Giving Worth To The Worthless

-By Sriroop Chaudhuri and Mimi Roy, Assistant Professors, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities

While the world rips apart on raging debates over climate change and whether it is a right choice to ratify treaties rooted in hard science, our waste just keeps piling up silently and stealthily underneath to affect the flow of matter, energy, and other resources on every level of sustainable human development. And more so for the developing than the developed economies and the former is still rather reluctant to acknowledge the need of the hour and make necessary policy reforms. The climate, of course, claims the hot seat in the environmental arena these days. But more tangibly, so should have been issues of wastes. Climatic anomalies have only just begun to be felt. But as long as human civilisation aspires to backtrack itself, wastes and associated health hazards have always been there in The Father’s hallowed memory. Of course, the dimensions have changed, new diseases have entered the scene, new definitions appear in books, bilateral treaties been refreshed. But all have only brought along newer challenges spiked with starker realities.

Interestingly, a bulk of these climate change studies being conducted around the world, largely ascribed climatic anomalies to evasive, human expansion patterns and branded it as anthropogenic climate change. Meaning: in a roundabout way, we have already started realising adverse impacts of waste generation and lack of waste management on ambient weather parameters, and more importantly, how this waste-climate nexus is going to blow things out of proportion if we do not act strategically to straighten things up now. For example, the potential for devising sustainable waste and resource management to climate mitigation, promises to yield better results than devising means to cutting down on methane emission from anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes in landfills (mainly municipal solid waste littered on open ground) and eliminating black carbon resulting from unregulated composting. Results suggest that about 10-15 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission could potentially be checked by developing sustainable landfill mitigation/diversion techniques, using solid wastes sources for source material for energy generation. For example, Germany attributed about a quarter of its total savings in GHG emissions between 1990 and 2006 to sustainable solid waste management. Globally, incorporating waste prevention (cutting off waste generation upstream) methods into environmental protection/conservation schemes could further increase this contribution to 15-20 per cent.

Both methane and black carbon (BC) are short-lived climatic pollutants (SLCP) with the former sourced primarily to landfills. For BC, the source is a mixture of burning open biomes (forests) and urban and agricultural wastes, accounting for about 40 percent, while the remainder is made up of diverse energy sources – power plants, industry, transport, and residential fuel use, etc. Needless to say, end products of all these are essentially waste. The lifespan of methane and BC range in days to little over a decade at most. In terms of carbon dioxide equivalent, the global warming potential (GWP) for methane and BC over a 20-year period is about 86 and 1200-3200, respectively, which shows the enormous effect of BC on the ambient climate patterns. It might be of some interest to note at this point that unregulated slash-burning and concomitant BC, in Haryana and Punjab, was one of the leading causes of the recent air pollution hazard in Delhi. Though clouds of dust have settled for now in Delhi and the outskirts, who knows if this holds in store themes of major climatic shift for future.

Presently the world going through a paradigm shift: rather than managing the waste after it has generated to focusing upstream and cutting it off or at least minimising it right at the source. For example, designing methods to prevent waste generation, reducing the quantities/uses of hazardous substances, minimising and reusing, and, where residuals unavoidably have to occur, keeping them concentrated and isolated to preserve their intrinsic value for recycling and recovery. Also, prevent them from contaminating other waste that still has economic value for recovery. The thrust’s been shifting increasingly from taking the fundamental thinking away from ‘waste disposal’ and lay it on ‘waste management’ and moreover, turning the idea of ‘waste’ to ‘resources’ as part of the ‘circular economy’. In a combined note, people have started labelling the idea as ‘waste and resource management’. Though in the developing economies this might still only be just a wishful thinking, the need for making conscious efforts to lessening the differences –between waste and resource- is ever more being acknowledged globally.

Expounding on the economic divide, the enervating fact is that approaches made towards waste management have split the world into the developed and developing yet again, with the former becoming increasingly inclined towards adopting a more holistic approach to monitoring, assessing, and managing waste within an Integrated Sustainable Waste Management (ISWM) framework. The framework includes multidimensional aspects of waste stressing upon the key physical elements (waste collection), waste treatment/disposal, and 3Rs (resource value: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle). The beauty of it lie in the realisation that, alongside the tangible aspects, as mentioned above, it also ponders upon more abstract caveats (governance) of waste management: stakeholder inclusivity (service user and service provider issues), financial sustainability (system to be cost-effective and sustainable), and proactive reform policies (both national and local). The latter, of course, includes the strategic aspects of the waste management machinery, linking the political, health, institutional, social, economic, environmental and the technical facets.

The ISWM approach appears commendable – the result of long-drawn research and practice over the years in the wealthier economies. But the question is: how adaptable is this to the developing world? How about India? Is our government aware of such a framework in the first place? A major hindrance, of course, is the lack of willingness to deliberate upon the strategic aspects of waste management. For example, how many times, in general, do issues of waste disposal/recovery feature up in our electoral rallies? This is the season of legislative polls in Punjab, Goa, and UP. Did the political leaders ever mention waste management in any of their campaigns? Especially in UP where an appalling lack of solid waste management and social awareness are few blazing scars on public health and sustainable human development?

It is a red hooter, of course, but reality always is. A country where inter-sectorial frictions are but norms rather than exceptions, how can we start pondering on working out such a diversified approach where multiple governmental sectors will comply, overlap, and complement each other to manage the waste? How can we rise above sectorial differences to setting due worth to the worthless? The fastest growing economy of the world is unfortunately also among the largest producers of the worthless. But something has to be done for sure and done with definition, discretion and direction. As we step out of the global assessment period of Millennium Development Goals (MDG: 1990-2015), and enter the era of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG: 2015-2030), the WHO-UNICEF’s joint committee strongly emphasises on the adverse impacts of ‘unsound’ waste management on at least 9 of the 17 SDGs: poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), environment (SDG 6), inequality (SDG 10), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), life below water (SDG 14), life on land (SDG 15).

The need has become all the more compelling for India. In a recent update, the global Waste Atlas locates 3 of the 50 largest dumpsites of the world in India, including regions closer to the national capital. Moreover, regarding generation of municipal solid waste (MSW), India holds the 3rd position globally, way above other South Asian nations. As per the global Waste Atlas database, about 85 per cent of waste disposal in India is branded as ‘unsound’ while waste collection coverage is currently averaging around a measly 50 percent of the total waste load generated with no known annual waste recycling. 

(The article was originally published in the Millennium Post)

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