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‘Solid Waste Management in Urban India: Imperative for Improvement

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    1st Dec, 2020


Across India, existing systems for the collection, transportation and disposal of solid waste are mired in chaos.  The problem is more acute in the urban areas. It is essential to discuss the state of solid waste management in India.


  • With a population of approximately 1210 million, the urban population in the country is more than 377 million constituting 31.16% of its total population.
  • The municipalities with such rapid rate of urbanization, facing an extra burden on the socio-economic and environmental prospects owing to migration and depletion of natural resources.
  • Solid waste management (SWM) has emerged as one of the most massive development challenges in urban India.
  • Numerous studies indicate that the unsafe disposal of waste generates dangerous gases and leachates, due to microbial decomposition, climate conditions, refuse characteristics and land-filling operations.
  • According to the 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992, urban local bodies (ULBs) are responsible for keeping cities and towns clean.
  • However, most ULBs lack adequate infrastructure and face various strategic and institutional weaknesses, such as poor institutional capacity, financial constraints, and a lack of political will.
  • While many Indian ULBs do receive government assistance, almost all of them continue to be financially fragile.
  • India has already exhausted all available landfill sites, and the concerned ULBs do not have resources to acquire new land.
  • Moreover, finding new landfill sites is a difficult task as local officials are averse to setting aside land in their jurisdiction for waste that come from other areas.
  • India has passed the initial stage in terms of sanitation, which was getting an open defecation free (ODF) tag.
  • However, now it is very crucial for the country to sustain that tag and move towards other sanitation-related goals such as fecal sludge management or managing human waste effectively by treating it and wastewater management.

What is Solid Waste?

  • Solid waste is the unwanted or useless solid materials generated from human activities in residential, industrial or commercial areas.
  • Solid waste can be separated into three categories:
    • biodegradable waste 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.)
  • Solid Waste Management reduces or eliminates the adverse impact on the environment & human health.

The challenge of waste in India

  • Around 10 million tonnes of garbage is generated in just the metropolitan cities alone like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata.
  • Out of the total municipal waste collected, 94% is dumped on land and 5% is composted.
  • When it comes to waste management in India, nothing is quite right.
  • Central Pollution Control Board in its report which was released in 2009 indicates that around 62 million tons of solid waste is produced in our country every year, of which less than 20% or only 12 million tons are treated.
  • This essentially means that the remaining 52 million tons of waste remain ‘untreated’ and contaminate land or make its way into rivers, lakes and wetlands.

  • According to World Economic Forum, India’s urban areas produce 120,000 tonnes of fecal sludge on a daily basis. It further states that an estimated two-thirds of the country’s households with toilets aren’t connected to the sewer system in the country.
  • As per the Centre for Science and Environment, 60 per cent of this human waste in India is dumped in open water and on open land – contaminating drinking water and harming other food sources.

Disposal of Solid Waste

  • Dumping and open burning: Waste dumping and open burning continue to be the principal methods of waste disposal in India.
  • Dumping in low-lying areas: Most of the cities and towns dispose of their waste by depositing it in low-lying areas outside the city, leading to health and environmental degradation.
  • Landfilling: Landfilling technology is frequently used for the disposal of waste in India. However, the dumping grounds are often unsustainable as landfills, since they have no foundations, liners, leveling, cover soil, leachate management or treatment facility. Most landfills in the country have now been exhausted.
  • Pyrolysis and gasification: In this method, thermal processing is in complete absence of oxygen or with less amount of air.
  • Thermal treatment: Incineration is the combustion of waste in the presence of oxygen, so that the waste is converted into carbon dioxide, water vapour and ash. Also labeled Waste to Energy (WtE) method, it is a means of recovering energy from the waste.
    • It's advantages include waste volume reduction, cut back on transportation costs and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
    • However, when garbage is burned, pollutants, such as mercury, lead, dioxins may be released into the atmosphere, and cause health issues.

SWM across the globe

  • South Korea has one of the world’s most sophisticated waste management systems, and has been hugely successful in decoupling the link between economic growth and waste generation.
    • Its small size notwithstanding—a country of 51 million people, generating around 53,000 tonnes of MSW per day—it has a daily per capita MSW generation that is two to five times larger than that of India.
  • Put The Plastic For Recycling And Get A Reward – Columbia’s Recycling Solution: Colombia’s municipalities produce around 28,800 tonnes of solid waste per day.
    • To overcome their serious waste problem, Colombia came up with the idea of ECOBOT – A recycling initiative that promotes the culture of recycling across the country.
    • ECOBOT is basically Reverse Vending Machine which is located in shopping malls, institutions, and public spaces and encourages the process of recycling the PET bottles.
  • In Indonesia, People Can Trade Trash For Free Health Care: Malang, a city in Indonesia, generated more than 55,000 tonnes of waste every day. It was also a city where a majority of people did not have health insurance.
    • These two issues may seem unconnected, but Dr. Gamala Albinsaid, a healthcare entrepreneur and CEO of health company Indonesia Medika saw this as a huge social opportunity.
    • He created Garbage Clinical Insurance which let people trade garbage for medical services and medicines.
  • Sweden: The country has adopted a recycling policy which funnels all the energy generated by burning waste into the national heating network. This provides an efficient way to heat homes through the freezing Swedish winter.

What are the challenges faced by India?

India is the third-largest producer of solid waste, after only China and the United States. It faces significant challenges associated with waste collection, transportation, treatment and disposal. 

