Contemporary Perspectives on Solid Waste Management


This article reviews the various literatures available on the subject of waste management under disposal and its relationship with people’s perceptions and policy. The literature available on the subject is varied and has been delimited to review only some important works in order to trace the core issues in the field. 

Till date, urbanization has coincided with, and has been accompanied by increased consumption and ecological degradation across the globe. Increasing population has caused severe pressure on basic infrastructure and amenities, creating large areas to be unserved by public services. The thrust of urban policies, however, has largely been characterized by a compartmentalized approach whereby each distinct issue or need is dealt with in isolation, rather than adopting an approach that integrates different needs. A look at any of the Indian urban centres brings into sharp focus the state of neglect of solid wastes, raising issues not only of environmental degradation and health, but also of economic and institutional concerns in urban development. This situation exists despite the existence of extensive infrastructure and large investments in managing this waste.  

Environmental sustainability is not just about ‘managing’ the environment but also about finding a development model that does not generate unmanageable waste, an impossibility when there is such inequality between the North and the South and within the North. Inequality generates unsustainable consumption levels-too low among the poor of the South and unsustainably high among the rich of the South and the North in general. An inclusive approach to ‘Sustainable Cities’ in the South addresses development and sustainability in a holistic manner at every level. 

Urban infrastructure, legal perspectives and management: Darshini Mahadevia (2001) in her paper discusses that the mainstream debate on urban development looks either at urban development or at sustainable cities and tends to miss out on people-centred approaches to development. The former addresses the issues of economic growth, whereas the latter that of environmental problems, which then leads to the exclusion of development concerns of the poor. The new perspective of Sustainable Cities in the South is an ‘inclusive approach’, which puts the vision of the poor and marginalized sectors at the centre and includes all the dimensions of development in a holistic and synergetic manner. The paper presents such a vision of sustainable cities in India and describes activities aimed at reaching this vision. It also covers infrastructure approaches, environmental management, legal initiatives, community efforts and an overall view of management of waste. The efforts are directed in such a way as to conceptualize, establish and build a sustainable city through different perspectives, all inclusive in nature. 

Policy and multiple approaches: Adamides, E., Mitropoulos, P., Giannikos, I., & Mitropoulos, I. (2009) discuss the management of solid waste at regional levels which has received considerable attention over the last years. Increased consumption levels are causing an exacerbation of the problem, whereas the sensitivity of the public over environmental issues makes its solution harder. Although the main difficulties in resolving the different occurrences of the problem belong to the realm of policy making, so far the employment of operational research and systems methods seem to adopt a purely technocratic stance, concentrating on the content and understating the solution process. In the different formulations of the problem as static optimization relating to the economics of the location of the treatment facilities and the methods and routes of waste transportation, the dynamics of the issue and the intervention activities are neglected, whereas cognitive and social perspectives of the solution process are objectified and over-rationalized. This paper aims at demonstrating how the solid waste management (SWM) problem and its solutions can be addressed in a more holistic way by adopting a multi-methodological point of view. Towards this end, we present the combined application of soft systems methodology, system dynamics and multi-objective optimization in an action research project for the development of an SWM system for a specific region in Greece. It considers the SWM system as a policy-making issue requiring a multi-dimensional  and methodological perspective for interventions on the same. 

Informal waste collection and recycling in communities: Burcea (2015) in his paper lays down a different approach to speak about the different sectors involved in waste collection and recycling. The local economy of a community is equally supported by the formal sector, but also by the informal sector. While the formal economic activities are carried out through modern, technical, industrialized means, within public or private organizations whose existence is officially recognized and benefiting from the protection of the authorities, the informal activities exist outside the official control and protection system. There is a dynamic connection between the actors in the formal sector and those in the informal sector, which is seen at the levels of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. This article analyzes the waste recycling informal activities carried out by persons or enterprises involved in the extraction of recyclable materials from generated waste and evaluate the informal waste sector perspectives and implications from three points of view: economic, social and environmental views. At first sight, the informal waste collection and recycling is neither efficient, nor viable, the social, economic and environmental benefits resulted from waste valorization possibilities are clearly superior in the informal waste sector compared with formal waste activities. 

