Few Indians realise how much of their trash they breathe back into their lungs and blood. In both urban and rural India, household, industrial, construction and demolition and electronic waste, all contribute to air pollution. Larger cities, under pressure from increasingly informed citizens and the Swachh Bharat Mission, have largely ceased to burn waste locally. But most of urban India continues to send it to fenced dumps, even landfills, where a vicious cycle unfolds. Wet waste emits methane, which self-combusts and sets into motion fires that spread, burning plastics and paper. Researchers warn of the pollutants. A Delhi study by CSIR-National Physical Laboratory Campus, by Dr Agarwal et al, underscores the chemical toxicity of emissions from burning landfills in Delhi. Another study by the Sardar Patel University, by Dr Dave et al, showed high levels of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, emitted from another landfill. VOCs cause acute respiratory distress, accumulating in the body with long-term consequences.
In a 2016 survey, Chintan estimated that from November to February, Delhi, frequently listed as the world’s most polluted city, experienced about 30,000 daily fires. Most were lit by security guards to keep warm. This is the norm across North India, with crushingly cold winters and low regulatory oversight. In various studies across western Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, we found burning waste the standard practice for disposing of waste from small-scale industrial operations—both in manufacturing and refurbishing. In rural India, burning is a standard way to get rid of waste that is not tipped off mountainsides or into rivers.
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Scientist Christine Wiedinmye of The National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, the US, leading a 2014 pathbreaking study, found about 40 per cent of the world’s waste is burned. The online site, Climate Central, summarises aspects of her work, saying “as much as 29 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions of small particulate matter come from trash fires. About 10 per cent of mercury emissions come from open burning, as well as 40 per cent of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such pollution can cause lung and neurological diseases, and have been linked to heart attacks and some cancers”. Sometimes, this isn’t factored in while calculating air pollution from waste sources.
Dust, the fuzzy factor that India’s National Clean Air Plan estimates is a big contributor to air pollution, is never easily attributable to any specific source. But we know construction and demolition waste is a contributor, as is manual sweeping. The CSE shows that only 1 per cent of the C&D waste is recycled, thanks to just 25 per cent of the total planned recycling capacity installed nationally. Moreover, the GST on recycled products is 18 per cent.
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While celebrating pandemic-induced digitalisation, let’s recall that most electronic wastes are burned in the open to extract metals. This emits dioxins, the most poisonous man-made chemical known, and heavy metals, found by several studies to be in significant concentrations in human tissue. Meanwhile, waste-to-energy plants, a state-supported technology, compromise public health similarly.
Addressing this requires incentive-based policy, elected representatives anxious to reverse this, community participation via a better informed public. Across India, decentralised household waste management is the most efficient and sustainable. This is predicated on segregation, composting of wet and horticulture waste and working with waste-pickers for doorstep collection and recycling. Iconic campuses, such as IIT Delhi, run a zero-waste system, with less than 12 per cent of its entire waste ever landfilled. The funds allocated by the 15th Finance Commission to municipalities for combating air pollution must invest in similar decentralisation. Where private actors collect and transport waste, terms must change. Instead of being paid per tonne of waste, they should be paid per tonne of inert waste, creating a harder push for decentralisation. Municipalities and horticulture departments should purchase compost from waste, made locally, at pre-decided rates and quantities, for its greater viability. The markets for waste plastic have crashed. Removing the 5 per cent GST on this will deliver a push for recycling, away from burning these newly devalued wastes. Creating capacity and incentives for micro-entrepreneurs and space for infrastructure to handle construction and demolition waste is also important.
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Industrial areas require newer waste management systems. A mandatory, well- implemented solid waste collection system, following a well-defined and transparently monitored waste flow is more impactful than fines or NGT orders. In the vast backwaters, where operations are informal, and waste management is poor, mobile collection, backed by a sustained campaign for usage, is an option. Similarly, e-waste needs a two-pronged strategy. More e-waste must be channelised into formal recycling. But smaller entrepreneurs, including informal sector, must be empowered to join the formal value chain. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan showed us that mountains of trash could be moved, with leadership at the highest levels. Let’s extend that mission. Collectively, we can give ourselves better air.
(The writer is the founder of Chintan, an environmental-justice non-profit. She has a degree in International Public Policy from SAIS, Johns Hopkins University. Views are personal.)