With the population of the world growing, consumption too has grown over the years and so has the waste that is generated. India produces around 62 million tonnes of solid municipal waste annually of which around 36 percent is organic waste, 15 percent E-waste, 5 percent plastic waste and the rest medical, hazardous and other kinds of waste. However it is extremely disappointing that only less than 60 percent is collected and further less, only 15 percent processed. This essay would talk about a very efficient and important step in the process of waste management- segregation at source.
In May 2019, as a part of an internship I happened to visit a migrant settlement in Himachal Pradesh. The guide from the NGO explained to us that the migrant settlers earned their living by picking up waste materials from different parts of the village and selling them. What made it even more interesting was how the families engaged with the non-biodegradable waste that they collected. All the plastic, paper, metal, cardboard and other materials were separated based on the material, colour, thickness and size and sold separately. The guide from the NGO told us that even though the migrants were not school-educated, this simple segregation they do is truly a remarkable one. In this process, not only was the waste materials disposed of efficiently, it is also done in a way that maximizes the value of waste as a resource.
Now to think about the fact that when segregation of waste is talked about at large, it mainly says biodegradable and non-biodegradable. This dichotomous segregation has a myriad of categories within it when intermixed can be detrimental at various levels. This calls for a wider understanding and solution. Solid waste alone can be classified into wet, dry and hazardous, each having different sub categories under it. According to the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, the responsibility to segregate waste into wet, dry and hazardous lies with its generator who needs to hand it over to the local collector. If waste management is seen as a value chain, we can find three major stakeholders- waste generators, the middlemen or waste collection agent and finally the contractor assigned for effective disposal or future processes of waste. Segregation at source starts off this chain with the waste generator being in the centre and it of utmost importance for the processes that follow. Segregation in itself helps to actualize the resource waste and helps to define its future course- recycling, repurposing, energy extraction or disposal.
The way things are done now, waste is only segregated into mainly biodegradable and non-biodegradable at the household level and further segregation happens at the hands of the waste collector. When waste is segregated at source at the time of origin, the process of waste management becomes more simple and efficient. Wet waste includes mainly the organic wastes like kitchen waste and dust from sweeping. Dry waste includes paper, cardboard, plastics, metal, wire, glass, cloth and rubber. Hazardous waste includes electronic wastes, shoe polish, medical waste, fluorescent tubes, old paints, batteries, pesticides and fertilizers. The time taken for different waste materials to decay differs. When everything is put together in a landfill, uneven decay takes place causing pollution and starting different reactions among other materials. Segregation thus helps in differential effective treatment of waste.
Segregation of waste should not be limited to households alone and should be more effectively carried out in workplaces, institutions and other establishments. The practice of segregation needs to be inculcated in the whole population in a slow and gradual manner. As important segregation at source is, it is also important that the waste that is generated is also controlled. Continued practice of segregation at source would over time help in identifying those materials that can be avoided and also realise the full capacity of a product.
As mentioned before, the segregation of waste and its disposal is carried out by waste collectors and other agents. The social aspect comes into play when the social background of those engaged in this line of work is looked into. In the Indian Society riddled by the unjust caste system, even in the twenty-first century, caste- based practices exist. Jobs like that of waste collectors are seen as impure and unclean are left with lower caste people who are ostracised. This is a very problematic idea present in a section of the population and needs to change. A good number of informal sector workers are engaged in waste collection, segregation and disposal and it needs to be taken into consideration that the implementation of segregation at source would deprive these people off their livelihood and adequate employment measures need to be taken by the government to help them too.
In conclusion, segregation of waste at source needs to be understood as a responsibility of citizens for a cleaner, safer and healthier environment. It is a practice that would help in the effective management of waste and lets us see the resource in waste. We must also open our eyes to the social stigma attached to waste and need to break it off and own the responsibility of the waste one generates.