"The waste volume is growing rapidly"

Aditi Ramola, technical director at ISWA, on the current challenges faced by the Indian waste management sector.

india Recycling plastics

If you had to describe waste management in India in a few words, how would you do so?

India is a rapidly growing country, and the volume of waste is growing accordingly. The population is currently 1.3 billion, and is still growing.. At the same time, economic output is rising, and with it prosperity. So on the one hand we have more consumption, but on the other we still have the problem that waste is often not collected and disposed of properly. The construction of waste and resource facilities and landfills that are properly managed and do not endanger the environment is therefore still an important issue. Another challenge is the very high level of construction activity. In terms of volume, construction and demolition waste is the largest frac- tion at 500 to 700 million tonnes per year. Then comes industrial waste at around 200 million tonnes and municipal solid waste at around 62 million tonnes per year.

And here, the proportion of plastic is also increasing massively

This is a development that we have been experiencing since the early 1990s, ever since India opened up its market. However, the wet fraction still accounts for the largest share of municipal solid waste, at around 60% according to some studies. It is relatively easy to process if it is separated at source. This means that the most urgent recycling mission at the moment must be to separate this fraction from other fractions. Separating the wet fraction, dry fraction and sanitary waste in every household would be an impor- tant step. Unfortunately, despite robust waste management rules and regulations that were mostly updated in 2016, implementation lags behind across most of the country. The situation is better in large cities and worse in smaller towns.

At the same time, however, there are reports that the recycling rate in India is very high. In some cases, there is talk of up to 60%.

The figures on this vary widely. The reason for this is that a large proportion of waste is collected and subsequently recycled in the informal sector. It is therefore difficult to say to what extent the figures are correct. In any case, the informal sector is very important, which is why efforts are being made to integrate it into the municipal waste management system. The collectors then receive ID cards, for example, and work on behalf of the municipalities. The informal sector is particularly important when it comes to collecting and recycling the dry frac- tion, i.e. paper, glass, plastic and metal.

What will India’s waste management sector have to face in the future?

Plenty. As mentioned at the beginning, we need to continue to increase collection rates, otherwise we will not be able to control the improper management of waste, which has an impact on human health and the environment. At the same time, India must find ways to respond to the increasing amounts of plastic in the trash. Here, the trend is more towards technical solutions rather than reduction and prevention. And finally, India is not unaffected by new types of waste. Here, too, the proportion of electronic waste and hazardous waste is rising.