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Vol. 13 No. 1 - January 2007

Sustainable Development and Waste Management*

By: Ajit Kumar Jain, I.A.S.

High rate of population growth, declining opportunities in the rural areas and shift from stagnant and low paying agriculture sector to more paying urban occupations, largely contribute to urbanization. The cities have grown haphazardly showing tell tale signs of saturation of services, infrastructure and employment potential. This manifests in congestion, inadequate water supply and sanitation, urban poverty and environmental degradation and poses a challenge to urban planners and citizens alike. The priority assigned to urban environmental issues has traditionally been low, resulting in substantial damage to human health and reduced productivity, development. Cities are considered as the growth engines but growth bereft of environmental concern is self-defeating.

The unexpected immigration has also caused the burgeoning of slums, and the growth of squatters and informal housing all around the rapidly expanding cities of the developing world. In many cities, the rapid population growth has overwhelmed the capacity of the municipal authorities to provide even basic services. Millions of people in cities in the developing countries cannot meet their basic needs of shelter, water, nutrition, sanitation, health and education. Thus urban poverty becomes a characteristics feature of urbanization in the twentieth century. Cities are harnessing the environmental resources at a furious pace, taking their ecological footprints far beyond their geographical limits. Pollution of all sorts is rampant leading to deep degradation of the urban environment. Sustainability of the cities in the developing countries with all the above constraints has become a big question mark and has rightly been placed at the focal point of the millennium agenda.

Balancing developmental needs with the limitation of natural resource base will be a key parameter in the struggle for survival. This will be a common denominator particularly in water supply, sanitation, air quality and solid waste management. Conceptually the contours of the city growth can be economic growth potential.

Examples of rapidly depleting assets include depleted ground-water, collapsing fisheries, CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, and deforestation. It is demand of time that we understand our basic requirements, dependency on resources and sustainability on the life support systems that would be the determinant of our very existence. This integrity takes us to concept of “Sustainable Development”.

Sustainable Development

The most widely known definition of sustainable development comes from the Brundtland Commission, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Decision-makers at all levels are faced with the task of how to resolve urban problems  from drinking water to waste management, from housing and transportation to the preservation of urban green space. At the same time the cities will need to become more aware of the impact that their consumption patterns have on other regions and ecosystems.

Urbanization and Waste Generation

Urbanization directly contributes to waste generation, and unscientific waste handling causes health hazards and urban environment degradation. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is defined to include refuse from the households, non-hazardous solid waste, discarded by the industrial, commercial and institutional establishments, market waste, yard waste and street sweepings which are collected by the municipal authorities for disposal. MSW is only a relatively small fraction of all the solid waste that is generated in an advanced economy. Municipal Solid Waste Management, broadly deals with post-consumer waste, in prevention, treatment, recycle, reuse and disposal.

Health and Environment Impacts

Some of the adverse environmental impacts of unscientific handling and indiscriminate dumping of the solid waste are:

  • Ground water contamination by the leachates generated by the waste dumps.

  • Surface water contamination by the runoff from the waste dumps.

  • Foul odour, pests, rodents and wind blown litter in and around the waste dumps.

  • Generation of inflammable gas (methane) within the waste dumps resulting into fires at the landfill and smoke and smog around.

  • Release of green house gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

  • Bird menace above the waste dumps affecting air traffic.

  • Epidemics through stray animals and other diseases vectors.

  • In large agglomerations of the developing countries, inadequate waste management is the cause of serious urban pollution and health hazard.

Sustainable Solid Waste Management

The conventional approach of solid waste management has been to manage the removal of the solid discards from the immediate vicinity of the human settlements. This resulted in the mechanized systems of collection and transportation of waste in the industrialized countries and the landfills to bury the waste. In the later part of the twentieth century, it was realized that the societies will not be able to master the waste avalanche. The waste management had to change its focus from “efficient removal” to waste avoidance, minimization and recycling options with higher priority.

MSW contains organic waste, plastics, papers, glass, metal and inert substance. Carbon and nitrogen-based organic waste from kitchen, market and abattoir is a source of rich organic manure or energy. Plastics, papers, glass, metals are recycled into new products. Debris can be recycled and earth and inert waste used as landfill cover. This helps conserving natural resources and also generates employment. Promotion of waste recycling sector and providing that with an institutional support can, therefore, be in tune with the goals of sustainable development.

Waste Management and Poverty

Environmental degradation impacts the poor most severely. The urban poor, who do not have a fair access to public health and sanitary services in the city are subject to extremely unhygienic conditions in their settlements and periodic outbreaks of water and air borne epidemics. Driven by the compulsion of abject poverty, many of them are involved in waste picking and recycling through an informal chain of scrap dealers and recycling industry. While the scrap dealers have an access to the recyclable waste of the industry and commercial establishments, they depend on the rag pickers for retrieving recyclable waste from the households. In the absence of source segregation, the waste pickers collect the recyclables from the garbage bins.

The rag pickers can be instrumental in the collection and processing of organic waste also, within the localities. Organized groups of rag pickers can be trained and given logistic support for decentralized waste management. This may reduce the transportation and landfill requirement.

In Bogota, Columbia rag pickers called 'card boarders' have been organized into waste recycling cooperatives. With the help of the non-governmental agencies, these cooperatives have formed a 'National Recyclers Association' representing over 50,000 waste collecting families. The cooperatives have ensured minimum wages to the waste collectors. They have set up their own company for selling recyclable waste material and have provided daily care and health cover to their members.

Community Participation

Community participation becomes paramount in an innovative and sustainable approach to Municipal Solid Waste Management. Increasingly, local governments in the developing countries are encouraging community participation.

To achieve the objective of sustainability it is necessary to establish systems of solid waste management, which harmonize the technical requirements with the objectives of environment protection and the needs and interests of different stakeholders especially the urban poor. As the city population increases and its economic profile changes, the quantity of waste and the resources requirement to manage it will increase. Given their financial limitations and competing demand of other services, the urban local bodies may find it challenging to raise and sustain additional allocations for this sector. Thus waste minimization and a community-based waste management seems the only sustainable way to manage the waste.

Ajit Kumar Jain, I.A.S is Senior Advisor, Solid Waste Management Cell, All India Institute of Local Self-Government (AIILSG), Sthanikraj Bhavan, C. D. Barfiwala Marg, Andheri (West), Mumbai - 400 058 (India).

(*The article has been reprinted from Eco-Echoes vol.7, Apr-Jun 2006, published by Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment)

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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