Articles and Commentaries |
January 3, 2022


Written By: Neeraj Mahajan

There are few things certain in life – one is death, second is change and the other is waste. No one can stop these things in our lives.” – unknown


Why are our cities so ugly? The answer has much to do with the way we live. Let us look at some statistics:

  • According to Time magazine, humans produce 290 billion kg of faeces and 1.98 billion litres of urine per year.1
  • An average person excretes or generates about 0.74 kilograms of solid waste per day, worldwide.2
  • Every year an estimated 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, more than half of these needles and syringes are dangerously thrown away or disposed of thereafter.3
  • Liquid waste – dirty water, wash water, organic liquids, detergents and rainwater is usually found in households, businesses, and industries.
  • Approximately 1,400 sq. km landfill area would be required for dumping municipal solid waste in India by 2047—almost equal to the combined area of Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai—3 of the 5 most populous cities of India.4

Any unwanted solid, liquid or gaseous substance discarded or thrown out by households, or commercial establishments can be considered as waste. According to the Press Information Bureau, waste can be segmented into three categories:

  • Biodegradable or organic waste (food and kitchen waste, green waste vegetables, flower, leaves, fruits and paper, etc.).
  • Inert and non-biodegradable waste (construction and demolition waste, dirt, debris, etc.).
  • Recyclable waste (plastic, paper, bottles, glasses, etc.).

Waste management is a universal issue that affects every single individual or government providing civic amenities to its people. Almost 50 per cent of India’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050 leading to a five per cent growth in the volume of waste generated per year.5 As towns and cities develop economically, and the population grows, waste generated is expected to increase drastically from 2.01 billion tons today to 3.40 billion tons in 2050.

As of date over 377 million people—31 per cent of the Indian population—live in 7,935 towns and cities and generate around a massive amount of 277.1 million tons of solid waste per annum. According to a 2019 India Today report, the country produces more than 1.50 lakh metric tons of solid waste daily. This is increasing every day with the burgeoning economy, urbanisation and population.6 India today produces more than 80 per cent of waste generated in South Asia and 13 per cent of the world per annum.7 According to a World Bank study, India is one of the world’s highest waste-generating nations.8 As a result most Indian towns and cities are ugly to look at and littered with garbage.

Waste Management

Human activities are the cause behind most kinds of waste, and the way it is stored, collected and disposed of poses a risk to the environment and public health. According to Planning Commission, Maharashtra generates the highest (22,080 MT per day) and Sikkim generates the lowest (89 MT per day) amount of waste. Among the Union Territories (UTs) Delhi produces the highest amount of waste, while Daman & Diu are the lowest waste generators.9

According to the World Bank’s What a Waste 2.0 report, the world generates 2.01 billion tons of municipal waste annually at least 33% of which is not managed in an environmentally safe manner.10 Improper handling and disposal of waste harms the environment and public health. It is a leading cause of soil, water and air pollution. Unsafe disposal of hazardous waste contaminates the soil and water causing serious health problems and leading to air pollution in the surrounding area.

Uncontrolled or mismanaged waste lying around attracts flies, rats, and other creatures which spread infectious diseases. The polluted environment and ineffective waste management serves as a breeding ground for disease vectors and leads to several respiratory problems and diseases like Japanese Encephalitis, jaundice, cholera, colitis, diarrhoea, worm, dysentery, and skin diseases. The US Public Health Service has identified 22 diseases including asthma, heart attack, and emphysema due to burning garbage and faecal matter in municipal waste. Unmanaged and decomposed garbage attracts rodents, which lead to diseases like dengue and malaria.

Environmental contamination is a global issue. Poorly managed waste is contaminating the world’s oceans, clogging drains and harming humans, plants and animals. All over the world, about one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and some 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used once and thrown away every year. Ten of the world’s biggest rivers flush around eight million tons—more than 90 per cent of the plastic waste into the oceans every year.11

The real magnitude of the problem is for everyone to see. This phenomenal amount of plastic waste is enough to fill up 2,400 Olympic stadiums or 4.8 million olympic-sized swimming pools. It weighs equal to 3.4 million adult blue whales or 1,376 Empire State Buildings. Imagine that’s just 12 per cent of the total waste generated each year.12 Already, according to the ‘World Air Quality Report, 2020’, prepared by Swiss organisation IQAir, Delhi is the world’s 10th most polluted city and most polluted capital city globally.13 Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh is the second most polluted city in the world after Hotan in China.14

Twenty-two of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India. India, Pakistan and China collectively account for 94 out of the top 100 most polluted cities in the world. The largest number of cities in the list of top 10 most polluted cities in the world is in India.15 India ranks highest with 46 of the world’s 100 most polluted cities followed by China (42), Pakistan (6), and Bangladesh (4) in terms of air quality index. These include Noida, Greater Noida, Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Agra, Bulandshahr, Bisrakh, and Muzaffarnagar (in Uttar Pradesh), Faridabad, Jind, Fatehabad, Bandhwari, Gurugram, Yamuna Nagar, Rohtak, Dharuhera and Hisar (Haryana), and Bhiwadi (Rajasthan).16

According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, people in Delhi breathe the worst air between November 1 and November 15 every year followed by Noida (488), Ghaziabad (486), Greater Noida (478), Faridabad (460), and Gurugram (448). 17 As per a scientific paper on the health and economic impact of air pollution, 1.7 million deaths—i.e. 18 per cent of the total deaths in the country in India in 2019 were attributable to air pollution.18

Managing waste properly is essential for building sustainable and liveable cities, but it remains a challenge for many developing countries and cities. Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising 20%–50% of municipal budgets. Operating this essential municipal service requires integrated systems that are efficient, sustainable, and socially supported.

