Why Decentralised Municipal Solid Waste Management is key for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation

By Sahana Subramanian

Urban solid waste management is considered to be one of the most serious environmental problems confronting urban areas in developing countries (1) and India is no exception. Urban India generates about 42 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum. (2) According to UNDP projections, by 2030, 50% of the country’s population will be urban, and the amount of waste will increase substantially. (3) Rapid and unplanned urbanization in an increasingly capitalist and globalised world has resulted in an increase in consumerism and in the generation of waste. This along with the inadequate collection, management, infrastructure and governance of solid waste has caused a severe threat to the environment and its inhabitants.

These threats posed by unsustainable solid waste management (SWM) are exacerbated due to climate change. According to the Climate Risk Index 2020, India is ranked as the 5th most affected country by impacts of weather-related loss events in 2018. The CRI 2020 acts as a red flag for already existing vulnerability that may further increase in regions where extreme weather events will become more frequent or severe due to climate change. Therefore, the social and ecological sustainability challenges that India faces due to unsustainable SWM are multifold in the backdrop of the climate crisis. Additionally, poor SWM (landfilling, incineration, wastewater) is a source of greenhouse gas emissions that contributes to global warming. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, post-consumer waste contributes to 5% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005.(4) Hence, sustainable SWM is a required key force in climate mitigation, adaptation and for the creation of a more climate-resilient future.

It must be noted here that every conversation about climate change and sustainability cannot be divorced from a conversation about caste, class, race and religion, especially in India. This includes SWM. In every Indian city, it is more often than not women from lower caste and class groups who are engaged in the collection of waste. The intersection of their marginalised identities makes them an extremely vulnerable population. This along with their lack of occupational, work and social security makes them susceptible to a multitude of risks within the background of the climate crisis. These existing inequalities have been acknowledged to have only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although decentralised waste management does address some socio-economic issues, a vehement and conscious effort must be made to protect waste workers from the hazards of the occupation. These challenges will be specifically addressed in an upcoming article. This article explores decentralized waste management options as a sustainable alternative to the existing centralised waste management systems in urban India through an environmental lens.

Landfilling promotes distancing of waste. Distancing of waste refers to the situation where individuals who generate waste do not experience waste first hand beyond their garbage bins. Do we know what happens to the waste we generate beyond our bins?

Image by RitaE from Pixabay 

The decentralisation of a system involves the transfer of responsibilities and authority towards lower organisational levels, as opposed to a centralised system whereby decision-making authority rests in the hands of high organisational levels, such as the government. In India, The Nagarpalika Act of 1992 provides that there shall be ward committees for populations above 3 lakhs. Wards are the smallest governance unit of a city after Area Sabhas. The local self-governance body of a ward forms the ward committee. This decentralised form of governance guarantees residents the right to participate directly in decision making in urban areas. It accounts (theoretically) for reduced disparities in development, localised planning, democratic governance and equitable distribution of resources. Some of the functions of ward committees include afforestation, implementation of rainwater harvesting schemes, water supply management, maintenance of parks and open spaces. Another critical function is ensuring proper SWM at the ward level.

 Such a decentralised system with ward committees, or similar municipal bodies in other countries, would eliminate the problem of landfills. Landfills are ticking time bombs for disasters waiting to happen in the climate crisis-ridden world. Landfills are bad for the environment and the climate for several reasons. One, organic waste does not compost due to the absence of oxygen when the waste is compressed, compacted down and covered in landfills. Instead, an anaerobic decomposition takes place that releases methane, an extremely toxic greenhouse gas that is a large contributor to global warming. The largest source of GHG emissions from post-consumer waste in landfill is methane(5). Methane is a flammable gas and is a fire hazard if it is allowed to build up in concentration. Two, when waste is dumped in landfills, it breaks down and generates leachate, a highly toxic liquid that pollutes the groundwater, soil and waterways like lakes, rivers and streams. This has implications for communities who live near landfills as their water is no longer compatible for domestic use and if consumed, causes severe water-borne diseases. Additionally, the soil cannot be used for farming and grazing and becomes an environmental hazard for generations to come. Three, landfilling as the primary and popular method of waste management curbs sustainable recycling, reusing, reducing and refusing practices and instead, it promotes distancing of waste. Distancing of waste refers to the situation where individuals who generate waste do not experience waste first hand beyond their garbage bins(6). This distancing occurs both geographically and mentally(7). Individuals are increasingly unaware of the ecological and social impacts of the waste they generate which leads to overconsumption, fueled by the capitalist economy, and the generation of more waste that finds its way into landfills. Four, landfills attract vectors like mosquitoes, rats and flies, that can spread infectious diseases and cause public health hazards. In many countries with fragile public health systems, the brunt of these infectious diseases will take a toll on health care workers and providers. Five, landfills pose a threat to the local biodiversity. The pollution of waterways by the leachate results in an imbalance in the local ecosystems as birds, animals and reptiles, which are dependent on the waterways, no longer have clean water that is key for survival. Local flora and fauna are displaced from their natural habitats as the land and air space is occupied by the landfill. Further, animal health is compromised by the consumption of waste. The repercussions of this in the larger biosphere are enormous and lends itself to further intensification of the climate crisis.

