Waste Management in India – Perspectives and Challenges


(Snippets from my Keynote Lecture at Lady Irwin College on 16 September 2015)



In mid September of 2015, I was invited to deliver a Keynote Address at  a seminar on Seminar was “Waste Management : Challenges and Perspectives” at Lady Irwin College, one of the oldest colleges which form part of the University of Delhi. Although the seminar topic was Waste Management, I began my talk by questioning the very notion called “Waste” and asked whether the notion of waste has its genesis in “bad design” – be it human settlement design, design of drainage systems or design of trash collection. I introduced the concept of linear production-consumption-disposal system approach and contrasted it with the ecological concept of zero waste systems. I ended the talk by speaking about the imperative of an enhanced ecological consciousness. This enhanced ecological consciousness is at the core of creating enhanced aesthetics in our public spaces – a very urgent need in the rapidly urbanising Indian landscape.




I began my talk with students at the Seminar at Department of Resource Management and Design Applications at Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi with this very short, yet thought provoking video from Permaculture –  No such thing as “Waste”



The lyrics of this song are as follows :


When I was a little boy, I liked to catch the rain
while people all around my town watched it flow right down the drain


But because our little shed in the bush wasn’t on the mains
the only water we had to use was in a tank caught from the rain

Cos there’s no such thing as waste,
Only stuff in the wrong place
There’s no such thing as waste,
Misusing water’s a disgrace

Moved to the city, rented a house, on my way to buy a bed
Saw one lying on the side of the road so I took that one instead.
I also found a fridge, a couch and a big old plasma screen
in the biggest pile of thrown out stuff that I had ever seen

But there’s no such thing as waste
Only stuff in the wrong place
Yeah, there’s no such thing as waste
That old landfill is a disgrace.

Down the track, I found out that diesel cars can run on veggie fat
Bought a truck and hit the road, smelling like fish & chips
I rescued piles of wasted oil from the back of restaurants
I’d be a fool if I bought my fuel when there’s oil nobody wants

There’s no such thing as waste
Only stuff in the wrong place
No, there’s no such thing as waste
That old idea’s got to be replaced

Now we gotta refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle
Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle.

Now I get my things out of garbage bins, I compost every crumb,
I save my seeds and eat my weeds and feed the leftovers to ya mum
Gonna build a house from the rubbish tip, gonna keep this planet clean
Reuse ideas that have been round for years to live within its means.

There’s no such thing as waste, woah no
Only stuff in the wrong place, scooba doo beeooden dip
I said there’s no such thing as waste, yeah
Only opportunity to be embraced.

Charlie Jones (2012)

India generates about 60 million tonnes of trash every year. Ten million tonnes of garbage is generated in just the metropolitan cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. Looking at the enormous challenge that urban centres in India are facing on this issue, there is an urgent need to move beyond the linear production – consumption – disposal approaches which was widely adopted in the 20th Century. In view of the very high consumption of timber, metals, minerals, construction materials etc, and further in view of the fact that many of these are slowly renewable, it is absolutely essential to adopt the concepts of closed loop systems and circular economy.


Some important questions for India to understand as its economy grows rapidly and urbanisation is set to grow exponentially are –

  • Are Landfills & Incinerators technically sound and financially viable options for India ?
  • Have Frugal Context Specific solutions been explored or is the automatic first choice only the solutions which have succeeded in a Western Context ?
  • What is the overall strategy planned for the 100 odd smart cities that are being proposed ?

Urbanisation and India’s Waste Management Challenge

India generates about 60 million tonnes of trash every year. Ten million tonnes of garbage is generated in just the metropolitan cities : Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. Delhi generates approximately 9,000 metric tonnes of solid waste, which is dumped into four landfill sites. These four landfill sites extend over 164 acres, when the current requirement is nearly four times the available area – 650 acres, according to a 2011 report by the Central Pollution Control Board. Mumbai generates 6,500 metric tonnes of garbage daily, including 2,500 metric tonnes of silt and debris, besides 25 tonnes of bio-medical waste. A significant amount of the waste (4,500 metric tonnes per day) is dumped at the eastern suburb Deonar dumping ground which will expire by the end of 2016. Other landfills in Mumbai have shut down due to over-use. In addition, Mumbai also generates 21 lakh tonnes of industrial waste per year, which is half of the national total, according to the Central Pollution Control Board report. Industrial waste is also dumped into the landfills. The landfills of most of these cities are already overflowing, with no space to accommodate fresh garbage waste. According to an expert at the Centre of Science and Environment, instead of constructing new landfill sites, the government should be looking into innovative methods to dispose and recycle its waste. The reason why most landfill sites are over-flowing is because the current waste collection and disposal system is fundamentally flawed.

