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Sunita Narain: Waste not, want not

Waste problem is a problem of finding solutions - approaches and technologies - that can match our pockets and our regulatory and governance abilities

Sunita Narain 

Sunita Narain

India has a huge waste problem - from untreated sewage that is defiling rivers and waterbodies to growing quantities of chemical waste that is seeping into the ground or polluting the air, to solid waste that is fast piling up in our cities. The problem of waste is not a problem of management alone. It is a problem of finding solutions - approaches and technologies - that can match our pockets and our regulatory and governance abilities.

Take the issue of sewage. The current approach requires human excreta to be flushed down water closet-type toilets and uses water both as a carrier to convey waste and as the final discharge point. This is both capital- and resource-intensive. It works where countries have the means (or had the means) to build huge infrastructure to supply water and to take back the waste that this supply generated.

This approach works if there is money to be paid for continuous maintenance and for upgrading technologies to manage new pollutants - from biological waste to chemical waste, and then smaller and smaller toxins that need to be treated before disposal. But it does not work where there is huge demand on the funds available for ensuring supply of essential services to large numbers of un-served people.

In this situation, there is a need to reinvent not just the technology, but the paradigm that keeps societies behind the pollution curve at all times.

Similarly, how will Indian cities manage the growing volumes of solid waste? It is clear that with each coming year, while the quantum of waste that is being generated is increasing, our capacity to collect, transport, dispose and reuse garbage is going down. As a result, cities are drowning in piles of refuse. This, in turn, is adding to public health challenges. It is for this reason the country needs to find approaches and models of waste management that are affordable and sustainable.

An interesting approach is coming from Kerala. Because of its high population density, high rates of literacy and growing environmental awareness the state has the right conditions for change. In the current situation, people are saying - rightly - that they do not want the waste of someone else in their backyard. This not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is creating challenges for waste management.

The work in Kerala is to look for alternative models of waste management, which require people to segregate waste at the household level and as far as possible manage it locally. They teach us that unless we can learn the art and science of segregation of waste - at source - waste management strategies will be expensive and indeed futile. This is also the lesson from other parts of the country, where waste-to-energy plants are failing because of the lack of segregation. It is also clear that if segregation is not done, then the waste-to-energy plant will require stringent standards for pollution control - so much so, that this makes the plant financially unviable. In this situation, segregation at source becomes an imperative for successful solid waste management strategies.

The model of waste management, which incentivises segregation at source and then looks at affordable and appropriate technologies for compost and reuse, is the only way ahead for India. We need to look at waste as a resource - not to throw away in landfill sites, but to use to recycle and reuse.

This also means that the role of the informal sector is crucial in the business of waste management. India has a rich tradition of recycling. It also has a vibrant (yet hidden and unrecognised) informal recycling industry. The objective has to be to optimise on the strengths of this industry and not to replace it. The answer, as the Kerala waste management model shows, is to turn the garbage into wealth and not to waste.

But to get this model of affordable and so sustainable waste management right, we need to understand the key obstacles that hold us back. One, to put it bluntly, these are not the top priorities of research and innovation in the country. It is part of India's legacy that science has always been fascinated by the big challenges - the masculine agenda is about space or genetics. It is not about reinventing the flush toilet so that it can be affordable to many and at the same time recycle and reuse human excreta to turn waste to resource.

Two, scientific research is not embedded sufficiently within the political imperative that demands answers to meet the needs of the poor. The science of such everyday challenges has to be situated in the reality of countries that are both poor but becoming rich and so affluent and so wasteful. It requires both an ability to find solutions that can meet the needs of all and also to find ways of making sure that we don't first pollute and then have to clean up.

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment

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First Published: Sun, November 08 2015. 21:48 IST