Earth Up! | Urban Waste Management: The Question of HOW

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Earth Up! is a monthly column by Ayesha Mehrotra that intends to cover varied issues and solutions with respect to environmental sustainability in India.

To 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 unserved by public services. The municipal authorities are unable to deliver various sectoral services for want of funds, manpower, technology or efficiency in systems. 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. 

Practices for collecting, processing, and disposing of municipal solid waste vary widely across countries, generally in accord with the nature of the waste stream and key environmental and economic features. The least efficient practices tend to be found in developing countries, creating serious threats to local environmental quality and public health. Although considerable evidence indicates that the generation and management of waste is sensitive to income and price variables, natural incentives to over- use common property and the presence of intergenerational externalities both suggest that private economic behavior will not yield socially optimal outcomes in this area. Community intervention may be needed to promote the social good, with evidence accumulating in support of arrangements involving the participation of private firms. With rising mounds of waste generation in urban areas, building the right processes to tackle the issue is of immense urgency. Knowing what to do doesn’t amount to doing. The problem is not what, when and where, but HOW do we address the issue of waste management in urban spaces. The question comes beyond waste management, where we need to think of social, ecological and economical aspects to understand where the real issue lies. Production, consumption and discarding are also a part of the issue, where the life cycle of a product/commodity must be included in the issue of waste. The different models of waste management systems coming into place need further delving into, where planning, implementation and execution are to be re-identified for a better solution. The question of waste management in urban areas also brings in the organization and appropriation of waste and how do we bring in certain values and entities to understand the problem. Waste management is a glaring problem, where we need to understand the intensity and scale at which it is being associated with urban spaces.

Possible Solutions

Reallocation of budget for implementation of strengthening segregation and recycling processes at the local ward levels would ensure a better network which can be created between the community and state action, and also help in bringing about a change that can hold out successful implementation. 

A better elaboration of the responsibilities of the key stakeholders within the policy framework along with the process execution would help in improving the regulation of the waste management system existing. This would mean that both the policy and executers of this system would need to re-examine the definitions of waste along with ensuring minimal landfill impact, and utility in terms of waste. 

Community intervention may be needed to promote the social good, with evidence accumulating in support of arrangements involving the participation of private firms to help contract management processes in order to increase efficiency. A system where there is co-operation between the parties involved, and the outcomes of the policy are seen transparently and effectively. 

Providing useful information and tools to implement waste reduction as a community would help reduce landfill contribution of the waste generated. To lay out the benefits proved socially, economically and environmentally by utilizing better alternatives to disposable packaging and other items. 

The cycle of waste generation and disposal is a disastrous one in the current scenario. From segregation at source to consumption patterns and ill-planned dumping, the question now is to understand what are these drivers for unsuccessful implementation of urban waste management. We need to carefully examine how the regulatory bodies are responsible for this function within the concept of waste (modalities of governance), what is the economic ideology of the state and the rationale for understanding waste disposal, the kind of influence of politics and political economy on the system, and how do administrative arrangements play a role in explaining the constant friction of urban waste with city limits. Here, the question of value of waste also comes into play, how do we define waste and what is unusable or discard-worthy? What to do with it isn’t the problem, but how do we go about it is also important to understand. It is vital to know the overlapping relevance of economic, ecological, social and political systems that the city is meshed into. Also, to establish how each community interacts with the agency can help in explaining the situation of that particular area in terms of governance and management of resources. Expanding into the complexities of the situation, we need to understand how each part of this system is interlinked and how each needs to be addressed individually as well as collectively. This would include consumption, civic and governmental responsibilities; the idea of how waste management is a state issue; and how the political discourses (waste mafia?) of a city influences the emergence of various processes which then affect the environmental and ecological health of the society. It is extremely important to acknowledge that the issue is beyond waste management and how we must be inclusive of these mechanisms to come up with a sustainable solution for this burgeoning problem. 

Ayesha Mehrotra is a Volunteer at One Future Collective.
Featured image source: YSW