Managing Waste

Why should we look into managing waste when we have government bodies in place? Aren’t we contributing enough through taxes?

The constitution also defines Public health (with the pillars being water supply, sewerage and sanitation) a primary responsibility of the Government. Is mismanagement of waste attributed to the poor quality of Government machinery?

It is true that the Government is struggling to deal with waste. Let’s look at some facts to understand the nature of the beast.

Waste Management around the world

Let’s take a look at what’s going on at a global level to put things into perspective. The chart below shows that waste collection is much more efficient where income levels are high. So it might seem that it is just a matter of allocating resources.

Waste collection statistics published by the World Bank Group

If we delve a little deeper, we uncover some disturbing facts about what happens to the waste. The pie chart below shows that more than 80% of collected waste ends up in some form of a dump or is burned! Some dumps are referred to as  “sanitary landfills” or “controlled landfills”. These “scientific” landfills do mitigate some of the ill effects of rotting waste, but at the end of the day, they are dumps.

Pie chart showing final destination of waste
Even the most developed nations either dump or burn their waste!

Another solution often cited is that of Incineration – a form of controlled burning. This is something that is adopted in Scandinavia and Japan. While incineration does eliminate landfill, it ends up polluting the air and must be considered only as a last resort.

The only truly sustainable way is recycling – reuse of the resources. Nature recycles everything – leaves, trees and carcasses. There is an amazing system of organisms from birds to insects playing their part to recycle. Even the dreaded termites are critical as they break down dead trees!  At a global level (as far as we can tell from the available data) less than 20% of waste is recycled. The natural order has been disturbed and must be corrected.

Why isn’t more waste recycled?

A critical parameter is using the appropriate method or technology. Since waste is extremely heterogeneous, no single method can be used to recycle it. The first step to use any method, is to ensure waste is segregated.

There are numerous efforts underway to develop a technology to automatically segregate waste. So far there isn’t a tool available that gets the job done reliably. So we need to segregate waste manually. This can practically only be done where generated as nobody should be sorting through a pile of trash. It’s dangerous and a health hazard. That’s our first responsibility and meticulous segregation needs to be taken up by every household and establishment.

The next part is to process waste using the right method. Let’s get a quick understanding of these.

One portion of our segregated waste contains man-made components like paper, plastic, glass and metal – these can to be addressed by ensuring that these reach back to manufacturers after their serviceable life. It must be noted that products must be manufactured in a manner so that they may be recycled. So the responsibility falls on the producers. Today we are widely using mixed plastics and toxic chemicals in our products and consumers must choose products wisely.

The larger portion of our waste is natural or biodegradable. Nature has biological processes in place to turn these into resources – soil fertility enhancers and biogas. These biological processes may be carried out at the point of waste generation or in a centralized facility.

These basics of these biological processing methods are well understood. The key is in implementing them in a scientific way and ensuring that they are sustained. This involves long term trials, learning from failures and iterations to arrive at effective tools that integrate into our environment and social fabric.

A key aspect to finding solutions is to support sincere efforts, encourage transparency about challenges and to work through failures as stepping stones.


The facts tell us that that effective waste management is a global challenge, and nobody has it totally down. We’re still in the process of figuring this out. With the absence of a readily available model, we all need to pitch in and support efforts to develop methods that work for our community while learning from failures.