Is Garbage-Free India a Distant Dream?

Solid waste management is one of the necessities to keep the town and cities clean. Solid waste management is a serious problem in India not just because of environmental concerns but also because of the enormous quantities generated every day. Experts believe that India is following a flawed system of waste disposal and management. Almost all municipal authorities indiscriminately dump solid waste in dump yards within or outside the city. Waste dumping and open burning continue to be the principal methods of waste disposal in India. These dump yards are known to frequently catch fire. An 18-ft high inferno at Deonar19 in Mumbai in 2016 went on for three months, pumping tons of cancer-causing smoke caused by burning plastic and leather. Burning garbage is the third biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in India.

Heavy metals and toxic liquid in the rotten garbage is absorbed into the soil or water bodies. This leads to contamination of the entire food chain and rivers, endangering humans, plants and animals. According to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, only about 75–80% of the municipal waste is collected scientifically and only 22–28% of this waste (27,000 MT per day) is processed and treated. The remaining 80 per cent (1,08,000 MT per day) is dumped in an unhygienic manner in landfill sites leading to health and environmental degradation.20 The stench and ugly sight of garbage dumped on the roadside, clogging of the drains and garbage floating on the surface of the rivers, particularly during the rainy season, is a common sight in India.

It is estimated that urban municipal solid waste will increase to 387.8 million tons in 2030 and 543.3 million tons by 2050.21 At the rate at which we are littering hazardous waste we would need about 88 sq. km of land—the size of New Delhi—just to dump it by 2050, according to an Assocham and PwC joint report.22 “This will eventually render the land unfit for any other use for as long as a half-century before it can be stabilised for other uses,” says the report, ‘Waste Management in India: Shifting Gears.’

The solution lies in a garbage-free India as a part of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

Objectives of Waste Management

The main objective of waste management is to reduce the harmful effects of the discarded pile of waste on health and the environment and improve the quality of life of people living or working in the vicinity. The philosophy behind waste management is governed by 3R’s namely, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In other words, only a minimal amount of waste should be generated, and a substantial amount of this waste should either be reused or recycled. To do so, it is particularly important to:

  • prevent the generation of waste.
  • promote reuse of waste.
  • promote biological recovery of waste and recycling of materials.
  • promote energy use of waste not suited for recycling.
  • ensure that the treatment and disposal of waste does not cause any harmful impacts.

According to a recent report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM)-NEC, India is among the top five countries in the world, in terms of e-waste generation next only to China, the USA, Japan and Germany.23 The study concludes that, though India generates 2 million tons of e-waste—discarded electronic devices and gadgets like computer monitors, mobile phones, chargers, compact discs, headphones, televisions, air conditioners, and refrigerators, only 4.3 lakh tons is recycled per annum.

The e-waste products contain toxic substances like lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, plastic, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), BFRs (brominated flame retardants), barium, beryllium, and carcinogens such as carbon black and heavy metals which can cause severe health problems to those handling the waste. Mismanagement of e-waste and prolonged exposure to pollutants released by e-waste adversely affects the crops, and drinking water, consumed by both humans and animals. They can also lead to kidney damage, respiratory diseases, skin disorders, and lung cancer.

The Stumbling Blocks – Drawbacks of the Present System

India is predicted to reach an estimated 125 million tons of waste, making it the largest waste contributor in the world by 2048. The current waste management practice in India involves collecting waste from sources through a community collective bin system, which gets transported to a low-lying landfill system with intermediate processing of Municipal Solid Waste. The open dumping practice leads to problems like pollution and health hazards.

The major problems affecting solid waste management are unscientific treatment, improper collection of waste, and ethical problems. This in turn leads to hazards like environmental degradation, water pollution, soil pollution, and air pollution. Some of the other bottleneck areas include:

  • No storage of waste at source
  • No system of primary collection from doorsteps
  • Irregular street sweeping
  • Waste storage depots are a problem
  • Transportation of waste is not satisfactory
  • Processing of waste: only a few cities have been practicing this
  • Disposal of waste is a neglected area and the current practices are grossly unscientific

Waste to Wealth

Waste is a valuable resource with the potential to generate innumerable environmental and monetary benefits if properly treated. For instance, did you know that recycling 5 PET bottle produces enough fibre for making one t-shirt? The Waste Management market in India is said to be a USD 14 billion opportunity by 2025.24 India has the potential to generate 3GW of electricity from waste by 2050. Some of the sunshine areas of waste management include municipal solid waste, electronic waste, bio-medical waste, and agricultural waste. This is both a challenge as well as a golden opportunity. India is set to become the world’s most populous country as per projections of the United Nations with 7 new megacities by 2027. At this growth rate, India would need landfills almost 90 per cent of the size of Bengaluru for dumping the waste if left untreated.