  • India faces a humongous waste management challenge. Increased waste generation is an after-effect of economic development, urbanisation and industrialisation and the incremental nature of the waste has led to the formation of various legislations and regulations for disposal and treatment of the waste.
  • These regulations fall under the umbrella of Environment Protection Act, 1986 and majorly follow the principles of sustainability, precaution and polluter pays. There are separate laws and compliances for each kind of waste.
  • However, despite it all, experts believe that India follows a flawed system of waste disposal and management.     
  • According to the Press Information Bureau, around 62 million tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste is generated per annum by over 377 million people living in 7,935 towns and cities. Out of these 62 MT of waste, only 43 MT is collected and a mere 11.9 MT is treated and the remaining 31 MT is dumped in landfill sites.
  • Solid waste management is an essential service provided by the municipalities to keep the cities clean; however, most of the municipal authorities dump solid waste in and around the population clusters in a haphazard manner. 

Major impacts of poor solid waste management

Effect on environment

  • Nearly 20% of methane gas emissions in India is caused by landfills. The trash dumped in landfills are prone to catching fire due to the heat generated by the decomposition of waste.
  • High levels of nickel, zinc, arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals are part of the solid waste at landfills in many metro cities, especially in Delhi.
  • Open dumps pose the following health, safety and environmental threats:
    • Fire and explosion
    • Inhalation of toxic gases
    • Injury to children playing on or around the dumpsite
    • Disease carried by mosquitoes, flies and rodents
    • Contamination of streams, rivers, and lakes
    • Contamination of soil and groundwater
    • Contamination of drinking water
    • Damage to plant and wildlife habitats
    • Decrease in the quality of life to nearby residents and the local community

Effect on human health:

  • The US Public Health Service has identified 22 human diseases that are linked to improper solid waste management.
  • Several studies have been published that link asthma, heart attack, and emphysema to burning garbage.
  • Human faecal matter is also frequently found in municipal waste—this, along with unmanaged decomposed garbage, attracts other rodents, that further lead to a spread of diseases such as dengue and malaria.


  • The stench and ugly sight of garbage dumped on the roadside, sometimes overflowing from drains or floating on the surface of the rivers is not at all uncommon in India.
  • Also, with clogging of the drains with garbage, there is waterlogging and flooding of residential areas, roads and even railway tracks in the rainy season disrupting normal life.

Effect on waste-picker families: 

  • More than two million waste-pickers exist in India today, these are families that live off dump yards through collection and sale of recyclables from the dumped mixed waste.
  • With no physical protection such as gloves, uniforms, shoes or masks, most children scourge for metals with magnets attached to sticks, thus putting their health to extreme risk.
  • Not only do the landfills emit methane that is approximately 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide (OECD), toxic leachate continuously flows out, making dump-yards susceptible to natural and artificially caused fires, hence putting the lives of waste-picker families at risk.

Major Government Rules and Policies for SWM

  • Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016: The rules provide for waste generators to segregate waste at source and allocate dry waste such as paper, plastic, glass, and metal for recycling and reuse, as well as utilise wet waste from the kitchen for composting or biomethanation.
    • Implementation: Currently, the rules for waste segregation and recycling are poorly implemented, and many cities have failed to integrate door-to-door collection into the informal sector.
  • Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016: The new rules expanded the jurisdiction from the municipal area to rural areas, since plastic has now reached villages. The responsibility of waste generators is to segregate and store the plastic waste generated in accordance with the SWM Rules of 2016 before handing it over to an authorized waste collection agency.
  • Plastic Waste (Amendment) Rules of 2018: The MoEFCC further updated the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, now called Plastic Waste (Amendment) Rules of 2018. Three major changes have been incorporated in the amendment. 
    • First, the term “non-recyclable multilayered plastic” has been replaced by “multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use” under Rule 9, in Sub-Rule 3. 
    • Second, Rule 15, dealing with the pricing of carry bags, has been omitted. “The rule earlier required vendors, who made plastic bags available, to register with the respective ULB. The new rules attempt to establish a Centralised Registration System by mandating brand owners and producers operating in more than two states to register with the CPCB.”
    • Third, the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has been introduced, according to which both producers and brand owners are responsible for collecting waste.
  • Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, 2016: The MoHUA, in collaboration with GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit), developed the Manual for MSWM, in line with the SWM Rules of 2016. The Manual provides guidance to ULBs on planning, design, implementation and monitoring of MSWM systems. 
  • Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban): The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched in 2014 for five years (2014–19), aimed at creating a “Clean India” with an emphasis on eliminating open defecation by October 2019. The SBM addresses the growing problems of open defecation, sanitation, and SWM.
  • The Mission Directorate has taken several steps to help cities accelerate their progress of implementation. Some of the important initiatives under this are as given below:
    • Swachh Survekshan
    • Star Rating of Garbage-Free Cities

How technologies can help?

  • Innovative measures such as 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and the installation of “waste-to-compost” and bio methanation plants would help to reduce the load on landfill sites.
  • A widely used technology for recycling residual waste is WtE, which uses combustion to provide heat and power. Adopting recycling with this technology can significantly reduce dumping in India.
  • RDF for resource recovery is not only an economically viable option for solid waste but also greatly reduces the requirement for landfill space. Increasing the use of this technology would reduce disposal to land and generate clean, reliable energy from a renewable fuel source, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Apart from the above, technologies such as AI, Big Data, machine learning, and robotics, if implemented properly, can make the Indian waste management sector much more efficient.


The SWM system in India is in a critical state, as ULBs have largely failed to manage solid waste efficiently. To enhance the efficiency of SWM in India, citizen participation should be promoted, especially in source segregation and treatment processes. The policy agenda for sustainable SWM must drive behavioral change amongst citizens, elected representatives, and decision-makers, to minimise wastage and littering, and increase reuse and recycling. Community awareness and a change in people’s attitudes towards solid waste and their disposal can go a long way in improving India’s SWM system.

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