Learning from the best

By Anand Mishra
In Infrastructure
October 15, 2015

We can take lessons from developed countries on waste management

non polluting to environmentA common, ubiquitous sight of India’s cities is not modern transportation systems or infrastructure which are most expected in any modern country of the world. It is actually the foul smelling garbage littered by roadside in all localities. Filthy garbage disposal points and open sewages strewn with plastic bags and home refuse are the biggest commonality among Indian cities. Needless to say, these are visual proofs of unimaginative, broken and unplanned waste management system of the country. Anyone who has lived or is living near Ghazipur area of East Delhi would have the same answer if asked about the most unlivable aspect of their locality; the garbage landfill which much against its classification, has now become a garbage mountain which reeks of rot, contaminates the ground water, and has vultures hovering all day in search of food. That’s the case in the capital city of India, spare a thought for the smaller cities.

Beyond exasperation, a crucial question to ask is how do other countries which generate much more garbage per capita, manage the garbage and waste efficiently? New York, a city of nearly half the population of NCR (national capital region) generates nearly three times more garbage, yet is able to gather, segregate, recycle and dispose it without people feeling the rot. Surely, other countries, cities and municipalities are doing something we in India have not yet done or have not bothered to learn. In fact, there are innovative and smart systems being put in place in many places around the world that India can learn from, in crucial segments of waste management, namely collection of waste and disposing waste. As it turns out, leaders in the waste management are creating energy out of waste and in the process, are ridding the need of waste landfills.

Collection & segregation

Most municipalities, have traditionally depended on collecting and transporting waste through a very simple method; put garbage bins at designated places where people would dump their waste, have these garbage bins ferried to local waste collection centers from where they will be sorted and sent to either landfills or digesters which produces electricity from the waste. While this is the most common practice, the world has now started to alter the model by reducing and gradually eliminating the entire process of transporting waste on wheel, i.e. ferrying above ground. Surprisingly, the technology is now new; it has been there for about half a century, it is just that it has taken wings over last decade or so as cities in Asia and Europe are becoming increasingly aware of the problems related to conventional methods of waste collection. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are leading the drive to implement this technology.

Users of the pneumatic waste collection system deposit their refuse into waste inlets, located around the chosen operating area. These waste collection systems are placed outdoors or indoors and are accessible round the clock. Outdoor waste points are preferred for sparsely populated areas because of their lower construction costs. Each waste collection point incorporates as many waste inlets as there are types of refuse or waste. The most commonly used waste fractions in pneumatic waste collection systems are: mixed waste, organic waste and paper. There is one waste inlet for each type of waste. The waste is temporarily stored by the waste inlets until the next emptying cycle. From inlets, the waste is transported along the pipelines into containers at the waste station. When full, the containers are sent away for further processing using various mode of transport, including underground railway network.

The best part is that no personnel are needed in the actual collection and transport of waste from the collection point to the waste station. The system is remotely monitored and controlled by operators at the waste station. The automated system, in addition to reducing personnel vehicle and fuel costs, benefits environment by vastly reducing CO2 emissions.

This system can be most effectively installed in new cities which are planned afresh; but there are countries which have installed it in existing cities with great success. Such systems are most suited for large residential and office buildings, healthcare facilities, and hospitality sectors.

For Indian government, which is working hard to make Clean India a successful initiative, pneumatic waste collection systems could be a boon. The current system, which is highly manual, is not only unhealthy for people who are working in this process, but also for overall health of cities and invariably result in pandemics. As for cost, while the initial investment cost for a pneumatic system is surely higher than traditional methods, it has much lower operating cost and usually, the investment is recovered in 12-15 years.

Waste to energy

Collecting of waste and transporting it to the place of final processing is a big part of the waste management, but that is only half of the story; the other part, which is more important from sustainability perspective is what is ultimately done with the waste. This is where great imagination, careful planning, and monetary and tech investment is required. Let us take the case of Delhi NCR. The city collects about 8,000 tonnes of waste everyday of which just 4,500 tonnes are collected and only 2,500 tonnes are treated. It has three waste to energy plants which are all inefficient besides emitting toxic gases. It need not be so, though. India can learn from Swedes. Sweden has revolutionized the waste to energy concept. It recycles more than 99 per cent of all household waste compared to only 38 per cent in 1975. In 2012, the country burnt about 2.3 million tonnes of household waste to energy. There are 32 plants in Sweden producing heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 private houses. Over the last thirty years, heavy metal emissions have been reduced by 99 per cent even as waste emission has gone up by three times during this period.

Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has, over time, developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment. It even imports a little under a million tonnes of waste from other countries as it has virtually run out of garbage and other countries pay Sweden for the same. Operationally, the incineration is advanced enough to have 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water; contrast it with the toxic incineration plants in Delhi.

Change begins at home

One big reason for poor performance of Indian waste to energy plants is that waste is unsegregated and has plastic, paper and all other material which not only reduces the calorific output, but also is hazardous. On the other hand, most households in developed world segregate waste. Swedish households separate their newspapers, plastic, metal, glass, electric appliances, light bulbs and batteries from biodegradable. The benefit of segregation is that nearly all of the waste is reused, recycled or composted. Newspapers, bottles, plastic containers are all reused whereas biodegradable is composted and becomes soil or biogas through chemical process. Wasted water is purified to the extent of being potable. People take their larger waste like TV to recycling centers on the outskirts of the cities. This is how the country has reached a level where it dumps less than one per cent of its waste into landfills. In short, it is not just the macro industrial scale efforts are required, the social conditioning is equally important. How a country manages its waste is an indication of its technical prowess besides its value system. Unfortunately, India cuts a very sorry figure in this aspect as it is not only able to manage its waste at macro level, it has not yet been able to condition its society to segregate its waste.

However, as the country moves to higher level of growth and resultantly consumption, it will generate more waste and as such would need more advanced and technological sound methods of waste management. There are operational models available globally; what is required is a determined effort to push for a positive change.

Recycling to save landfills

Some items like clothing and plastics are most often dumped in landfills. To clean up this mess, corporates have started to pick the baton. American clothing giant Levi Strauss & Co. has expanded its clothing recycling initiative to all of its mainline and outlet stores. As part of the initiative, consumers can drop clean, dry clothing or shoes of any brand in the collection boxes at their local Levi’s store. Any consumer who drops a clothing item will receive a voucher for 20 per cent off on a single, regular-priced item. The move is a step to reduce the clothing that ends up in landfills. The Americans discard more than 28 billion pounds of unwanted clothing, shoes and other textiles every year and 85 per cent of that ends up in landfill. On the other hand, German sportswear major Adidas has joined the Parley for the Oceans initiative to recycle ocean plastic waste into its products from 2016. Joint program will focus on high end research on how to reduce the problem of plastic waste ending on ocean. Approximately, eight million tonnes of plastics are dumped in the planet’s seas annually.