Toxic Cities: Do We Even Wonder Where Our Garbage Goes?
Living in our cities, do we even wonder about where all the garbage we generate goes, and how it affects our living environment? We generate 62 million tonnes of solid waste in our cities every year. By the year 2030, this is expected to reach 165 million tonnes.
Most of this garbage is ferried to what are euphemistically called landfills, but are in fact, mere dumping grounds. In India, we have the Ghazipur landfill, on the outskirts of Delhi, which is perhaps a strange claim to fame for the region, the largest landfill ever. It was originally meant to reach a height of 20 meters. It crossed that limit way back in 2002 but the city continues to dump its garbage here. The result, a landfill so high that it needs aircraft warning lights. This hill of garbage has seen landslides already, people have lost their lives in these landslides.
In Mumbai, the Deonar dumping grounds, the oldest and largest dumping ground in Asia, periodically catches fire. The fire in 2016 took over a week to douse out and the smoke was visible in NASA satellite images. Residents all around Central Mumbai were exposed to the heavy smoke pollution for over a week, schools around the area remained shut for days. The dumping ground caught fire again in March 2018 needing eight fire engines and seven water tankers to be doused.
The first and foremost gap is collection inefficiencies in most cities along with the inability to segregate waste preferably at the source to generation. – Dr Suneel Pandey.
Somehow, as citizens, we aren’t taking the real and present danger of dumping grounds and waste disposal seriously. Says Dr. Suneel Pandey, Senior Fellow & Director – Centre for Waste Management, TERI, “It is a huge area of concern due to environmental pollution caused by waste mismanagement e.g. pollution of air, water (including rivers due to untreated sewage discharge) and land and no issue of marine litter in more recent times. The first and foremost gap is collection inefficiencies in most cities along with the inability to segregate waste preferably at the source to generation.”
An insidious way in which the landfill poisons the environment around is by the leaching of toxins. Leachate is produced when rainwater passes through the landfills, absorbs the toxic chemicals and passes into the ground and the groundwater. Ideally, landfills need to have impermeable liners beneath them to ensure that the leachate does not flow into the groundwater but this is rarely adhered to.
Says Dharmesh Shah, Plastic Policy Advisor with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), “We have no landfills in India. What we refer to as landfills are open uncontrolled dumps that offer no protection against groundwater contamination. A Scientific landfill is a hole in the ground layered with clay, concrete and impermeable plastic liner to prevent leachate from contaminating the groundwater. The waste dumps cities like Delhi and Mumbai rely on are illegal and need to be shut down and then de-contaminated. Having said that, leachate is a highly corrosive substance that is known to breach protective barriers of scientific landfills as well. The trick is to keep the one thing that causes leachate out of the landfills – organic waste. This is also why SWM Rules 2016 prohibit disposal of organic/food waste into landfills. So to address the issue of leachate, we just need to follow the law.”
For those living next to these landfills, the health risks are immense. Apart from the sheer smell that makes living around it unbearable, there is the susceptibility to respiratory and stomach ailments as well as tuberculosis that leads to loss of productivity and increased medical expenses. In the case of those living next to landfills, there is the added financial pressure of not being able to afford to move away even if they wish to. For some, they rely on the dumping grounds as a source of income. They are those who sort through the waste to sell what is salvageable or recyclable. These waste-pickers are at the most risk of ailments caused by the gases released by the waste.
Apart from leachate, microorganisms feeding on this trash produce gas which is a combination of carbon dioxide and methane if the landfill is uncompacted and exposed. This is highly combustible and leads to the landfills catching fire, which can often take days to extinguish.
We have no landfills in India. What we refer to as landfills are open uncontrolled dumps that offer no protection against groundwater contamination. – Dharmesh Shah
Says Dr. Pandey, “Improperly disposed waste attracts all kind of rodents, flies, cattle, and dogs, etc which are disease carriers. Direct exposure also is health hazard uncontrolled emission of methane at waste disposal site is a source of methane, a GHG. When the waste is burned it not only causes local air pollution but is also a source of black carbon (also a GHG).”
Says Bharati Chaturvedi, founder, Chintan.org, “Waste and air pollution are directly linked, and I say this so that we better appreciate the links. When you dump waste in landfills, it rots. The methane then catches fire (spontaneous combustion) and with it, burns the rest of the landfill. Huge pollution, PM10. You find men freezing, security guards burning waste in the winter (30,000 fires in Delhi from Nov to Feb) and you, of course, see waste burned everywhere. Given that one lakh Indians die each month of air pollution, let’s be a bit mindful of how much waste we breathe in and how it is killing is.”
Those who live near the Deonar dumping ground have reduced the life expectancy, with the average life expectancy here at 39.5 as against 73.5 for the rest of Maharashtra to quote Chandrika Rao, Director, Citizenship and Advocacy with NGO Apnalaya from an article published in The Wire.
Should the government declare the areas around dumping grounds a no-stay zone? It isn’t as simple a solution, because often these are interconnected with the livelihood of those who live around it, but solutions can always be found given how these dumping grounds impact health. Says Dr. Pandey, “Yes there should be a buffer zone and green belt to be maintained not only around landfills but also around waste processing/treatment facilities and these buffer zones should strictly be no encroachment areas. This is also prescribed in SWM Rules of 2016.
