Peeping into the Future of Waste

Waste management is an important tool for curbing climate change and for keeping our environment clean and healthy. Methane generated from biodegradable wastes is a powerful greenhouse gas, and when it’s not captured and used as a fuel it contributes to rapid warming of the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that biodegradable waste in dump sites and uncapped landfill sites are contributing far more methane to the atmosphere than previously thought. What’s more, urban food waste is predicted to increase by 44% from 2005 to 2025, and with no proper management in place, will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Worryingly, 38 of the world’s 50 largest dumps are close to the sea, contributing to marine and coastal pollution. The accumulation of plastics in the marine food chain is causing global concern. While we don’t yet know how to clean the oceans, stemming the flow of waste into marine environments would be a step in the right direction.

Wasted health

40% of the world’s waste ends up in open dumps. These aren’t even what you’d call “landfill”. They don’t have any impervious lining to prevent noxious leachate from entering the surrounding environment, nor are they capped to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, the health risk from open dumping of waste is greater than the risk of malaria[i].

3.5 billion people in the world lack access to proper waste management. That figure is expected to grow to 5 billion by 2050. Respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases and occupational health risks add to the misery experienced by the 50,000+ people living from open dumps.

Waste is any material that is no longer wanted for its original purpose. The owner doesn’t have a need for it, and so discards it. Even valuable items can and do end up as waste purely because someone has thrown them away. The recent (and rather brilliant) BBC programme Hugh’s War on Waste shone the spotlight on attitudes towards disposable fashion. A look through the bins of a typical street uncovered a startling amount of clothing that had been thrown away, despite it still being in perfectly good condition. This highlights a simple fact: there is plenty of value in waste.

  • Estimates suggest there are 40 million people globally who are making their living from waste – half of these are working informally.
  • During the last recession in the UK, the waste management sector was one of the only industries to keep growing, resulting in it being termed the “Green Star of the Economy”.
  • Showing people how to turn a waste stream into something valuable isn’t rocket science. There are lots of examples of informal, community-based, grassroots recycling and upcycling projects that generate wealth for the poorest in society.
  • Internet is allowing simple waste processing techniques to be replicated all over the world, and helping make that information accessible is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.

Business skills

“Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Show a man how to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Teaching people how to make valuable products from waste is important. But just as important, is passing on the business skills to be able to identify a market, factor in costs, check out the competition, market their products and run a successful business.

Development work in the waste arena needs to address both sides of the coin, and in doing so will enable people to start up their own businesses, in their own communities, and generate wealth organically. That’s far more valuable than delivering aid in a ready-made package (which incidentally rarely works – there’s a great TED Talk on this topic by Ernesto Sirolli, called “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen”).

Why closing dumps isn’t a silver bullet

The proliferation of megacities, particularly in developing countries, is causing a health crisis. Decent waste management is an indicator of good governance – that is, if a council or government can collect taxes and provide a waste management service, then it most likely isn’t (very) corrupt. However, in many places where corruption or other forms of bad or weak governance prevail, top-down solutions are notoriously difficult to implement.

Often, when the world’s attention turns to an open dump, the government responds by closing it and the journalists go home. This is what happened with Smokey Mountain dumpsite in the Philippines (and many others around the world). All that happens is another open dump emerges nearby, and the scavengers move to the new site.

The problem is that if there is no alternative solution in place, people will discard of their waste in the only ways available – dumping it or burning it; and the poor will follow the waste.

Replacing an open dump with a government-controlled waste management system isn’t a silver bullet either. The losers, again, are the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of men, women and children who live from scavenging from the dump. It may seem horrific to many of us, but the truth is that if you take that opportunity to earn a paltry living away from the poorest in society, they will starve. Solutions need to be inclusive.

Power to the people

To close dump sites, you need to have a workable alternative solution in place. You need to have regular waste collection taking place, and you need somewhere to take it. Building materials recovery facilities alongside existing open dumps is one idea. Informal waste pickers who are currently working in dangerous conditions on the dumpsite can gain employment (or better still, form a cooperative) sorting recyclable materials and reducing the amount of real “waste” that needs to be disposed of.

For example, Wecyclers in Lagos, Nigeria employs people to cycle around collecting recyclable materials from households. In return for their source-separated waste, the householder receives a small reward.