Most of the landfills in India have not been built according to accepted specifications. And owing to the decomposition of inorganic waste, the ground water is contaminated. When rainfall percolates through the waste in a landfill, there is also the problem of leachate because most of these dumping grounds are not scientific landfills. A study by scientists at the School of Environmental Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University found high levels of nickel, zinc, arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals in the solid waste at landfills in metro cities, especially in Delhi. Nearly 20% of methane gas emissions in India is caused by landfills. Travel past one of these landfills and you are bound to see great spirals of smoke climbing the horizon, as the trash catches fire due to the heat generated by the decomposition of waste.

Decentralised Operations and Source Separation of Waste

The magnitude of the problem confronting rapidly growing cities in India can be reduced significantly by practising segregation of waste at source itself. A model needs to be developed by municipal authorities in partnership with RWAs both in  authorised colonies and in slums and unauthorised colonies. In many landfill sites, owing to the lack of an effective waste recycling system, solid waste is burned without segregating bio-degradable waste from non-biodegradable waste. This leads to the release of toxic gases that cause acute respiratory diseases and environmental degradation.

Segregation of waste should occur at the colony or neighbourhood level, when the waste is collected. The dhaloas in the metropolitan cities are always overflowing due to lack of segregation. Recyclable waste such as construction and demolition waste, organic waste like household garbage, toxic waste like medical waste, all end up together. Most of the construction and demolition waste can and must be recycled. These should not reach the landfills to begin with. The municipal bodies should learn from successful zero waste systems which have been implemented elsewhere in the world where almost all C&D waste is recycled. Basic principles from these learnings combined with substantial customisation to the Indian context needs to be the cornerstone for creation of aesthetic zero waste settlements. Before embarking on plans to clean up cities, what is essential is that the government formulate an integrated waste management system that ensures segregation and recycling. All waste that can be processed needs to be converted into recycled or reusable material. 100 % recycling of trash materials is possible and there should be no necessity of landfills in new urban spaces.

There is another large issue pertaining to the health of water bodies in India which is also putting at risk the health of millions of people living in urban settlements.

Health of Water Bodies

In addition to handling of solid waste, one of the biggest urban challenges in India is facing is managing its sewage. Indian cities produce nearly 40,000 million litres of sewage every day and barely 20 percent of it is treated, according to “Excreta Does Matter”, a report released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Eighty percent of sewage in India is untreated and flows directly into the nation’s rivers, polluting the main sources of drinking water. Weak or non-existent enforcement of environmental laws, rapid urban development and a lack of awareness about the dangers of water contaminated with sewage are all blamed for water pollution. A 2011 survey by the Central Pollution Control Board revealed only 160 out of nearly 8,000 towns had both sewerage systems and a sewage treatment plant. In addition, thousands of small factories were dumping untreated sewage into rivers and toxic waste was being mixed with fresh water.

There is a need to critically examine the present practice in conventional sanitation of using copious quantities of freshwater to transport domestic waste. There is substantial evidence to indicate that (a) the huge demand of freshwater for cities, (b) use of  drains as evacuation channels for sewage and (c) the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers is killing Indian rivers and we may be staring at a freshwater crisis of unimaginable scale in less than a decade. Almost the entire country has nitrate levels higher than the prescribed levels — a result of sewage leaching into groundwater supplies. Environmentalists consider that inability to regulate the use of freshwater as a cause of impending water scarcity – with the country’s annual consumption expected to double by 2050. Researchers working on public health fear that the untreated waste dumped into rivers is creating a ticking health bomb in India.

In fact, the issue of health of water bodies is linked to much larger issues including :

  • How much energy and water do our cities really need ?
  • What are sustainable mechanisms of addressing Urban India’s water and energy needs ?
  • Is it important to maintain the Natural Flow of Rivers ?
  • Is there an important ecological function being performed by Natural Drains ?
  • What are the Cycles of C, N, P, K and how can they be supported ?


