Interview: Co-founder Ranjith Annepu talks municipal waste in Mumbai and around the world
“Waste can become wealth when you put a price on pollution and regulations are strictly implemented.”
This interview was originally broadcast on tbs eFM’s This Morning with host Alex Jensen on March 20, 2015.
1. How has Deonar, a suburb of Mumbai, become Asia’s oldest and largest dumpsite?
Dumpsites are generally located in less populated areas. The Deonar dumpsite was started in 1927 and at that point in time, it could have been on the outskirts of Mumbai. Now, it is inside the city, but only a minor percentage of the population is aware of the dumpsite. For the rest, once the problem of waste is out of sight, it goes out of mind. Once you find a place to dump all your waste and there are no significant objections to doing so, then the dumpsite automatically gets bigger and that was probably what happened with Deonar.
However, the health of the entire city and its surroundings are negatively affected by the pollution from the dumpsites.
2. What are the crucial economic and geographic factors that have led to crisis amounts of garbage?
The main factors are economic and political. When we are talking about economic factors, we should see how India has transformed from being a poor country to a middle-income country. India has provided millions of its formerly poor residents with basic human needs like food, shelter, clothing and other material resources. For example, as access to food increases—which is good—it results in food waste, which is not desirable when many people still go hungry. So increasing quantities of waste is a result of development. India should keep developing, but simultaneously, it should prioritize managing its waste and place it higher up in its political and economic agenda.
Decision makers severely under estimate funding requirements for waste management. In some Indian cities, 50% of the municipal budget is spent on just waste collection—not even safe treatment and disposal. This situation is worsened because of inappropriate usage of the “waste to wealth” concept. Waste can become wealth when you put a price on pollution and regulations are strictly implemented, which is not the situation in India.
Since waste is out of sight and out of mind, it does not become a political issue. When it does, it can bring governments down. Solutions to the problem are long term, usually more than four years. So even if bureaucrats or politicians take up the issue, the solutions take longer than their terms in the office, which is usually three years for bureaucrats and five for politicians. So, they do not have an incentive to invest their time in long-term measures.
3. The city plans to keep buying more landfill sites to dump trash, which it claims is the only option. Is this really the only alternative? And how does this relocate problems (environmentally, but also financially)?
It is not the only option. Solutions range from informal recycling to waste-to-energy. Longer term solutions also include reducing waste generation.
Dumpsites, in this case, might seem financially cheap, but that is because public health costs, lost value due to degraded quality of life and environmental costs are not take into consideration. If all of those costs are considered, landfills become the most expensive option.
4. Cairo is known for producing more garbage than Mumbai, but it utilizes door-to-door garbage collectors. And New York produces more daily waste per capita than Mumbai as well. What Mumbai learn from Cairo and New York?
Cairo’s garbage collectors are called the Zabbaleen. The Zabbaleen definitely offer an important service, but let’s not think of it as a perfect solution. Door-to-door collection and recycling in Cairo was possible because the Zabbaleen’s system evolved over time along with the local culture. India does have a similar system of informal recyclers, but the scale is different. Informal recycling will be an important part of the solution for India, but it is not the silver bullet.
Mumbai can learn how to better integrate informal recyclers into the formal system from Cairo.
While New York is not a role model for waste management, it can definitely teach Mumbai to treat a percentage of its waste using waste-to-energy plants and generate electricity from that waste.
“Since waste is out of sight and out of mind, it does not become a political issue. When it does, it can bring governments down.”
5. The increase of dumpsites has consumed people’s living spaces. How does waste threaten living conditions and sanitation?
Uncollected waste, open dumping and burning of it negatively impact India in three important ways. First of all, these behaviors increase the probability of disease from microbes and from toxins in the air, water and land. Next, filth around living spaces depreciates the self-image of residents, which impacts their work and life. It also decreases the value of their property and investments. Finally, it pollutes the environment for future generations.
6. Backyard burning and street littering are also commonly seen in Mumbai. How serious are they and how do they worsen the situation?
I should mention that 20% of air pollution in Mumbai is due to open burning of waste on streets and at dumpsites. Burning is the third largest polluter, releasing carbon monoxide, dioxins, furans and particulate matter.
7. It’s said that most Indians are not aware of how to separate their own garbage. Can we relate to this to cultural and social reasons such as Hindu caste system? (Only those who rank lowest in the caste system handle and transport trash. There is a culture of dumping garbage away from one’s house so as to disassociate it from the house. The expectation is that someone else will take it away.)
If we look at the entire world, there are many countries where waste management is as bad as or even worse than in India. Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria have dumpsites worse than in India. Until 30 years ago Taiwan was dumping all of its waste. A century ago, Paris and New York were doing the same. All these countries do not have the Hindu caste system. They might have other social classifications, but these do not cause the problem.
While Hindu caste systems might make it complex to solve the problem, I personally don’t think it is a reason for this problem.
8. The city also plans to set up an incineration plant at Deonar to dispose of biohazards refuses. Is this a realistic measure?
Yes, it is. But when we talk about incineration, we should make sure that regulations are implemented properly. The city should consider energy recovery after incineration from other types of city waste too.
9. What other measures should be implemented to raise awareness among individuals and city officials about the importance of recycling and managing waste properly?
This is a wonderful question. Because until a year ago, other professionals and I in India were thinking that the problem could be solved if we had enough public awareness. But later, our new Prime Minister made sanitation an important agenda in his government and raised a lot of awareness. So now it is time to formulate long-term policies, make it a priority in planning and governance and provide sufficient funding.