarwal. There is no reason why this cannot be put in place in larger cities like Mumbai and Delhi.

With urban population rising exponentially, and infrastructure bearing the brunt, it will be in the best interest of people to start taking more care. Nearly half the problem of waste management is solved with efficient segregation at the source, Aggarwal said.