The Weekend Read: Fixing India’s broken waste management system

In conversation with Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan

The Weekend Read: Fixing India’s broken waste management system

Welcome to this weekend’s edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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A boy living at a train station collecting plastics bottles and other recycleable items - Image credit: Flickr/MM

India’s waste story is one of big environmental and social failures. While small success stories exist across the country, Indian cities produce around 55 million metric tonnes of solid waste annually, a figure set to nearly triple by 2030. Only 25 percent of the waste produced is recycled or turned into energy, with the rest ending up in landfills or burned in the open.

Over the past decade, India has been investing in waste to energy technologies as a way to tackle this chronic, growing problem - but results are still lacking.

Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, believes that the government is neglecting a key part of the equation - the workers that keep the system afloat by manually collecting and segregating waste. Focussing on their wellbeing and harnessing their potential could change the system for the better, she tells me. And now, Chintan has a pilot to prove that.

Lights On: We know that Indian cities, and Delhi in particular, are staring at a waste crisis. Technologies currently in place cannot keep up with the amount of rubbish the city produces every day, and much of it ends up in landfills. What do you think Delhi is getting wrong here?

Bharati Chaturvedi: We need better recognition of the informal sector, the labourers that pick up our waste door to door and segregate it. And we want space on the city’s master plan. Typically, whether it's picked up from the doorstep or from collection points, waste ends up in the landfill.

There are about 40,000 waste pickers in Delhi alone [although other estimates suggest this figure may be as high as 200,000], and they pick out value items from domestic waste, which they will sell. These are people who pick up our waste for free. And by doing so they save greenhouse gases, they save huge labor costs for the government, for the municipality, because they are not employed by the government.

The new facility set up by Chintan in Delhi - Image credit: Chintan

But because this is such an imperfect system, we find that a huge amount of dry waste still ends up in the landfill, because it's all mixed up [at the point of collection]. This means it gets contaminated so you can't even recycle it. Wet waste, which is about 50 percent of the total, starts rotting and emitting methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. But more importantly, it catches fire. So you end up with these endless landfill fires in which little plastic items also get burned. This in turn generates an enormous amount of air and water pollution.

So you have all this recyclable waste, and this compostable waste, but because of a bad system, you [mix them together] and basically contribute to pollution.

Are there any examples of alternative solutions that are working for Indian cities?

Kerala’s example is pretty impressive. They've put up small [recycling] plants everywhere, and they have decentralised [plastic waste management]. Of course, they can’t recycle every type of plastic, but they can recycle some. And I think we need to also invest money in the informal sector and recycling enterprises.

So what do you think should be done to help informal workers and recognise their role in the broad waste management system?

First, they need social security. And I'll tell you what's the biggest irony here: A lot of them don't get access to bank accounts, because they don't have proper houses in Delhi. So banks will just reject them because they say ‘what kind of address is this? You're just living under a drain.’ But if without that bank account, how do you receive those social security provisions? So this is a big concern: waste pickers need housing.

But social security alone doesn't create conditions of livelihood. I think we need to give them other provisions, the biggest one is access to waste. What we've seen after the pandemic is that some localities across the country won't let the workers come back to the colonies where they used to collect waste. During the lockdown, they didn’t want them to enter their colonies, but now that they are back residents decided to rely on trucks sent by the municipality, which they don't have to pay for. A lot of people just don't want these workers back because they have this inherent, anti-poor bias.

Tell me about your pilot project in Delhi, which addresses both the waste crisis and the workers’ wellbeing.

The project is a material recovery facility, which we're doing in partnership with the Coca Cola India Foundation and with the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. It's a semi automated facility, where we are able to handle much more waste than we've ever handled before, eight tonnes a day.

What we are trying to do is “hyper segregate” because we can have 12 different kinds of plastics, and what we're very interested in is new low value waste. Tetra packs, packets of chips, all that plastic that currently doesn’t get recycled, and that's the kind of thing that you don't want in the landfill at all. We think there is a market for that, and we are showing how to do that. We're going to ask waste pickers to collect these materials, they can either bring it to us, or if they have other ways they can also use other facilities.

Everyone talks about remediation for landfills, and things like that. But this model does something completely different, it actually prevents [a greater amount of] waste from ending up in the landfill, so you don’t have to remediate the land. We are not asking for more space to store waste - if you [build more of] these kinds of places, landfills wouldn’t have to be the nightmares they currently are.

Your pitch to the government is clear, but could your project also help address people’s negative perceptions about waste management and informal workers?

First, we also tried to make our facility a place where kids can come [while their parents work], and residents can visit. The idea is that here you get a very good sense of what is possible, you can learn about waste [segregation], and down the line we are hoping to do some composting. [We want people to] understand how you can get pretty much close to a zero waste system.

This project is going to be a real life educational experience. We think that if more people see this, if nothing else they will understand why they should segregate, which is very important. And we'll also use it to convince them about why they need to treat the waste pickers in their locality better. And I think all those things are never appreciated, but they're crucial because when people see a system that works, they develop confidence in their own role in its success.

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