India might double its solid waste generation by 2050 surpassing every country

Estimates suggests that 80% of waste collected in India lands up in landfills[i]– a fast growing menace and an unbecoming backdrop of our urban sprawls. A United Nations Environment Program study that links waste with climate change has estimated that improper waste disposal contributes upto 3-5% of the global anthropogenic green-house gas emissions[ii].

If waste is a resource, it is clear that a majority of it is getting wasted, literally. It is projected that by 2050, India will double its solid waste generation, surpassing every country in the world[iii]. What is preventing us from harnessing this resource? We believe it is poor waste segregation at source.

When waste is mixed at the point of disposal, it precludes recycling for several reasons, most important being the capital and energy intensive nature of secondary segregation. Also, waste if not segregated at source, gets contaminated. For example, paper mixed with kitchen waste is dirty, reducing its attractiveness for recyclers.

We see piles of mixed waste around us all the time- roadside piles and overflowing dustbins. Closer home, our kachre kaa dabba presents a similar sight. A single dustbin in the kitchen contains all types of waste- the recyclable, the compostable, that which could be potentially carcinogenic, and maybe much more.

Why are we finding it so hard to segregate waste? Are the usual culprits- lack of awareness, illiteracy and limited means- to blame? Perhaps not, as the problem seems to cut across socio-economic status and literacy levels. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, and increasing per-capita income are actually compounding the problem.

Rich homes discard mixed waste as much as poor homes do. And because they generate more waste per person, they contribute more, and not less, to the problem. School and college campuses, our seats of learning, are just as much to blame. Worryingly, waste is no longer just an urban problem. Rural areas are fast catching up as heaps of litter containing the notorious multi-layer sachets are becoming ubiquitous in villages too.

The process of waste segregation at the macro-level is not a singular process. It involves individuals, families, civic society, the non-government and government agencies. It involves technology and infrastructure. At the micro psychological level, it involves attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. One can see waste management as a combination of socio-structural features and psychological nuances.

In this article we posit that perhaps because most persons are unable to make the connection between mixed waste disposal and its impact on health, they are just not motivated enough to make the effort to segregate it. Lack of knowledge about which category a particular waste belongs to (wet, dry, plastic, paper, electronic etc.) prevents consumers from separating it before disposal. And just as importantly, our fractured urban infrastructure discourages responsible waste disposal behavior.

COVID has amply demonstrated that when people understand risk to their health and life, then even sceptics observe necessary precautions. The inability to appreciate how solid waste disposal impacts our health and the environment is an important factor contributing to individual inaction. So far, garbage dumps are predominantly an eye sore, or a source of bad odor. We are unable to make the connection that water flowing out of a waste dump is polluted; that it is seeping into the ground and mixing with water used for drinking. We don’t understand that the same water may be used for irrigating our farms and crops. It is the conduit for pollutants, even carcinogens, to enter our food chain. We cannot comprehend that the cow feeding off road-side garbage may be the one supplying milk for our children.

This literacy gap demands urgent attention.

While consumer awareness and motivation is desirable, it has to be complemented with other measures. Choice architecture, for example, could come in handy. Through non-coercive “nudges”, which involve subtle changes in surroundings, we can obtain desired behavioral shifts. Standard color coding may induce laypersons to follow waste segregation sub-consciously. The act of segregating waste can be reduced to a simple automatic action, instead of a complex cognitively-taxing process. Lessons may be drawn from the BEE’s energy efficiency star ratings, or the green/red dot used for indicating vegetarian and non-vegetarian food content.

Thus, products and packaging need to be labelled in an intuitive manner so that consumers clearly understand how to segregate and dispose them.  

However, perhaps the most vital missing link is our fractured waste management infrastructure, which dissuades people from disposing-off waste responsibly. Often public places are not equipped with the necessary array of colored bins required for collecting segregated waste. Over and above that, painstakingly segregated waste is often casually dumped into a single compartment of the waste collection vehicle. The implicit message being that you may try and segregate waste at source, but it will eventually be mixed and transported to the treatment (read disposal) site.

The authorities will have to accept this responsibility. But in the meanwhile, we urge communities to segregate waste nevertheless and persist with responsible waste disposal behavior. Rome was not built in a day. Consumers have been known to successfully drive demand for better services. Make waste segregation at source a people’s movement. Responsible community behavior may just be the push that authorities (read municipalities) are waiting for.

Credits: Saloni Goel (Specialist Climate Change with NITI Aayog), Ritu Tripathi (Assistant Professor, Organisational Behaviour at IIM Bangalore)

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