In Bangalore, IGotGarbage has harnessed the power of phone apps to enable people who were previously waste pickers to be called directly to a house to collect the waste materials. Solutions like this work because they continue to provide livelihoods for people, while taking waste off the streets.

The need for appropriate technology

There will always be something left though: the stuff that really has little value other than the energy embodied in it. In industrialised countries, energy-from-waste incinerators have become popular. Seen as a clean alternative to landfill, these facilities burn the waste, release the energy, and convert it into heat, electricity and ash. Some of that ash (from the air pollution control system) still needs to be disposed of in specially-prepared hazardous waste landfill sites. The remainder, being fairly benign, can be used to make concrete building blocks.

However, incinerators are fairly technology-heavy, rendering them unsuitable for many developing country contexts.

A problem that we’ve witnessed is that waste management companies from industrialised nations try to wholesale their technology in developing countries. The technology is usually unaffordable, and even if the capital can be raised to procure a facility, as soon as something breaks down the whole solution can fall apart.

There is a need for information about simple waste processing technologies to become more open-sourced. Smart future-thinking businesses could capitalise on selling blueprints rather than entire prefabricated facilities. Most of the time it’s far cheaper to fabricate something locally, and also means that when something breaks it can be fixed.

The continuing need for landfill

The fact is that in most cases, a standard, lined landfill site with landfill gas capture is still the most appropriate answer for non-recyclable waste. Add to that a well-organised, low-cost waste collection service with source separation of recyclable materials and biodegradable waste, and you have a relatively affordable solution that is better for the climate, better for health, better for the local economy, and contributes to a more sustainable future.

Landfill may seem very unfashionable to those of us who work in the recycling sector, but nevertheless it will remain a necessity both in developed and developing countries for the foreseeable future.

Joining forces and stepping stones

The success of the Sustainable Development Goals and potential Climate Change Agreement depend on developed and developing countries working together. Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, said the Climate Coalition alliance showed that developed and developing countries could work together with a common interest. “These negotiations are not about them and us. They are about all of us, developed and developing countries, finding common ground and solutions together. We urge other countries to join us. Together we can do it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are facing a waste crisis of unprecedented proportion. The potential for waste management in reducing GHG emissions has never been more pertinent. Waste and development practitioners, academics and entrepreneurs around the world are working together more and more to help bring about the change we want to see, which will benefit the billions of people suffering from poor waste management, and the rest of us who share a warming planet – and share the burden of climate change and poverty.

By sharing knowledge through platforms such as beWasteWise and ISWA, and through initiatives like WasteAidWASTE and Wiego, we can start making a dent in this very large problem.

No silver bullets, but lots of small stepping stones in the right direction.

Note: The original and unabridged version of the article can be found at this link. Please visit http://zlcomms.co.uk/ for more information about the author.

Rationale for Solid Waste Management

Some countries have achieved considerable success in solid waste management. But the rest of the world is grappling to deal with its wastes. In these places, improper management of solid waste continues to impact public health of entire communities and cities; pollute local water, air and land resources; contribute to climate change and ocean plastic pollution; hinder climate change adaptation; and accelerate depletion of forests and mines.

Compared to solid waste management, we can consider that the world has achieved significant success in providing other basic necessities like food, drinking water, energy and economic opportunities. Managing solid wastes properly can help improve the above services further. Composting organic waste can help nurture crops and result in a better agricultural yield. Reducing landfilling and building sanitary landfills will reduce ground and surface water pollution which can help provide cleaner drinking water. Energy recovery from non-recyclable wastes can satiate significant portion of a city’s energy requirement.

Inclusive waste management where informal waste recyclers are involved can provide an enormous economic opportunity to the marginalized urban poor. Additionally, a good solid waste management plan with cost recovery mechanisms can free tax payers money for other issues. In the case of India, sustainable solid waste management in 2011 would have provided

  • 9.6 million tons of compost that could have resulted in a better agricultural yield
  • energy equivalent to 58 million barrels of oil from non-recyclable wastes
  • 6.7 million tons of secondary raw materials to industries in the form of recyclable materials and livelihood to the urban poor

Solid waste management until now has only been a social responsibility of the corporate world or one of the services to be provided by the municipality and a non-priority for national governments. However, in Mumbai, the improperly managed wastes generate 22,000 tons of toxic pollutants like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous and sulfur oxides in addition to 10,000 grams of carcinogenic dioxins and furans every year. These numbers are only for the city of Mumbai. This is the case in cities all across the developing world. There are numerous examples where groundwater is polluted by heavy metals and organic contaminants due to solid waste landfills.

