Monday, September 2, 2013


Garbage is a dirty word for most people who strive to keep their place clean and tidy but it cannot be avoided in the modern industrial society and day after day the volume of garbage grows astronomically with vast diversity of its nature and composition. While organic waste can be of use for generating bio gas through fermentation, there are wastes that can be recycled or burned under controlled conditions. With urbanization taking place at a fast pace in many developing countries, the burden of garbage collection and disposal is increasing on most urban townships, many of them having no clue as to how best the waste can be managed. Till about a decade ago wastes were dumped in landfills and with land availability becoming a critical factor, many towns and cities are imposing landfill tax on private waste generators making it imperative to look for viable alternatives.

A well organized waste collection system should have provision for segregating it into biodegradable, recyclable and others not amenable to the two processes. But such efforts are fraught with tremendous logistical difficulties and even if logistical factors are managed, the citizens should have high sensitivity and awareness regarding the responsibility to segregate the refuse regularly before handing over to the collection agency. In well developed countries like the US and in Europe both civic sense as well as waste collection system are well developed and high volumes of waste are collected sufficient to industrial scale processing and recycling. It was only recently that many reports highlighted the plight of cities which do not have adequate facilities to process trying to send them to places beyond their borders! By now the world recognizes the bitter truth that garbage deserves respect and must be handled with care for preventing spread of infection and environmental degradation.

Interestingly India presents a contrasting picture with organized waste handlers and the rag pickers engage in a bitter struggle to lay their hands on the urban garbage! This conflict is best manifested in Delhi where there are thousands of rag pickers who are earning a livelihood by collecting the garbage in different parts of the city and after sorting out sell the same to earn a few bucks that help them to keep hunger away. As the city is growing at a frenetic pace the civic administration wants to entrust to organized waste processing companies so that citizens are assured of a garbage free environment. How far such a move will impact the waste management programs in different cities and towns in the country is an issue that needs to be resolved without affecting the livelihood of the rag picking community. The unorganized rag pickers seem to be bracing up for the challenge from the Big Brothers by organizing themselves into a union under the banner of All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh or AIKMM, its acronym.

Why should there be a conflict between the organized and unorganized garbage handlers? Probably the reason is because garbage, for the illiterate, urban, unskilled slum-dweller, is the only stable means to earn a living. Not all garbage is sought-after. Generally about 20 per cent of Delhi's daily output of 12,000 tonnes comprises inert waste, such as sand and stones from construction sites. But much of the rest is picked clean by rag pickers, who make India one of the most efficient trash-harvesting countries in the world. Fifty per cent of the waste is 'wet' or organic and yields treasures like bones worth Rs 1,500 a kg and hair worth Rs 2,000 a kg. But the real bone of contention lies in the last 30 per cent of the waste heap which comprise plastics and other recyclable materials fetching valuable returns. The civic bodies by planning to get rid of the daily piling of garbage invariably turn to corporate industry for practical reasons which seems to hurt the humble rag pickers who were in business for umpteen number of years. According to some reports, on an average a rag picker earns about Rs 30 a kg for plastic found in bottles and about Rs 21 a kg for used paper. The total recyclable market in Delhi is estimated at Rs 560 crore a year and no doubt this is not a small turnover by any standards. Probably this is the real reason why "the rag battle" takes place in major cities like Delhi.

If one goes by the experience of a city like Oslo, Norway, garbage is a precious commodity that is one of the most sought after source of sustainable energy. If reports are to be believed approximately half the city's population get energy for heating their homes by controlled burning of house hold trash, industrial waste etc. Burning of garbage generates heat and electricity is generated for the grid to supply to the city. Unfortunately this country is facing a unique problem of garbage shortage to run its efficient incineration plants. This problem is faced by many cities across Northern Europe where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades and demand for trash far outstrips supply. What is the reason?

The fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year which cannot meet even 25% of the demand from incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. Interestingly Sweden seems to be building more and more plants! Same is true with other countries like Austria, Germany etc. In Sweden itself there is keen competition in buying garbage from other cities ferrying the same to the processing plants by all available means including by road and ships. It appears Europe is emerging as the single geographical entity that considers garbage as a commodity, realizing its value in terms of energy.

See what is happening in Chennai vis-a-vis waste management. In a desperate move the civic body wanted to impose a tax on those generating garbage in large quantities which is being resisted by the citizens as well as institutions like hotels, industry and others. Is it not a paradox that in Europe there is a huge shortage of trash while in India almost every city is bursting with garbage mounds strewn all around? Why there are no innovative efforts to harness this unlimited energy source? It is true that compared to the disciplined garbage collection mechanism in place in the western world, Indians are insensitive to littering every where they go and therefore the quantity generated has to be huge. Why not set up a number of incineration plants around such cities like Chennai which will go a long way to solve the country's perennial power shortage? The human angle can be tackled by incorporating the unorganized rag pickers into the management system for collection, segregation and delivery at different points in a city. Only to watch out is the reaction from human rights activists deploring the use of humans for such a low level, insanitary and potentially dangerous avocation, comparing it eventually with the old night soil scavenging prevalent decades ago. 


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