Waste not, want not

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Swati Singh Sambyal, a Delhi-based waste management expert, gives her views on how India can improve its management of hazardous industrial waste.

Swati Singh Sambyal is a waste management expert based in New Delhi. She was previously head of the Waste Management Programme at the New Delhi-based environmental policy and advocacy organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment.

What is the current situation around the management of industrial waste in India?

Swati: Waste management is one of the key areas where significant work has not been done. There is an immense need to push the circular economy model that seeks to restore and regenerate, and also reduce waste by replacing the end-of-life concept.

India is at a very nascent stage with strengthening waste management. For example, it was only in 2016 that we talked about the concept of extended producer responsibility. For instance, on plastics, we are far beyond circularity in it. And even with solid waste, we are not able to process more than 30 per cent of the waste that is generated.

Quantities of solid hazardous waste are rising by at least two to five per cent annually. The country produces approximately 51.1 million metric tons (MMT) of waste annually, with around 7.46 MMT
of hazardous waste generated from 43,936 industries. Approximately 46 per cent is landfilled,
nine per cent is incinerated and 45 per cent is recycled.

Gujarat tops the list of hazardous waste-generating states in India with 7,751 waste-generating facilities contributing to 28.76 per cent of waste generated in the country. However, coal ash from thermal power stations accounts for more than 70 per cent of all hazardous industrial waste.

Swati Singh Sambyal is a waste management expert based in New Delhi

How effectively do you think India is managing its industrial waste? Are the laws on the management of industrial waste adequate?

Swati: Hazardous waste is regulated under the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules 2016. However, despite the existence of the legislation and guidelines, the limitation in their enforcement is still a major challenge. Other key challenges include lack of financial resources, a shortage of staff, a lack of standardised protocols and a lack of authority.

The Hazardous and Other Wastes Rules 2016 state that owners of hazardous waste disposal facilities are liable to pay financial penalties if the rules for the transportation, storage and recycling of the waste are not complied with. The rules also state that owners of hazardous waste disposal facilities may even be imprisoned if they are negligent.

The rules also specifically direct the State governments to identify locations for the construction of hazardous waste treatment facilities.

However, no new sites have been built since the new rules came into effect and many states, like Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Orissa, do not even have hazardous waste treatment facilities.

What steps do you think the government and industry need to take to ensure that industrial waste is properly managed?

Swati:  To handle the current waste situation we need to ensure adequate online tracking and monitoring of waste.

For instance, Gujarat was the first state to address hazardous waste issues and brought about a novel concept of common treatment, storage and disposal facility (TSDF) for clusters of industries. The state has eight of the 27 TSDF sites in India. It uses online live tracking of the transport and disposal of hazardous waste through the ‘eXtended Green Node’ (XGN), a software program that connects the regional and head offices of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) with around 17,000 industries spread across Gujarat, hospitals (private and government) and waste treatment facilities.

Before the advent of XGN, GPCB personnel had to record everything manually in files, which made tracking of applications difficult. For instance, it was not easy for officials to keep track of when the consent of a particular industry would expire, when the last inspection was conducted, for how long an industrial unit hasn’t paid its water cess or how many times it has violated the statutory norms.

These approaches should be adopted more widely across the country. This is particularly important in the megacities where industrialisation is rapidly growing, but the waste treatment infrastructure is limited and, in most cases, does not even exist. Often the state agencies do not possess the budget to cover the waste services.

It is vital there is investment in infrastructure to meet the growing population and the waste being generated. This is important to ensure the waste is effectively managed and that some value is being recovered from it. This would lead not only to a reduced impact on public health and the environment but would also deliver economic value, create skills development and create jobs.

What harm does industrial waste pose to human health and the environment?

Swati: If unregulated, the waste can contaminate land, water and air and pose a serious risk and hazard to the environment and human health. With poor systems of segregation, recycling and reuse, wastes – including hazardous waste (this includes biomedical, plastics, domestic hazardous waste and e-waste) – are incorrectly disposed of, endangering the environment and human health.

How serious is the problem of industrial waste entering drains and waterways?

Swati: India has a huge issue of unregulated informal industry, and most of the time, the discharge of effluents into drains and water bodies is a huge concern. This is typical in the dye and pharmaceutical industries. For instance, in Pali in Rajasthan hundreds of unregulated dyeing units have polluted the nearby Bandi river and contaminated the soil. As a result, farmers in the area have suffered skin diseases due to the quality of water.

According to groundwater department surveys in the region, water has been found to contain chloride, sulphate, dissolved solids and heavy metals beyond the permissible limits.

Will the draft National Resource Efficiency Policy (NREP) 2019 improve the country’s approach to waste management?

Swati: This is a much-needed policy for waste and pollution reduction through closing the loop using the circular economy (CE) and resource efficiency (RE) approaches. This will not only reduce pollution associated with waste disposal but also save related costs in resolving the short-term trade-offs between growth and environmental sustainability while enhancing the overall security of human beings.

The policy is guided by few key principles namely: a reduction in primary resource consumption to ‘sustainable’ levels, in keeping with achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and staying within the planetary boundaries; creation of higher value with less material through resource efficient and circular approaches; waste minimisation; material security and creation of employment opportunities; and business models beneficial to the cause of environment protection and restoration.

The proposed National Resource Efficiency Authority will be mandated to drive the agenda of resource efficiency by designing database templates for material use and waste generated, recycled and landfilled, across various sectors and life cycle stages and across different regions, such as states and zones.

The draft policy also mentions a ban on the disposal of recyclable waste to landfills by 2025. On construction and demolition (C&D) waste, it mentions that municipalities in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities should start making inventories of C&D waste data by 2022. The recycling rate for C&D waste should reach 50 per cent by 2025 and 75 per cent by 2030.

The measures will contribute positively to the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and Ganga Rejuvenation Mission. The RE and CE-based approaches can lead to the establishment of new industries, especially in recycling, which can contribute significantly to economic growth and creating green jobs.

Such strategies will lead to a reduction in waste generation which will contribute towards cleaner cities and rivers and water bodies through reduced disposal and associated pollution. Reduced waste generation also means reduced pressure on landfills and savings in waste disposal costs by municipalities. Segregation of waste at an appropriate place and time is an important factor in ensuring the quality of secondary material recovered.


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