What a waste!

More and more populations, leaving aside their traditional occupation of farming, started moving to urban areas after the industrialization brought money, luxury and quality of life in cities. However, modern day cities have been facing an issue of waste management. In this century of science and technology, the developing world is, majorly, still struggling to get the corners of the roads clean, where the wastes, mostly domestic, are accrued to make the unhealthiest neighborhood. These filthy, over-flowing waste collecting pots often contain many viruses, dangerous heavy metals and a house to stray-dogs. The rains in these countries worsen the situation as all these hazardous elements are carried to the main water bodies of the towns and contaminated, making it unsafe for the human use. The waste treatment can be, therefore, regarded as one of the most essential areas for the society to look after. Along with the government policies it needs proactive participation from people.

The Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is a phenomenon synonymous, majorly, with urban life. The citizens dwelling in urban areas consume lots of packaged products, from food to the products of daily usage and are generally richer to their counterparts, who live in the rural areas. The packaging, for these products, usually consists of plastics, metals, glass, papers, card boards and some polymerized compounds. In 1900 the urban population was 220 million, merely 13% of the total world population, who generated about 300,000 tons per day, in a period of a century, i.e. in the year 2000, these numbers have soared to 2.9 billion urban population counting to about 49% of the total population who generated about 3 million tons per day 1,2. If this waste is not treated, can prove to be very fatal to the life in general. Many countries in the world have foreseen this catastrophe and have made considerable change in their waste processing policies and strategies.

One of the major ways to treat the MSW is landfills. The landfills are nothing but the open yards where the MSW is dumped to degrade of its own. However, this was a much preferred solution initially when the population had not yet soared to 7 billion mark and the MSW generally consisted biodegradable substances. The world’s largest landfills, currently, receive about 10000 tons per day1 which is over their processing capacity. Moreover, with the industrialization and increased plastic use, hazardous metals and non-biodegradable plastic have made their way in MSW which are difficult to process at landfills. This is collectively leading to air, soil and water pollution. Nevertheless, a far easy solution, employed by many countries in the world to curb the amount of MSW generated, is to recycle and reuse. The talks of sustainability and green growth, over the past few decades, have made the people aware of the bigger picture and take proactive steps. European countries have been world leaders in the matter of recycling. Austria is numero-uno with 63%3 (and Germany second with 62% recycling) recycling. As the MSW is generally a locally generated waste the cities such as San-Francisco, CA, USA, is planning to tackle the issue locally. The city has strategized to reduce to zero-waste by 2020 through recycle and reuse. Biodegradable waste has always been one of the crucial source of energy when digested anaerobically to produce biogas. Sweden can easily be regarded as a world leader in this aspect as Sweden not only generates biogas from the MSW but also uses the same energy for district heating4.



*Photo credits: Deccan Chronicles

For a developing country such as India (who generated about 150 million tons per day in 20095), the problem is not with the lack of technical solutions but the key is to localize the solution, basing it on existing state-of-the-art technology. Furthermore, another big issue is of not having the authentic data about waste in India. The last credible survey was made by NEERI (National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute) about 8-9 years ago6. Indian cities have grown, and are still growing, with a stupendous rate and in-turn have increased MSW generated per capita. The lack of this information has been one of the critical factors in formulating a solution. The current announcements from the Indian government to take concrete steps in cleaning Ganges, can be regarded as the first step to a marathon walk. The similar problem exists in other south-eastern countries as well. Thus, the Indian government will have to build the new pathways for the rest to follow. Though a real-time data collection and analysis, with respect to quality of waste (which decides if it should be incinerated), amount of biodegradable and non-biodegradable wastes etc., will be essential to get a full proof solution for India. The change in approach has already started to take place and will, hopefully, lead to a cleaner pathways.

-Ranjit Desai

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of collaborative policy consultants.


  1. Hoornweg, D., Bhada-Tata, P. & Kennedy, C. Environment: Waste production must peak this century. Nature 502, 615–617 (2013).
  2. WHO | Urban population growth. at <http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/&gt;
  3. Britain outside recycling top ten | News | Materials Recycling World. at <http://www.mrw.co.uk/news/britain-outside-recycling-top-ten/8652105.article&gt;
  4. Energi, B. Our dream – a city free from fossil fuels Production of district heating , district cooling , electricity and biogas.
  5. India generates 150 million tonnes of waste per day – The Times of India. at <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/pollution/India-generates-150-million-tonnes-of-waste-per-day/articleshow/5028160.cms&gt;
  6. A Billion Reasons for Waste to Energy in India – Waste Management World. at <http://www.waste-management-world.com/articles/print/volume-14/issue-6/wmw-special/a-billion-reasons-for-waste-to-energy-in-india.html&gt;


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