Adds Bharati Chaturvedi, “Of course. Often, landfills come up where informal communities are already living. Often, the poor live near landfills because they pick waste, or have no other resources including access to decent housing. The government has to simply go on with its housing scheme for the poor and be more generous about cities where huge migrants come in and need housing.”
Post a petition asking for the Ghazipur landfill to be cleared, the Aam Aadmi Party has pledged to clear the dump in two years and no new waste is being added to it. But it is yet to be cleared. After the landslide, a report suggested that it could be given a gentler slope to reduce landslides, the authorities could explore compacting of the waste and using suppressants to put out the fires as water makes the structure susceptible to landslides.
Is there an alternative to landfills? Definitely, there is. Says Bharati Chaturvedi, “You need to decentralize. Why I push for decentralization versus one big compost plant for the entire city is that all over India, such plants fail. They develop snags or stop for maintenance and all our waste is put in the landfill that week. The quality is also terrible of the compost because it contains waste mixed with toxins. Further, why transport waste and add to pollution?”
Waste and air pollution are directly linked, and I say this so that we better appreciate the links. When you dump waste in landfills, it rots. The methane then catches fire (spontaneous combustion) and with it, burns the rest of the landfill. – Bharati Chaturvedi
According to Dr. Pandey, “Landfilling or disposal of waste on open dumps continues as this is least cost option for Municipal bodies and it does not require waste segregation. The solution for these open dumps or garbage mountains is to rehabilitate and redevelop them while mining useful materials (compost, refuse-derived fuel and inert waste for construction). If there is any landfill gas in the dumps that that also needs to be harvested for energy recovery or at least flared.”
Says Chaturvedi, “We don’t think of waste solutions based on our national success. What we need to do is to decentralize waste management so that composting, recycling (over 75% of our waste) is handled locally. This holds generators responsible too, plus reduces pollution. The other gap is that we don’t have a good market developed for compost. It doesn’t work to give marketing agencies subsidies. We need adequate subsidies to those who compost at the community level. This helps handle up to 50% of the waste, and the part that is the most stinky and prone to creating greenhouse gases. The third challenge is that of plastics. I’ve responded earlier, but we need to reduce these and implement the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. I believe that if we could accept that most of our recycling is by the millions of informal sector workers (15 lakh waste pickers alone in India, 10% of the world’s waste pickers) then we could include them and get a decent job done. The will need micro infrastructure, capacity building and access to waste. Also, this fad of putting in tipper trucks in colonies across India to collect waste is really not helpful. It encourages people not to segregate, pushes aside waste pickers and replaces cycle rickshaws with fuel driven alternatives, which makes no environmental sense. I think we need to look at smaller solutions to most waste and hold manufacturers accountable for smaller batteries and sanitary waste. These are our gaps.”
Waste management companies have failed to develop business models that integrate these steps hence we continue to see mixed waste disposal even in cities that have incorporated source-separation and organics management obligations. – Dharmesh Shah
Says Dharmesh Shah, Plastic Policy Advisor with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), “The Indian policies on waste are relatively progressive if implemented, they can indeed tackle the majority of the challenges posed by waste management. The gaps are in the implementation of the SWM 2016 Rules at the various stages of the government like the panchayats, ULBs etc. The other area of focus has to be the contractual systems that determine the nature of waste collection and disposal systems. Traditionally, these contracts are designed to collect and dispose off mixed waste without any intermediate separation or treatment obligations. The new rules demand separation at source, treatment of organics and disposal only for residuals. Waste management companies have failed to develop business models that integrate these steps hence we continue to see mixed waste disposal even in cities that have incorporated source-separation and organics management obligations. A classic example of this is the city of Delhi that has failed to break away from business as usual despite having invested the most in waste management. In India, more than 3/4th of the budget allocated towards waste management goes to collection and transportation leaving little for treatment, processing, and reduction. As a priority, we need to reinvent the governance around SWM and align it with the laws like SWM Rules 2016.”
Says Dr. Pandey, “It has remained a low priority for the citizens as other services like power, water supply and to some extent sewage discharge have become essential services and once cannot live without them. Solid waste management is still a low priority as its ill effects are not seen in the immediate vicinity. A disaster like Surat generally brings in consciousness and urgency in people to improve waste management practices. Once people start owning the public spaces and have pride in belonging to these spaces, the situation might change.”
Bharati Chaturvedi feels that we have gone beyond the level of awareness at the individual level and need to push for tougher implementation of the laws and decentralization of waste management. “In recent times, I have come to the conclusion that we don’t need more awareness. We need the law to be implemented. We’ve spent a lot of time on awareness and being cynical as well. So investment has to be on both state driven implementation and holding communities accountable. One simple way is to charge much more for greater amounts of waste, like graded payments for water. And bigger fines for not segregation.”
As citizens, we also need to do our bit. Composting, waste segregation, recycling and being aware of how we dispose of our waste is the need of the hour, as well as being more active in local citizen’s welfare associations and organizations to make waste management integrated and effective.
Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV