Investing In A State Of Zero Waste

 The ‘Clean India’ campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi is getting support from a broad spectrum of celebrities. Filmstar Priyanka Chopra launched a 16-day campaign to clean up a Versova, Mumbai locality. Kareena Kapoor painted some walls at Karjat where she was shooting for a film. Salman Khan took up the broom and swept some localities in that area and Sufi singer Kailash Kher has joined the campaign. It is indeed welcome that the rich and powerful are joining the campaign. But this will be reduced to merely photo-ops if the government fails to do its bit. I was recently travelling by train. The waste bin in the sleeper coach was overflowing, leaving me with no option but to throw the waste out of the window. Littering can be checked only by putting in place a waste collection system first.

The city of Bobbili in Andhra Pradesh has shown the way. The municipality has persuaded residents to separate the waste into two bins – compostable and recyclable. Compostable waste is fed to animals. Pigs hog the food waste from hotels; ducks take care of leftovers from the fish market; and dogs eat leftover meat from homes. The other organic waste is converted into compost. Animal dung is used to produce biogas, which provides cooking gas. The recyclable material is sorted. Paper, plastic and metals are sold to the respective users. The remaining non-recyclable material is put into a landfill.

The town of Suryapet has gone farther. The kirana and merchant association was asked to give incentives of Re 1 to Rs 5 for customers bringing their own bag. Chicken and mutton shop owners were likewise requested to offer incentives of Rs 2 on meat purchases. The hotel-owners were requested to offer Rs 2 incentives on carry-out orders when customers brought in their own boxes. These towns have no waste strewn on the streets. Namakkal in Tamil Nadu has gone the same way.

Non-recyclable material is a nuisance. There are materials like candy wrappers that cannot be recycled because metal and plastic are fused together. They cannot be reused either as metal or as plastic. Similarly, many packing materials laminate plastic on paper. This too cannot be recycled because it is impossible to separate the two materials. Incineration spews huge amounts of poisonous gases, along with carbon dioxide. Landfills are expensive, an eyesore and a health hazard. Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch says that the use of these composite materials should be totally banned. It would then be possible to recycle 100 percent of the non-compostable waste. Then there would be no need for landfills or incineration plants.

 The ministry of new and renewable energy does not like this, unfortunately. For it, non-recyclable waste is an asset. It helps produce electricity so that renewable energy targets can be met. As a result, waste that could be recycled is being incinerated. The ministry fails to realise that any material burnt is a loss to nature. The government is providing incentives of about Rs 10 crore per megawatt of electricity generation capacity installed to produce energy from waste. This is actually an incentive to destroy nature. Delhi is producing 18 megawatts electricity from 1,700 tons of waste every day. Colonies in Okhla, where the plant is located, are turning into a ‘toxic gas chambers’ because of the toxic emissions from the plant. A complaint has been filed in the National Green Tribunal on the harm caused by toxic ash strewn in the vicinity.

Municipalities have a financial problem. The cost of collecting two streams of compostable and recyclable waste, composting, and re-separation of the recyclable waste is very high, while the returns are low. Technically, it is possible to move to a zero waste system but this requires funds. This is the major problem of the ‘PPP’ part of the ‘PPPP’” proposed by PM Narendra Modi.

Clean cities provide many other benefits, like less disease. Five lac people reportedly die of malaria every year. Garbage dumps are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry the malaria vectors. The benefits from zero waste system are huge, but this can only be implemented by the government. Municipalities across the country are spending 20 to 50 per cent of their budgets on waste removal. The need is for a scheme which incentivises them to move to a zero waste model.

 Ragpickers are the other resource that can be tapped for clean cities. Pune has shown us how. The pickers usually pick up only the ‘high’ value waste that can be sold easily and leave the rest. The trick is to train them to separate various kinds of waste and buy it all from them. This has provided new respect to the pickers. “You look at me today,” says one, “in this nice fresh sari, and a rose in my hair, and you would not believe it is the same Surekha of five years ago. I spent my day at the garbage bin, and it was hot and dirty work. Even if I had a bath in the morning, by midday I was stinking. So why bother to stay clean? But now I have to go into people’s offices to collect money. I have to look decent. When I go to collect money, the lady there asks me to sit on a sofa. If she is drinking tea, she will request another cup for me.” The ministry of renewable energy would be unhappy, though. Surekha’s happiness would mean more composting and less generation of power! Modi needs to set right PPP (public private partnership), before pushing for PPPP (people public private partnership). Four steps are required. One, the manufacture and use of all non-recyclable material should be prohibited. Two, a scheme should be made to subsidise municipalities that implement a zero waste system. Three, a law to protect and support ragpickers should be enacted. Last, and most important, Modi himself and the ministry of renewable energy, should check their penchant for more power (electricity) from any source that meets the eye.

 The writer was formerly Professor of Economics, IIM Bengaluru

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

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