The Social Dimensions of Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India

photo of a dump truck across buildings

In India, like in several other developing countries, the improper management of solid waste poses a serious problem (Patwa et al., 2020), as it affects the lives of thousands of people and presents many risks to the natural environment (Kumar and Agrawal 2020; Gupta et al., 2015). A large quantity of solid waste is generated (~9000 metric tonnes daily) in India. A considerable portion of this waste is collected, handled and sorted by the informal sector and processed using primitive methods. Unfortunately, the vast majority of solid waste is disposed of in open dumpsites and uncontrolled landfills (Sharma and Chandel 2021), rather than being properly segregated for reuse and recycling.

There is an urgent need for solid waste to be properly processed, for use as a source of materials for future production and renewable energy, and to minimize both the exploitation of raw materials and the deleterious effects on both the environment and human health (Pandey et al., 2018). In this context, public campaigns must emphasise residents’ obligation and responsibility for their solid waste as well as the significance of every citizen’s support and cooperation, hence forming a sense of a collective social goal in order to solving the solid waste problem. At present there is a pressing need to identify the best ways to manage solid waste, and address the lack of awareness that may perhaps be helpful to changing behaviours towards more environmental-friendlier and socially equitable management of solid waste (Kumar and Agrawal 2020). The valuable information-based motivation campaigns need to be enhanced with measures and proper actions that could enable resident more active participation. Therefore, the more effective implementation of solid waste management rules and regulations and policies for proper solid waste collection, treatment and recycling, more better educate consumers on the risks of solid waste contamination, restrict, and support the development of a proper, planned solid waste processing industry by funding incentive programs constructing recycling infrastructure could a long way to improving the recycling capacity and decreasing the amount of solid waste contaminating the environment and endangering public health (Pandey et al., 2018). Therefore, as India’s fast-growing economy, and the consequent mounting solid waste, has demanded the essential for a well-organized, more effective solid waste management system for guaranteeing an environmentally sound as well as cleaner sustainable future.

Gupta N., Yadav K. K., Kumar V. (2015). A review on current status of municipal solid waste management in India. Journal of Environmental Sciences. 37(1), 206-217.
Kumar A. and Agrawal A.  (2020). Recent trends in solid waste management status, challenges, and potential for the future Indian cities – A review. Current Research in Environmental Sustainability, 2, 100011.
Pandey R.U., Surjan A., Kapshe M. (2018). Exploring linkages between sustainable consumption and prevailing green practices in reuse and recycling of household waste: Case of Bhopal city in India. Journal of Cleaner Production. 173, 49-59.
Patwa A., Parde D., Dohare D., Vijay R., Kumar R. (2020). Solid waste characterization and treatment technologies in rural areas: An Indian and international review. Environmental Technology & Innovation, 20, 101066.
Sharma B.K. and Chandel M.K. (2021). Life cycle cost analysis of municipal solid waste management scenarios for Mumbai, India. Waste Management. 124, 293-302.

Written by Dr Abhishek Kumar Awasthi, School of Environment, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023, China

Abhishek Kumar Awasthi is Associate Research Scientist in the area of Waste Management at the School of the Environment, Nanjing University. Also, he is an interdisciplinary researcher and his research has a strong background in overall systems & policy research and social practices on sustainable waste management and related environmental issues. His research covers global perspective countries including India, China, Nigeria and Ghana. Mainly, his research focuses on enhancing community based scientific and social innovation solving waste management issues in developing country. He is also in editorial role of the leading interdisciplinary journal Waste Management & Research, Science Progress, Resource Environment Sustainability, SN Applied Sciences, and Guest Editor for Sustainability (MDPI) and Environmental Innovations and Technology (Elsevier). He is a Life member of The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), member of International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Young Professional Group (YPG), and working group on Communications & Social Issues of ISWA where group addresses public concerns, comprising public support of and public opposition to waste management policies, public consultation and participation, and communication with focus on basic human attitudes towards waste.

Grasp the nettle! Yes, but which one?!

air air pollution climate change dawn

Media coverage of climate change is ramping-up in the UK ahead of the COP26 conference in November, prompting our government to start announcing targets – in this case a pledge to cut GHG emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

Of course, the great thing about targets set two or three electoral cycles into the future is that the person(s) who announces them isn’t necessarily the person who has to live with the consequences of their implementation (or non-implementation). They will instead bask in the rosy glow of the announcement, content in the knowledge that they probably won’t need to make any difficult decisions that would risk their ‘glorious’ legacies.

Difficult decisions, however, will need to be made. For anyone with an interest in the natural world (which should be all of us, co-inhabitants on a single shared planet), climate change and the catastrophic degradation of the entire global environment are a cause for simultaneous depression and enragement. As a society we seem to be stuck in the ‘have our cake and eat it’ mode: no need to change our behaviours as we ferry our recycling to the bottle bank in our electric cars.

Is this sustainable? It seems unlikely to me, but that’s an opinion based on an imperfect understanding of the systems in play and the balances that need to be achieved. Targets are great – but there is little evidence that our government is capable of making meaningful change to ensure that they are delivered, let alone help society to transform itself and put it in a sustainable path.

The low-hanging fruits have been picked and consumed long ago, and progress in many areas has stalled over the past decade: whether this is on GHG reductions, recycling rates, air, water and soil quality. It seems highly likely that our patterns of behaviour and (particularly) consumption will therefore need to change for transitions to sustainability to happen. This could require a re-set of our entire economic and social structure.

How relevant are ‘sustainable’ lifestyles to those who rely on foodbanks for their nutrition, or those working zero hours contracts to support their families, or those in badly insulated, inefficient housing? I would argue that we can’t hope to address the climate crisis without also addressing wider socio-economic crises: systemic change is required at all levels.

It’s not a case of either-or; we really need to get a grip ‘on the whole’ thing at once. Electoral suicide for whichever party chooses to do it, but kicking the can down the road is no longer an option.

Written by Dr David Thompkins, Deputy Head of Strategy at CRES