Solid waste management expenditure of above $ 1 billion per year competes with education, poverty, security and other sustainable initiatives in New York City. Fossil fuels for above 500,000 truck trips covering hundreds of miles are required to transport NYC’s waste to landfills outside the city and state. Similarly, New Delhi spends more than half of its entire municipal budget on solid waste management, while it is desperate for investments and maintenance of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure.

Solid waste management is not just a corporate social responsibility or a non-priority service anymore. Improper waste management is a public health and environmental crisis, economic loss, operational inefficiency and political and public awareness failure. Integrated solid waste management can be a nation building exercise for healthier and wealthier communities. Therefore, it needs global attention to arrive at solutions which span across such a wide range of issues.

Importance of Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy has been evolving over the years and there are many new developments in this technology, moving in mainly one direction – to be able to applied to smaller size waste streams. Not only is it a strategy that has real importance for the current public policy, it is a strategy that will definitely present itself to additional areas.

More than 50% of waste that is burnt in waste-to-energy facilities is already part of the short carbon cycle. In which case, it has an organic derivative and it doesn’t add to climate change, to begin with. The long form carbon that is burned, things like plastics that have come out of the ground in the form of oil do add to climate change. But, they have already been used once. They have already been extracted once and what we are doing is taking the energy out of them after that physical use, capturing some of that (energy), thereby offsetting more carbon from natural gas or oil or coal. So, the net effect is a reduction in carbon emissions.

Waste-to-energy and recycling are complementary depending on the results of analyses of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which are absolutely valid. One can decide in specific situations whether waste-to-energy or whether some type of recycling technology would be more appropriate. It is not an either/or option.

In Austria, it was possible to have an absolute ban on landfilling wastes exceeding 5% organic carbon. This is written in law since 1996. There were some exceptions for some period of time, but landfills of organic wastes are just banned, not just in Austria but also in other cultures similar to Austria – like Switzerland and Germany.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Waste to Energy Conversion Routes

Teesside-WTE-plantWaste-to-energy is the use of modern combustion and biological technologies to recover energy from urban wastes. There are three major waste to energy conversion routes – thermochemical, biochemical and physico-chemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. On the other hand, biochemical technologies are more suitable for wet wastes which are rich in organic matter.

Thermochemical Conversion

The three principal methods of thermochemical conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from household wastes is direct combustion.

Combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity.

WTE_Pathways

Combustion technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine. Plasma gasification, which takes place at extremely high temperature, is also hogging limelight nowadays.

Biochemical Conversion

Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas.

Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat.

In addition, a variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

Physico-chemical Conversion

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter are then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into fuel pellets or RDF.

Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.

Food Waste Management – Consumer Behavior and FWDs

food-waste-managementFood waste is a global issue that begins at home and as such, it is an ideal contender for testing out new approaches to behaviour change. The behavioural drivers that lead to food being wasted are complex and often inter-related, but predominantly centre around purchasing habits, and the way in which we store, cook, eat and celebrate food.

Consumer Behavior – A Top Priority

Consumer behaviour is a huge priority area in particular for industrialised nations – it is estimated that some western societies might be throwing away up to a third of all food purchased. The rise of cheap food and convenience culture in recent years has compounded this problem, with few incentives or disincentives in place at producer, retail or consumer level to address this.

While it is likely that a number of structural levers – such as price, regulation, enabling measures and public benefits – will need to be pulled together in a coherent way to drive progress on this agenda, at a deeper level there is a pressing argument to explore the psycho-social perspectives of behaviour change.

Individual or collective behaviours often exist within a broader cultural context of values and attitudes that are hard to measure and influence. Simple one-off actions such as freezing leftovers or buying less during a weekly food shop do not necessarily translate into daily behaviour patterns. For such motivations to have staying power, they must become instinctive acts, aligned with an immediate sense of purpose. The need to consider more broadly our behaviours and how they are implicated in such issues must not stop at individual consumers, but extend to governments, businesses and NGOs if effective strategies are to be drawn up.

Emergence of Food Waste Disposers

Food waste disposer (FWDs), devices invented and adopted as a tool of convenience may now represent a unique new front in the fight against climate change. These devices, commonplace in North America, Australia and New Zealand work by shredding household or commercial food waste into small pieces that pass through a municipal sewer system without difficulty.

