Nature and Biodiversity

How India is creating collaborative solutions to tackle waste

Plastic waste generation is estimated at 9.4 million mt annually in India alone.

Plastic waste generation is estimated at 9.4 million mt annually in India alone. Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Roisin Greene
Head of Strategy, Growth and Partnerships, World Economic Forum
Nilachal Mishra
Head of Government & Public Services, KPMG India
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Rapid urbanization, economic growth and shifts in consumption patterns mean the world is facing an ever-expanding amount of waste.
  • With 350 million metric tons of plastic waste generated each year, there is an urgent need for more effective waste management solutions.
  • As a growing number of India initiatives highlight, collaboration and working with all stakeholders from the ground up is essential.

The world faces a steep challenge in the form of an exponentially expanding waste ecosystem reaching unsustainable levels, which is driven by rapid urbanization, economic growth and production, and shifts in consumption patterns and expenditure.

Inadequacies in waste management planning results in leakages into the terrestrial and marine environments, thereby having a negative impact on environmental, economic and social systems, as well as public health and food systems.

Plastic waste, in particular, is a key contributor to the unsustainable surge in waste being generated, due to its wide-scale use across industries combined with the short life-span of its products, including single use plastics, packaging, consumer goods and clothing.

Global plastic waste expected to triple by 2060

Indeed, plastic consumption across the world has quadrupled over the last few decades, and global plastic waste is expected to nearly triple by 2060, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In India, plastic waste generation is estimated at 9.4 million mt annually with only 50% of it being collected and processed, via recycling. This is primarily by a hybrid arrangement of formal and informal networks, while the rest lies unaccounted for and is often dumped in landfills and water streams, or incinerated which leads to ecological degradation, health and safety risks for informal workers, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

One must note that consumption and subsequent plastic waste generation at the household level is a major contributor to the overall waste generated.

While policy/regulatory interventions are designed at the national, sub-national and regional levels, there is a pertinent need for local governments and regulators worldwide to engage with local actors for effective implementation, scaling up and sustaining of waste management policies and initiatives at ground level.

Furthermore, with 350 million metric tons of plastic waste being generated by nations annually, which is bound to grow in scale and complexity – coupled with the lack of cogent policy/regulatory frameworks identifying the key stakeholders and assigning responsibility and accountability for the management of plastic waste and overall municipal solid waste – collaboration across the value chain is vital.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships that allow amalgamation, replicability and scalability of already existing work on the ground is what is needed for a subject as complex as waste management.

Taking cognizance and mapping of the diverse roles and responsibilities of all actors in the ecosystem can serve as a key enabler in identifying the current competencies, coverage, gaps and interdependencies, as well as potential for collaborations and interventions.

A multi-stakeholder approach guided by a strategic and well-planned framework also contributes towards leveraging the strengths of each actor, building their capacities and aligning their competencies at appropriate nodes of the entire waste management value chain, with the potential of ensuring holistic management of the waste streams.

Challenges for waste management in India

Convening such partnerships is often not a linear process, even more so for a country as dynamic as India.

The institutional framework for waste management in India is divided between the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change overlooking the development of rules and guidelines, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs anchoring the ground level enforcement via guiding and supporting state governments and urban local bodies to implement programmatic initiatives and projects for waste management.

In addition, there are the recyclers, manufacturers, brand owners, waste pickers’ cohorts (formal and informal), innovators, civil society, producer responsibility organizations and consumers that have developed key interdependencies and are significant to the value chain. It is therefore an uphill task for any one of the stakeholders to work in isolation to tackle the complex task at hand.

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The Government of India has been proactive and through its flagship national level programme, with Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission, also known as SBM) putting emphasis on strategically engaging and collaborating with a wide range of groups to implement the world’s largest urban sanitation and waste management programme.

These include state governments, political leadership at the state and city levels, city administrators, civil society organizations, not-for-profits, the private sector, industry bodies, academia and India's 400 million-plus citizens across more than 4,800 cities.

Guided by Mahatma Gandhi’s ethos of cleanliness, SBM was launched with the vision that every stakeholder assumes a sense of responsibility and ownership towards correct disposal of waste, mature consumption, and checking littering.

Through the programme, the Government of India has launched initiatives to trigger, scale and sustain action on the ground, along with driving synergy between stakeholders guided by the common vision of creating rubbish free cities across India.

This enabling environment created has been a key driver of encouraging stakeholders towards localized actions, which further augment larger programmatic interventions. To this effect, SBM Urban has emerged as a textbook case wherein collaboration and engagement across all levels of the pyramid have enabled decisive impact on the ground.

Since 2014, SBM has achieved remarkable progress in door-to-door collection of municipal solid waste from negligible levels pre 2014 to about 94%, source segregation of waste from negligible levels to about 88%, and scientific processing of waste from under 16% to about 76% today.

To sustain the momentum to further advance the holistic management of waste, local actors such as collectors, recyclers, kabadiwallahs (aggregators), civil society organizations and waste management agencies that have been working in the sector for several years should be at the core of problem-solving.

Waste management requires a bottom-up approach

The sector requires a bottom-up approach to witness locally-driven partnerships. It is essential that policy-making accounts for facts-based informed decision-making to develop targets that are conducive for all groups.

The sheer diversity of Indian states further reiterates the need for locally-grown solutions and inputs across policy, technology, infrastructure, innovations and consumer behaviour, and inclusivity of waste pickers.

Stree Mukti Sanghatana, for example, is a Mumbai-based organization that works with women waste pickers to empower them and help them with financial inclusion and social security.

Recently, India became the most populous country globally, which means more consumption resulting in a further increase in waste generation. India’s urban population is expected to reach 600 million, generating 165 million tonnes of solid waste (5-6% of which is plastic) by 2030.

Growing urbanization has become a challenging task at hand for government departments. This requires capacity building for government officials using tools designed by local actors that accommodate solutions nudging change in systems thinking.

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Bringing in basic technology for better collection, monitoring and analysis of data is essential to support government departments.

For instance, Bhopal Municipal Corporation in the state of Madhya Pradesh has developed a strong GPS-enabled vehicle tracking system for door-to-door collection of waste. The collection vehicles have unique ID numbers and designated zones from which they are required to collect waste.

Looking at some of the other countries in the Global South, Indonesia – that generates more than 7.8 million metric tons of plastic waste, of which approximately 60% is mismanaged – has been working on a model that can mobilize public, private and community support to push for solutions for plastic waste management. Other global examples can be found in Ghana, Vietnam and Nigeria.

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Back in India, Maharashtra state is building a locally-driven partnership that can work towards tangible strategies and investible action plans on waste management.

With geopolitical uncertainty, increasing risks of climate change, and communities still dealing with the complex challenges of the pandemic, such multi-stakeholder partnerships are key in today’s fragmented world.

The success of such partnerships depends on the inclusivity and acknowledgement of all the local actors that have been working on the ground, as also on understanding their work that elaborates various nuances of waste management.

The objective should be to create ‘local champions’ at every step of waste management – from generation to the end of life cycle of a product.

A version of this article was also published on the Mint website.

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