Case Studies: Best Practices of Solid Waste Management around the World

Waste is generally viewed as dirty with no value; this limited thinking is why waste management is not given the weightage it deserves. Every city is different when it comes to solid waste generation and management. Here are some of the fascinating, innovative and eco-friendly waste management strategies being implemented all over the globe.

Kamikatsu, Japan:

There is a Japanese word ‘mottainai’ which in other words means “don’t waste anything worthy”. The spirit behind it is to use all things as long as possible. It represents the island nation’s commitment towards waste management and ‘zero-waste’. Kamikatsu, a small town approximately 40 kilometres from Tokushima city in the mountains of Shikoku Island in Japan, signed a ‘zero-waste’ declaration in 2003. Today, Kamikatsu is a ‘zero waste’ town without even a trash collection system. The residents themselves segregate the waste into 45 categories. 80 per cent of this waste is recycled and only 20 per cent goes to landfills. The residents voluntarily wash, sort, and carry their trash to the recycling centre and make sure that it lands up in the right bin. Kamikatsu’s heroic efforts have inspired other communities in Japan to take up the zero-waste challenge.

Mexico City, Mexico

Bordo Poniente dump, just outside Mexico City used to be one of the world’s biggest open-air landfills. Hundreds of trucks were used to dump more than 12,000 tons of waste each day. In 2011, Mexico City authorities decided to close down the 927-acre Bordo Poniente landfill. The idea behind this was to convert millions of tons of garbage to energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons annually. BMLMX, a power company, signed a contract with the Mexican government to utilise the biogas from the landfill site to generate 250 GWh electricity—enough to illuminate about 35,000 homes and the streets of Mexico for 25 years. This is, apart from the creation of short and long-term jobs for contractors, service providers and labour in the construction, operation and maintenance of the landfill gas capture system. As yet another spin-off, a cement company agreed to buy 3,000 tons of dry waste daily to burn as fuel as well as produce organic fertiliser for the city’s parks and gardens in the composting plant.

Malang City, Indonesia

With a garbage output of 200,000 tons a day, Indonesia ranks as the second-highest generator of plastic waste worldwide. Almost half of the population of Indonesia earns less than USD 2 a day and a majority of them do not have any health insurance. Though both the issues—waste management and healthcare may seem unconnected, Dr Gamala Albinsaid, the CEO of Indonesia Medika, a healthcare company, saw this as an opportunity and created Garbage Clinical Insurance (GCI), a micro health insurance program that lets people trade garbage for medical services and medicines. There was a time when people used to think that garbage is worthless and healthcare is expensive, but now they feel that garbage can be valuable and after all healthcare isn’t necessarily so expensive.


Over the last few decades, Sweden has emerged as one of the global leaders in waste management. Strange though it may sound, it is a fact that Sweden has run out of trash and is now asking other countries for their garbage to keep its recycling plants running. Less than one per cent of Sweden’s household waste goes into the landfill dump. Over 50 per cent of the waste generated in Sweden is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The 32 waste management plants in Sweden produce heat for 810,000 Swedish households and electricity for about 250,000 private homes in the freezing Swedish winter. The country has adopted a recycling policy that funnels all the energy generated by burning waste into the national heating network.

Semakau Landfill, Singapore

The word ‘landfill’ immediately creates the image of a smelly mountain of rubbish. But Semakau Island, created by reclaiming land between two small islands, eight kilometres off the coast of Singapore, is different. The world’s first offshore landfill site (island) was created entirely from the sea space at USD 399 with a capacity of 63 million cubic meters. Semakau landfill receives about 1,400 tons of incineration ash and 600 tons of non-incinerable waste every day and is expected to meet Singapore’s need for landfill space beyond the year 2040. The landfill operation will eventually create an island made almost entirely of waste. Semakau landfill has been constructed to contain all wastes within the landfill area and keep the surrounding marine ecosystem and sea waters pollution-free. Great care has also been taken to keep the landfill clean, and odour free. Semakau landfill was opened to members of the public for recreational activities. Since then, the island has gained popularity with nature lovers due to its rich biodiversity.


The world is not our personal ashtray. When we throw anything, it must go where it is meant to be. As has rightly been stated, if we don’t want to live in a trash can, we should stop making it one.

Waste management is not a complex, unsolved puzzle. Many solutions already exist. What is needed is urgent action at all levels of society. We ourselves are the cause and cure behind the dumps of garbage. It is time now, to get our act together and as a society, keep our environment clean and green.

Author Brief Bio: Mr Neeraj Mahajan isa media professional with over 30 years of experience in print, electronic, web and mobile media. He is the Editor of Taazakhabar News and World News Report



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