When one hears the word “garbage”, an image of a big, overflowing, once-yellow disposal bin is immediately conjured up. While 80 percent of the population covers up their nose or holds their breath with a silent thought dedicated to sheer disgust, the other 20 percent is busy scrabbling about those very bins, clearing through the mess left by the former. Educated as that 80 percent may be, most of them have no idea about segregation of the waste they so easily dump.
There is a lot of waste generated in India. And a lot, means 36.5 million tons of it, annually. 94 percent of this goes directly into landfills and dumps, while 5 percent of it is composted. But, these are just a bunch of numbers, which will not mean a thing if nobody knows what they depict.
A big, big, big amount of the dump can very well be re-processed, recycled and re-used. And that’s what you see all the waste workers doing, in case you’ve ever wondered why they flounder knee-deep in stinky things. They are separating the recyclable and biodegradable from the non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
The Garbage Picker Complexity
Although informal waste workers constitute an overwhelming proportion of the waste handling workforce, the mainstream is made of municipal workers associated with a formal organization of some kind. The informal scrap trade is not represented in the chambers of commerce and industry, even though it handles post-consumer secondary commodities that constitute raw materials for manufacturing industries.
Breaking it down, it means that the informal scrap trade is responsible for providing, to industries that make things, raw materials extracted from waste that is recyclable and reusable.
Manufacturers of the extremely diverse products that interest humans seem to bear no responsibility for the effects that those products have once they’ve been discarded as waste. It is a typical trait, ceasing to have a connection with something once it is out of sight. Unfortunately, this can have (very) unhealthy consequences. The management of solid waste is a critical component of public health, vector control and disease prevention. It is however relegated to the backrooms and fringes of the administration. Consequence? Garbage control ranks way below construction, roads, water and other infrastructure and services.
The hierarchy in waste management, of reduction, reuse, recovery and recycling must take precedence over its disposal. The government of India is trying in its own little way, in the form of its Swach Bharat Abhiyan, for the reduction of the amount of *crap* on the roads.
When Law Makers Lead the Way
The thing is, India does not have any laws specifically regarding solid waste management and its recycling. The legal framework is broadly contained in the Environment Protection Act, the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act.
In 2006, The Maharashtra Government passed the Maharashtra Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Act as an ordinance. It came as a result of the Mumbai floods, which brought into light the plastic-clogged storm drains and waterways. The Act mandates source segregation of waste and places the onus of responsibility for waste segregation on the waste generators.
This, however, brings no change into the lives of the waste pickers in our country. They still go about their unsung duties to humanity, passing their responsibility, now a family legacy, down the generations. In a time of awareness and learning, materialism still conquers the world. Whether as a mint condition box, or as slime-covered crap.
The Earth is calling – she doesn’t like being dirty. Time to start cleaning up, humans.