The shredded food particles are then conveyed by existing wastewater infrastructure to wastewater treatment plants where they can contribute to the generation of biogas via anaerobic digestion. This displaces the need for generation of the same amount of biogas using traditional fossil fuels, thereby averting a net addition of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere.

Food waste is an ideal contender for testing new approaches to behaviour change.

The use of anaerobic digesters is more common in the treatment of sewage sludge, as implemented in the U.K., but not as much in the treatment of food waste. In addition to this, food waste can also replace methanol (produced from fossil fuels) and citric acid used in advanced wastewater treatment processes which are generally carbon limited.

Despite an ample number of studies pointing to the evidence of positive impacts of FWDs, concerns regarding its use still exist, notably in Europe. Scotland for example has passed legislation that bans use of FWDs, stating instead that customers must segregate their waste and make it available curbside for pickup. This makes it especially difficult for the hospitality industry, to which the use of disposer is well suited. The U.S. however has seen larger scale adoption of the technology due to the big sales push it received in the 1950s and 60s. In addition to being just kitchen convenience appliances, FWDs are yet to be widely accepted as a tool for positive environmental impact.

Note: Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Waste Management Challenges in Developing Nations

Waste is the result of collective failure from public, legislative rules, lack of funds and technical support. Public awareness and proper knowledge of waste management and end use of different types of waste, health effects, environmental problems and economic issues that are related to waste management is very important for successful execution of any waste management related practices. Everyone needs to get better knowledge, proper understanding of waste management issues and their practices to curb it. Basic training needs to be initiated from governments in this regard, which can be very effective. Poor knowledge can make the best planned technique questionable.

The increasing cost of waste disposal is a cause of major concern in developing nations

In developing countries, participation level of most citizens in waste management is very low, with residents in urban areas are not actively involved in the process of waste management. Even though it’s low, but very beneficial for future prospect and for more meaningful involvement of majority of public in waste management practices.

People should be educated about sorting out waste based on their type e.g. recyclable waste, hazardous waste, green waste etc. Majority of people across the world are not aware of waste as recycling material, amazingly most of them think plastic is recyclable waste. Involving people who are unaware of waste management practice is extremely difficult.

In developing countries, practices of waste management are usually carried by poor, for their survival. It has been estimated that 2% of population in Asia, Latin America and Africa are dependent on waste for their livelihood. Family organized, or individual manual scavengers are often involved with waste management practices with very limited supportive network and facilities with increased risk of health effects. Also, this practice prevents their children from further education.

iraq-wastes

Despite the bad consequences, it should be kept in mind that this practice keeps them employed and provide livelihood in countries with high unemployed population. But measure need to be taken to provide their better lifestyles, social behaviour towards people involved in waste management practices, provide them with facilities to reduce their health-related risk and increase their working efficiency.

In developing countries, where government support for waste management is scarce, people need to come strongly against their local municipal office or government if they see things are not changing and stacks of waste are piling up. They should protest to protect their environment, health and keep living secure and healthy for their children.

Management of Construction Wastes

constuction-wastesA wide variety of wastes are generated during construction projects which may be classified into four categories – excavated wastes, demolition wastes, construction wastes and mixed wastes. Construction wastes are also known Construction and Demolition (C&D) wastes. Excavated materials is made up of soil, sand, gravel, rock, asphalt, etc. while demolition wastes is comprised by  concrete, metal, roofing sheets, asbestos, brick, briquette, stone gypsum, wood material. Waste materials generated from construction activities are concrete, dry wall, plastics, ceramics tiles, metals, paper, cardboards, plastics, glass etc. In addition, mixed wastes, such as trash and organic wastes, are also produced in construction projects.

Almost 90 percent of construction wastes are inert or non-hazardous, and can be reused, reclaimed and recycled and reused. The non-recyclable, non-hazardous and hazardous waste materials constitute the remaining 10 percent. The non-inert materials include trees, green vegetation, trash and other organic materials while and the hazardous construction waste materials include contaminated soil, left over paints, solvent, aerosol cans, asbestos, paint thinners, striping paint, contaminated empty containers.

Sustainable management of construction wastes uses number of strategies and is based on the typical waste hierarchy: Avoid/ eliminate, reduce, reuse, recycle, treat and dispose.