Need to adopt Closed Loop Approaches

Paul Hawken in his book “The Ecology of Commerce” made a very pertinent comment “Packaging lasting for four hundred years that is kept on the shelf for two months for a product that we consume in two minutes is senseless.” Waste generation and consumption needs to become a cyclical process, mimicking the way nature does this task. There is a need to understand the resource cycle from a new ecological perspective. One such approach is that of Closed Loop Environmental Systems. The most important aim of Closed Loop Environmental Solutions is to divert resources from being dumped in landfills and fresh water bodies. In supply chains such a process is done by closing the loop by pairing the process of forward (forward supply chain) with reverse logistic (reverse supply chain).  Every aspect of consumption in the city needs to be touched to create a zero waste system – Responsible Policies, Clean Manufacturing, Zero Waste Community Programs, Recovery Infrastructure and at the core of it all ecologically conscious citizens.

In certain countries of the EU, there is a directive principle called “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) – a waste management system where the manufacturer is responsible for a product’s disposal.  In Canada a close cousin of EPR called Extended Product Responsibility directs a shared responsibility between the manufacturer and the government to recycle. In India, we need to develop our own indigenous approaches to ensure that waste from industrial and domestic sectors does not ruin our soil, air and water.  Before implementing a new system for managing urban waste in India, in addition to sound sustainability strategy and planning, the cultural acceptance of solutions needs to be understood.

Closed Loop Systems – Linking Sanitation and Agriculture

Urban Sanitation and Agriculture can be linked up to ensure that pathogens in waste are destroyed, water bodies are blue and urban citizens, peri-urban collectives and rural farmers become customers for safe manure  converted from fecal sludge and human urine. Applying sustainable sanitation at city scale, one begins to study nutrient cycles – Phosphorous and Nitrogen recycling. City scale sustainability requires adoption of closed loop approaches – in which the phosphorous and nitrogen which came from the farm and fish, through the food into our bodies, return to those very ecosystems.

Waste Management in Proposed Smart Cities

Currently, in India, there is great thrust on urbanisation and Smart Cities. However, the Smart Cities agenda needs to proceed with care because high investment and shining infrastructure creation would likely act as a magnet for rural poor to migrate in search of livelihood.


Let us take the example of proposed waste management in one of the Smart Citis – GIFT City in Gandhinagar, Gujarat – which has adopted a pneumatic underground waste collection system to transport waste from multistorey buildings to a collection centre at a speed of 110-140 km per hour. This system, as the Swedish manufacturer described it on the company website, is “a minimum requirement for Smart City Concept and Initiative across India.” While data about the cost or benefits of the automatic waste collection system are not available, research by the University of Helsinki in 2012 on similar technologies in the Finnish capital provides a fair idea about the costs involved. It is estimated that a vehicle-operated door-to-door waste collection system is economically six times superior to pneumatic systems.

Silver Lining 1 : Ambassadors of Clean Green Habitat

The silver lining in this otherwise challenging scenario in India is the work done by several passionate individuals and organizations, some of whom are listed below –

  • Saru Waghmare, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat
  • Almitra Patel, INTACH Water Network
  • C Srinivasan, Indian Green Service
  • Ravi Agarwal, Toxics Link
  • and many many more …..


Silver Lining 2 : Soil Bio Technology – Frugal Innovation in WM

A notable frugal innovation in recovering precious freshwater in urban context is Soil Bio Technology (SBT) developed by Prof H S Shankar of IIT Bombay. SBT is based on the understanding that the energy needed to supply oxygen to a soil environment is a fraction compared to energy needed to supply oxygen to an aquatic environment. SBT is the outcome of long years of reflection to answer one key question, “if natural elements can help purify water to produce crystal clear water in mountain springs, can the same process be replicated and catalysed?“ SBT Technology finds immediate applications in water harvesting, sanitation, agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Developmental studies in SBT type environment for water purification show that through appropriate adjustment of process conditions COD, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, arsenic, and iron removal can be achieved as required. Another very interesting feature of the process is that waste water with near zero dissolved oxygen emerges nearly saturated with oxygen and this is achieved without use of mechanical aeration. In SBT formulated soil such as media, culture and additives are used in a green environment wherein oxygen required is generated internally so as to bring about organic waste processing at desired organic and hydraulic loading onsite. SBT based plants have very low operating costs and its choke-free design leads to very low downtime for maintenance and a very green landscaped appearance – all of which is in direct contrast to conventional wastewater treatment plants. Several such SBT facilities working with raw sewage of  sizes 500 lit /day  (individual homes) to several million litres per day ( large communities)  have been set up during last 10 years. A 3 million litres per day facility set up for Municipal Corporation of Bombay is featured in a documentary produced by Government of India and can be viewed at the following websites:http://www.che.iitb.ac.in/faculty/hss/hss-web.html. (SBT is covered by Indian and US patents and is now being offered globally by Vision Earthcare P Ltd – an IIT Bombay incubated startup)