Decentralisation also fosters community participation in decision-making at various stages of the SWM process. It provides communities with the opportunity to hold their locally elected representatives accountable for sustainable waste management. Participation from local citizens also ensures that SWM plans are made taking into account local geographies, demographics and the local economy which is key for sustainable development. Decentralised SWM would also increase communication and collaboration between various local level bodies for sustainable municipal waste management. Campaigns at the local level by local municipal bodies and citizen groups are effective in disseminating information to the public on pressing environmental issues that arise due to improper SWM such as climate change and pollution. This could encourage residents to segregate their waste, choose alternative products and consume wisely. Segregation of waste at source includes segregation of the biodegradable and non biodegradable materials followed by the aerobic and anaerobic composting of biodegradable waste at local composting facilities. It also includes local level dry waste collection centres and the segregation of dry waste for recycling, upcycling and downcycling of products.

However, decentralised waste management is an ideal solution that is challenged by the fast-growing population of Indian cities, inadequate staffing, lack of finances, improper technology to deal with the composition of Indian waste and the lack of incentives to segregate the waste coupled with the lack of infrastructure to do so. Not to mention a lack of recognition by central authorities. The Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 notified by the MOEF&CC have not pushed for decentralised management of waste but have encouraged centralised treatment which, as argued before, does more harm than good. On a positive note many NGOs, student and citizen groups have passionately advocated for the functioning of ward committees in Indian cities and have got the wheels rolling for decentralised SWM. If executed properly, decentralised SWM will help achieve 9 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals namely – Good Health and Wellbeing, Clean Water and Sanitation, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Multiple public health, safety and environmental co-benefits arise from effective waste management practices which concurrently reduce GHG emissions and improve the quality of life, promote public health, prevent water and soil contamination and conserve natural resources (8). It’s time we advocate for a decentralised method of SWM in Indian cities and hold our local governments accountable in creating a climate-resilient future.

ENDNOTES:

1. Zurbrugg, C., Drescher, S., Rytz, I., Sinha, A. H. M. M., & Enayetullah, I. (2005). Decentralised composting in Bangladesh, a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, 43, 281–292.

2. Gupta, N and Gupta, R. (2015). Solid waste management and sustainable cities in India: the case of Chandigarh. International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). 5 7 3 Vol 27(2): 573{588. DOI: 10.1177/0956247815581747 www.sagepublications.com

3. Id.

4. Bogner, J., M. Abdelrafie Ahmed, C. Diaz, A. Faaij, Q. Gao, S. Hashimoto, K. Mareckova, R. Pipatti, T. Zhang, Waste Management, In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

5. Id.

6. Clapp, Jennifer. (2002). The Distancing of Waste: Overconsumption in a Global Economy. Confronting Consumption. The MIT Press. pp:155-176.

7. Id.

8. Supra 4.

Other Sources: Climate Change and Municipal Solid Waste Fact Sheet | Pay-As-You-Throw. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://archive.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/tools/payt/web/html/factfin.html

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

SAHANA SUBRAMANIAN

If you wish to get in touch with the author of the article, you can email her at 

[email protected]edu.in

Sahana works as a Research Assistant at the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University. She is interested in urban ecology, sustainability and environmental justice. She has a Bachelors degree from APU in Economics and a minor in Development and Sustainability. She also works as an illustrator focusing on botanical illustrations.

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2 thoughts on “Why Decentralised Municipal Solid Waste Management is key for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation”

  1. Pawan Kumar Kaushal

    I read your article with great interest and of firm opinion that it is optimum solution of many urban cleanliness issues of the country
    In each of municipal parks and play areas, the centralized forests need to be developed coupled with solid waste treatment arrangement of varying capacities installed
    The solid waste will generate methane gas (anaerobic deformation) which can be supplied to restaurants, hotels and households. The technical knowhow and equipment’s of all capacities for SWM are domestically available. These plants shall be installed in corner of public park in a developed decentralized mini forest. The little bit foul smell of methane shall be absorbed by trees
    Collection of segregated wet waste from house to house in the neighborhood shall be made by waste collecting personnel on con tract basis
    The arrangement will result in multiple benefits as under

    1 Minimize the requirement of space for dumping solid waste
    2 Minimize hazards resulting in slippage of solid waste hills during rains, cyclones, heavy winds etc
    3 Minimize cost of transportation and resulting vehicle pollutions and traffic n roads
    4 Create wealth for civic bodies in the form of sale of cooking gas and organic compost
    5 Help create decentralized oxygen supply zones in the form of mini forests and reduce help contain pollution
    6 Help lower the neighborhood temperature and provide relief from rising hot climate
    7 Create employment in the form of agencies dealing in planning, managing, design, manufacturing, installation and maintenance of SWM plants in addition to scores of waste collectors from house to house
    8 Create employment for creation and maintenance of decentralized mini forests

    I am a retired senior PSU employee having passion to contribute to the service of society
    Currently I am based at Ahmedabad. But I can operate from Gurgaon and Ludhiana as well

    Please see if we can join hands to make this vision come true

    Regards
    9717697099

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