Avoidance / Source Reduction

Avoidance or source reduction is considered as the best strategy for waste management and is the most economic way to reduce waste and minimise the environmental impacts of construction wastes. This can be done by avoiding use of hazardous materials such as asbestos-containing materials or chromated copper arsenate treated timber or through green purchasing of materials. This includes purchasing of non-toxic materials, pre-cut timbers and ordering materials of desired dimensions.

Reuse

Although source reduction and elimination are preferred options in the waste management hierarchy, it is always not possible to do so. In this case consider reuse, donation and salvage options to companies or people who need those. Reuse option lengthens the life of a material. Reuse strategy can be used in two ways.

Building Reuse – It includes reusing materials from existing buildings and maintaining certain percentages of building structural and non-structural elements  such as interior walls, doors floor covering and ceilings.

Material Reuse – This is one of the most effective strategies for minimising environmental impacts which can be done by salvaging, refurbishing and reusing materials within the same building or in another building. Many of the exterior and interior materials can be recovered from existing buildings and reused in new ones. Such materials will include steel, walls, floor coverings, concrete, beams and posts, door frames, cabinetry and furniture, brick, and decorative items. Reuse of materials and products will help to reduce the demand for virgin materials and reduce wastes.

Recycle

There is very good potential to recycle many elements of construction waste. Recycling involves collecting, reprocessing and/ or recovering certain waste materials to make new materials or products. Often roll-off containers are used to transport the waste. Rubble can be crushed and reused in construction projects. Waste wood can also be recovered and recycled. Many construction waste materials that are still usable can be donated to non-profit organizations. This keeps the material out of the landfill and supports a good cause.

Treat and Dispose

This option should be considered after all other options are exhausted. The disposal of construction materials should be carried out in appropriate manner through an approved contractor. For examples, certain components of construction waste such as plasterboard are hazardous once landfilled. Plasterboard is broken down in landfill conditions releasing hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas.

Zero-Waste Trends in the United States

Most people don’t see what happens to their trash. They throw it in a black plastic bag, toss the bag into a dumpster and the trash man collects it once a week and makes it disappear. Magic, right?

Wrong.

Most of our trash ends up in a landfill where it is buried and mixed in with decades-worth of junk. Certain items will break down over time while others are essentially just stored there, in a graveyard of forgotten items and a mountain of garbage.

In the year since China banned the import of other countries’ plastic recyclables, the global recycling industry has been in flux, resulting in plastics ending up in landfills, incinerators and littering the environment. This is causing countries and citizens across the globe to reexamine their recycling systems and highlights the need for zero waste practices.

Zero waste is the concept of eliminating the amount of trash thrown away by only purchasing reusable items. That’s a significant shift from the 4.4 pounds of trash that the average American tosses every day. But certain trends are helping make the idea of zero waste a reality in the United States. Let us have a look:

Replace Single-Use Packaging With Reusable Materials

Way too many plastic items that we use every day are meant to be used only once. And the amount of packaging that goes into shipping one box, that will simply get tossed in the garbage after the parcel is unwrapped, is astounding. In fact, 40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, which is thrown away after it arrives at your doorstep.

Plastic bag and straw bans are on the rise across the globe. Consumers are becoming more conscious of how their use of these items contributes to the trash crisis. Recent data shows that customers are more likely to buy products from brands that promote sustainable business practices.

Reduce Energy Waste By Choosing Renewable Options

Many industries are opting to reduce energy waste by pursuing renewable energy sources. U.S. manufacturers account for 30 percent of the nation’s energy consumption, which means manufacturers must take the lead in reducing fossil fuel consumption and energy waste.

The U.S. is the leader in energy waste. Americans spend $350 billion on energy costs each year, yet three-quarters of that energy goes to waste. One way to reduce the burden on our power grid — and our wallets — from all that lost energy is by switching to renewable sources.

Air compressors are vital to the upkeep of a successful farm, and many producers in the agricultural sector are also reducing waste by switching to high-powered air compressors that, when properly maintained, can reduce energy usage and cut costs.

Eliminate Food Waste

About 94 percent of food waste ends up in landfills, which contribute to methane gas emissions. Reducing food waste not only helps the environment, but it also decreases the amount you have to spend at the grocery store. It also helps to conserve energy, as less power is needed to grow and produce food if less is wasted.

Individual consumers can help eliminate food waste by freezing leftovers to preserve them and composting uneaten food, as opposed to tossing in the trash.

