Can individual behavioral change lead to transformation in Urban Waste Management?

The “Broken Window” theory is used in policing high crime neighborhoods. It can be used as a suitable analogy for tackling the issue of waste management in India. The concept behind the theory is that if one lets minor problems go unnoticed and unattended in a particular environment, over time, it causes a shift in the attitude of the people towards the said environment. They form a tendency to participate in causing such problems without fear of law and order. In the Indian context, one could look at the accumulation of the waste of two households at a given place as the first broken window. If no action was to be taken against them or no one was to reprimand their actions, not only them but also their neighbors would start piling up their waste at the same place. This would result in the area mentioned above becoming a site where people of the neighborhood dump their garbage regularly. The original theory postulates that by minimizing and keeping a check on the more minor crimes and acts of disorder, one can prevent more significant crimes from happening. Similarly, if one were to fix the “broken window,” that is, dumping of unsegregated waste in public areas, it might enable us to address more significant environmental issues caused due to poor waste management on our part.

With more than 1.3 billion people and rapid urbanization, India generates massive waste each day. However, India’s per person waste generation is still a tiny percent of the waste generated by individuals in developed countries. And yet, one hears more often about the deplorable condition of roads, public areas, and rivers in India than the countries that seemingly generate more waste than us. The simple answer to this puzzle lies in the term “waste management.” Waste Management includes all the steps right from the inception of waste to its disposal that are required to manage it. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was awarded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Goalkeeper award for “Swacch Bharat Abhiyan”. While the efforts undertaken under the “Clean India Initiative” are worth appreciating, the issue plaguing India’s hygiene, environment, and sanitation continues to be its poor waste management. 

The domain of waste management in India has developed through various acts and judgments. The Government, on its part, has come up with different policies to ensure that the waste generated by its citizens is managed well. As recently as 8th June 2021, the Centre has allocated ₹40,700 crores to help more than 2 lakh villages achieve solid and liquid waste management (SLWM) under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin).

India has also committed to attaining sustainable development goals (SDGs) that are all interlinked. It is difficult to realize all goals without following an intersectional approach; we must look at waste management as a priority for our country. Today the world seems to be treating most resources as if they were infinite, and we are more inclined to use disposable products over environment-friendly ones. This has led to a proliferation of waste, which has affected the health, environment, resource efficiency, and clean resource availability. To attain the SDGs mentioned above, various regulatory boards seem to be focused on finding new ways to reduce and manage waste generated by industries. To facilitate better waste management by enterprises, they have been asked to reduce waste generation and increase environmental development as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. The SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and New Urban Agenda(NUA) have called for innovative ways to address global waste management in general and solid waste in particular.  

To deal with solid waste, the Supreme Court in 1998 had formed a committee to study solid waste management in various cities. The committee tabled its report in 1999 (for the first time), highlighting gaps in solid waste treatment and ways to remedy them. Taking the report into consideration as well as sections 3, 6, 25 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the Government put forth Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules (SWMR) intending to standardize as well as enforce similar practices of solid waste management across various cities of the country. Besides that, under the Environment Protection Act 1986, the MoEF has come up with and enforced several other laws to tackle hazardous waste management. 

The problem in India is not a lack of policy or discussions on waste management and sustainable goals. The issue lies in lack of awareness about various waste management techniques, dumping of mixed waste without segregation, lack of facilities to deal with different kinds of waste produced, amongst other things. The SWMR, while ambitious, fails to work because of a lack of regular waste collection, segregation, and proper disposal structure. Till recent years, the biggest issue remained collection and proper disposal of the massive amounts of waste being generated by the country; however, recently, people have begun realizing the importance of recycling and disposing of waste properly to ensure the environmental impact of the same is minimized as displayed by the inclination to move towards a recycling economy.

The Indian community’s consumption rate has increased and as a consequence, so has its waste generation. While we are on the path of mimicking Western consumption habits, we can surely learn a lesson or two from their waste management techniques. Their solid waste is segregated, stored, collected, transported, and disposed of promptly. The idea behind effective solid waste management is to reduce, reuse, recover, and recycle as much as possible using appropriate technologies to facilitate the prevention of unnecessary dumping in landfills. If landfills are left unchecked, they can cause severe pollution to the air, soil, and underground water, as is the issue with many landfills in our country. Another issue with efficient waste management in India is the lack of proper ways of transporting the waste. Unlike many Western and European countries, the waste here isn’t collected in a timely and efficient manner with segregation at source and covered transport vehicles, leading to all the waste getting mixed up, the streets being littered, further deteriorating the waste management situation.   

While segregation is a good step towards efficient waste management, we lack the necessary awareness, funds, and human resources. The rag pickers in India are an informal sector of workers who segregate the waste; however, they aren’t trained for efficient segregation and often burn the remaining debris in the landfills. Such landfill fires cause air pollution, and without any safety gear on them, the rag pickers are constantly exposed to the toxic fumes first. To effectively address the waste disposal situation, the sustainable solid waste management policy agenda needs to drive behavioral changes amongst citizens, elected representatives, and decision-makers to minimize waste and maximize reusing and recycling.

The majority of India’s waste consists of organic material, which gives us a tremendous opportunity to compost if we start segregating at source as per the SWMR, 2016. Essential features of SWMR, 2016 include segregation at source, collection, and disposal of sanitary waste, Collect Back Scheme for packaging waste, user fees for collection of waste from bulk generators, promoting waste treatment and composting, and the concept of turning waste to energy. Irrespective of the number of policies, to completely overhaul the waste management sector and induce the necessary behavioral change, citizen participation and engagement are key.

While changing the consumption culture is going to take a lot of time, we can see a way out in the form of educating the masses along with all the stakeholders regarding the benefits of segregation, composting, reusing as well as recycling to bring about some changes in the way waste is managed in the country. In the end, it all boils down to the individuals generating waste to reduce and reuse it and the local bodies ensuring that the “broken window,” that is, littering and dumping mixed waste in public areas, gets fixed. 

By Ruchika Mohapatra, Research Associate, Policy, LQF

Note: You can access all resources on our Urban Waste Management Initiative through this link. You can support our initiative here.


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