Community waste management: Iyer (2016), in his well known literature available to understand waste management and efforts to involve local communities in the system of waste segregation talks about how the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), spread over 4,355sq. km is home to seven municipal corporations. All Municipal Corporations in India are mandated to look into solid waste management in their functional domains under the 74th Constitutional Amendment. At present, all the seven municipal corporations depend upon centralized means of managing waste which is dumped at assigned landfills post collection. Apart from the corporation, there are multiple players who play a crucial role in managing this waste. Much of this is managed by the informal sector and now emerging recyclers who are setting up processes for decentralized waste management. This paper explores the scale at which different institutions/communities have taken efforts to successfully manage their waste. Most people are unable to achieve 100% decentralized management due to lack of appropriate channels for managing rejects and sanitary waste. More importantly, it is imperative to understand the failure and limitations of the municipal corporation since they are financially dependent on the centre and state for their functioning. But despite all those constraints, it makes sense to gauge energy and material recovery potentials and correlate to municipal waste management. By means of different examples and a technology provider for bio-medical waste, we are able to make an impact towards creating greener, sustainable communities. 

Waste production, concepts and changing perspectives: Gutberlet (2016) highlights the unprecedented waste dilemma in terms of the quantity, diversity, and toxicity of materials produced and discarded every day and everywhere, which has resulted in an unparalleled environmental crisis. Waste is the epitomized result of major ongoing negative human impacts and the current economic paradigm based on unlimited growth. An increasing number of scientists now believe that humanity has driven the world into a new geological epoch. It is argued that the expansion of human populations and the unlimited extraction of the Earth’s resources are generating alarming environmental impacts. Production, consumption, and waste disposal are at the heart of these transforming forces that are changing the planet in countless, problematic ways. Zero waste requires transforming infrastructures and policies, but also education, training, and ongoing research. This essay considers the conditions needed in order to dramatically change  habits and bring about a culture of zero waste. Above all, more than technological solutions, it requires a society-wide shift in governance, values, norms, and behavior. In fact, some of the most innovative ideas and solutions for eliminating waste can be found, not in wealthy industrialized countries, but in the Global South. India’s and Brazil’s organized informal recycling sectors, for example, can become an inspiration to change the current unsustainable waste management methods and policies. These cases demonstrate how processes such as conscientization and community-based initiatives can be effective in practice. 

Growth, governance and local initiatives for solid waste: In Peri-Urban Interface of Indian Cities: Growth, Governance and Local Initiatives, Shaw (2005) discusses the the outward expansion of larger metros, gradual changes in land use and occupations which have transformed the rural hinterland into semi-urban or ‘peri-urban’ areas. Inhabitants of these ‘peri-urban’ regions are increasingly threatened by a deteriorating quality of life prompted by deforestation, water depletion and pollution as well as by the poor or almost non-existent mechanisms for sewage disposal. This article highlights the environmental dimensions associated with the spread of urban agglomerations by focusing on the problem of increased solid wastes in India’s peri-urban regions. It looks at two local level initiatives formed to create a sustainable solid waste management system. However, tasks such as solid waste management cannot be left to local level initiatives as community organisations lack sufficient resources or capacity to provide such a service in its entirety. Policy-makers need to give such areas more civic autonomy or provide, via the state government, a modicum of basic environmental services. 

Public, private and voluntary involvement in waste management: This paper, authored by Krithika Srinivasan (2006) explores equity, accountability and environmental concerns in solid waste management in Chennai. Through the study of the urban local body, a private agency and a civil society organization engaged in this activity, the paper highlights issues related to effectiveness and equity, role of the urban poor in this service, and the relevance of an effective policy framework. In the context of increasing private sector participation in public service provision, and global awareness related to the impact of urban footprints on the planet, the study brings out some interesting lessons on the nature of public-private partnerships in SWM, and the role of the state in guaranteeing social and ecological equity and accountability. It also points to the urgent need for a change in the way the state itself approaches solid waste management, stressing policy mandates that will enforce equitable and ecologically sustainable waste management practices across the country. The study is based on qualitative research methodology, and involved in-depth interactions and discussions with residents, agency officials and conservancy workers, detailed examinations of secondary literature on SWM systems, and intensive field observation of SWM processes in the three agencies in Chennai. 

Ayesha Mehrotra is Program Officer, Sustainability Initiatives at One Future Collective.

Featured image: The Logical Indian

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