Silver Lining 3 : Frugal Innovation in Sanitation : Zerodor Waterless Urinals

With increasing emphasis on water conservation, there is renewed interest in toilets and urinals designed to minimize the amount of water consumed in flushing to mitigate excessive demands on water supplies as well as on waste water disposal systems. Waterless Urinals currently require regular replacement of parts for their continuous operation. These traps also require periodic maintenance routines to prevent blockages.   In order to overcome these issues, IIT Delhi has developed and patented a waterless Urinal Technology “Zerodor”. Zerodor Wateress Urinals is a chemical free technology, costs one fifth the cost of competing technologies and has no recurring cost which makes it a much more attractive proposition. In addition there is an advantage in this technology of being able to retrofit into existing urinal pans. Waterless Urinals do not require water for flushing and result in saving anything between 56,800 litres to  1,70,000 litres of water per urinal per year. In addition, touch free operations reduce the spread of communicable diseases.

Ekam Eco Solutions has taken Waterless Urinal Kiosks and Wastewater Treatment Systems to market.

(Zerodor Waterless Urinals are covered by Indian and International Patents and are now installed across the world by Ekam Eco Solutions P Ltd – an IIT Delhi incubated startup  URL : www.ekamecosolutions.com)


Concluding Remarks

One can conclude this article by stating that better sanitation and aesthetic environments require much more than only investment and infrastructure. It is not only a matter of constructing more urinals & toilets and installing more garbage collection bins and more pick up trucks. It calls for something much deeper, much more fundamental. Integrating high technology waste collection systems with existing city infrastructure is likely to be highly challenging. In Indian cities, given the low labour cost, probably the economic advantage of waste collection by training and ugrading informal sector workers already involved such as garbage pickers, kabadi-wallahs, sanitary workers, informal sector would be even greater. In the absence of informed research and faced with enticing Smart City propaganda, it is not clear whether city administration and ULBs would be able to make the best rational choices? Further, in view of the high level of diversity (economic, social and cultural) of people who inhabit urban places in Indian cities – it is absolutely crucial that plans and systems be sensitive to this diversity to ensure speedy transition to zero waste settlements. It needs to be emphasised that the diverse users of waste management sub-systems in urban areas (as much the slum dwellers, homeless and the poor as residents of low rise gated communities and high rise apartments) and their unique social, cultural and behavioural aspects need to be appreciated and incorporated into plans for transition to zero waste settlements. Ultimately, some of the key words for creating human settlements with high aesthetics are : Carrying Capacity, Communities, Decentralisation, Human Settlement Issue, Source Separation, Landscape & Drainage, Frugal Engineering, Bio mimics,       and Closing the Loop. There are over 100 innovators and entrepreneurs – both young and old – working in diverse ways on this issue of clean and green human settlements. There are new products, new technologies and bold business models. They will experience even more success in their mission by teaming up with urban local bodies, CSR managers, philanthropic organisations, RWA’s, architects and facilities management organisations.  Ultimately, success in this mission requires elevation of our Consciousness as a Collective ! !



  1. http://thewire.in/2015/06/05/a-trip-down-the-rabbit-hole-of-modis-smart-cities-wonderland-3251/ by A Srivathsan
  1. http://thewire.in/2015/07/21/smart-urban-growth-must-involve-a-dialogue-with-the-poor-6972/ by Tanvi Bhatkal
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/infosys/2011/12/20/sustainable-tomorrow-bte/ by Dipak Rath
  3. http://www.weforum.org/pdf/sustainableconsumption/DSC%20Overview%20Briefing%20-%20Closed%20Loop%20Systems.pdf
  1. “Excreta Does Matter”, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
  2. http://permaculturesongs.com/lyrics-chords/
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKWVtZ81mY0 – Soil Bio Technology, Prof H S Shankar
  4. www.ekamecosolutions.com – Ekam Eco Solutions


  • Vijayaraghavan M Chariar



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