Restaurants can use these tactics and others to cut down on food waste, such as donating leftovers and properly training staff to get on board with waste reduction. They can also hire auditors to help them identify ways to reduce waste and streamline business practices.

Never Too Late to Make a Change

Though the statistics may seem disheartening, the reality is that it’s never too late to make a change in your individual or business habits to help cut down on waste and work toward the goal of accomplishing zero waste. Following these trends and implementing others is just one way to do your part to eliminate waste and protect the environment.

Plastic Wastes and its Management

Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency). Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.

While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.

Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.

Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.

With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution. Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.

Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Solid Waste Management – India’s Burning Issue

For the first time in the history of India, the year 2012 saw several public protests against improper solid waste management all across India – from the northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir to the southernmost Tamil Nadu. A fight for the right to clean environment and environmental justice led the people to large scale demonstrations, including an indefinite hunger strike and blocking roads leading to local waste handling facilities. Improper waste management has also caused a Dengue Fever outbreak and threatens other epidemics. In recent years, waste management has been the only other unifying factor leading to public demonstrations all across India, after corruption and fuel prices. Public agitation resulted in some judicial action and the government’s remedial response, but the waste management problems are still unsolved and might lead to a crisis if this continues for too long without any long term planning and policy reforms.

Hunger Strike in Kerala

The President of Vilappilsala Village Panchayat went on a hunger strike recently, against her counterpart, the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. Thiruvananthapuram is the state capital of Kerala, and Vilappilsala is a village 22 km away. Since July 2000, about 80% of the waste generated in Thiruvananthapuram is being transported to a waste composting plant and a dumpsite in Vilappilsala village. Since the same month, respiratory illnesses reported in Vilappil Primary Health Center increased by 10 times from an average of 450 to 5,000 cases per month. People who used to regularly swim in the village’s aquifer started contracting infections; swarms of flies have ever since been pervasive; and a stigma of filth affected households throughout the community. This was a source of frustration as locals who, as Indians, prize the opportunity to feed and host guests, found them unwilling to even drink a glass of water in their homes. Currently, there is not a single household which has not experienced respiratory illnesses due to the waste processing plant and the adjoining dumpsite.

On the other hand, Thiruvananthapuram’s residents had to sneak out at night with plastic bags full of trash to dispose them behind bushes, on streets or in water bodies, and had to openly burn heaps of trash every morning for months. This was because the waste generated was not being collected by the City as it could not force open the composting plant and dumpsite against large scale protests by Vilappilsala’s residents. This is why in August – 2012, about 2,500 police personnel had to accompany trucks to the waste treatment plant as they were being blocked by local residents lying down on the road, and by some, including the village’s President, by going on an indefinite hunger strike.

Municipal Commissioner Replaced in Karnataka

In response to a similar situation in Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, where the streets were rotting with piles of garbage for months, the municipal commissioner of the city was replaced to specifically address the waste management situation. Against the will of local residents, a landfill which was closed following the orders issued by the state’s pollution control board in response to public agitation had to be reopened soon after its closure as the city could not find a new landfill site.

Mavallipura landfill in Bangalore

Population density and the scale of increasing urban sprawl in India make finding new landfill sites around cities nearly impossible due to the sheer lack of space for Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) like waste management.

Dengue Outbreak in West Bengal

Even if partially because of improper waste management, Kolkata, state capital of West Bengal and the third biggest city in India experienced a Dengue Fever outbreak with 550 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. This outbreak coincides with a 600% increase in dengue cases in India and 71% increase in malarial cases in Mumbai in the last five years. Accumulation of rain water in non biodegradable waste littered around a city act as a major breeding environment for mosquitoes, thus increasing the density of mosquito population and making the transmission of mosquito related diseases like dengue, yellow fever and malaria easier.

Rabies in Srinagar

Rabies due to stray dog bites already kills more than 20,000 people in India every year. Improper waste management has caused a 1:13 stray dog to human ratio in Srinagar (compared to 1 per 31 people in Mumbai and 1 per 100 in Chennai), where 54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in a span of 3.5 years. Municipal waste on streets and at the dumpsite is an important source of food for stray dogs. The ultimate solution to controlling stray dogs is proper waste management. The public has been protesting about this stray dog menace for months now with no waste management solutions in sight, but only partial short term measures like dog sterilization.