orienting producers to produce less waste

You cannot walk or drive more than a few metres in any Indian city without encountering mounds of rubbish. Even in our villages, you will find garbage billowing around fields, piling up along roads or even lining the forest floor. At many beaches, you are as likely to find your toes tickled by strands of plastic as by little fish.

It is no longer possible to look away.

India’s waste problem is gigantic, and with its economy growing steadily, it will be compounded manifold. Yet, our waste stream management has not even got off the ground.

Swachh Bharat and all its predecessors are welcome initiatives of the government. Recently amended rules for e-waste and plastic waste management, which include many forward-looking ideas, are critically important.

Yet there is little ability to implement these policies or follow up on performance goals. Much of the mandate rests with the Pollution Control Boards, or local governments, which have inadequate resources and staff, and not enough power to pursue offenders.

When we think of waste stream management, we often think of downstream solutions. Citizens must consume less; they must use eco-friendly products; they must segregate garbage at source; and they must compost wet waste. Local governments must do more, faster and more efficiently to collect and treat garbage, but not in my backyard (NIMBY).

Slowly but surely, the primary responsibility for reducing and managing waste has moved to the state (sarkaar) and to society (samaaj). But what of the market (bazaar)? Not so long ago, the onus was shared by producers. Remember when fizzy drinks or milk would come in glass bottles and be picked up for reuse? Cheap plastics and a use-and-throw culture changed all that. But we must swing the pendulum back, and quickly.

Let’s look clearly upstream – to the producers of this waste. The spotlight must shine on companies that manufacture all the products and create all the services that we use.

For far too long, they have been allowed to privatise the profits that come from an expanding economy and socialise the costs of managing the generated waste. The fortune of the bottom of the pyramid might have been realised by companies and their shareholders, but the people at the bottom of the pyramid have been left to cope with the detritus of that fortune.

Things will probably get worse, not better, unless producer responsibility is taken seriously. With India going digital, we have a massive and dangerous e-waste problem. India has the dubious distinction of being one among the top five countries in e-waste generation. Recycling does harvest valuable metals from this waste, but not enough, and the rest is highly toxic, leaching into the ground and water bodies.

Or take e-commerce, the newest sunrise industry in India. Online retail is estimated to grow to $200 billion by 2026, up from just $15 billion in 2016. Yet, the true cost of packaging is not factored in market pricing mechanisms, so companies have zero financial incentive to choose more sustainable options.

Now think of women and babies and their legitimate hygiene needs. In 2014, market penetration for disposable diapers was only 7.6%. Diaper sales are predicted to double by 2020. Similarly, the penetration rate of the sanitary napkins market is expected to grow to 42% from the current 24%.

With just these examples, imagine the tonnes of packaging and toxic waste that will accompany this growth. Now think where all that styrofoam, cardboard, plastic and metal will land. Dwell on the public health and environmental hazards that are the inescapable result.

Unmanageable waste has turned into a worldwide crisis. No matter how much local authorities do, no matter the level of public cooperation, no matter how much is recycled, the problem continues to grow.

The only real solution is to encourage massive innovation in the production of stuff the world uses. Production of everything must be re-imagined. It has to weigh less; be made of more earth friendly material; be easy to disassemble and recycle; use less packaging, and so on.

India can be a leader in this movement. It has already moved ahead in fuel emission standards for the automobile sector, by announcing the adoption of BS-VI norms by 2020.

We can be inspired by and renew our ancient culture of sustainable design and living. Why not set standards for producers and importers of all goods and services sold in India? This would fuel R&D investments and give a whole new energy to what Make in India means.

If companies do not get ahead of the curve, sanctions are inevitable. Coca Cola has read the writing on the wall. Greenpeace estimated that the beverage giant produced 110 billion throwaway plastic bottles in 2015. Most of these go to landfills or to the ocean. Owning up to its responsibility, the company recently announced that it would make all its packaging recyclable by 2030.

This is laudable but we have to push further. Public opinion must form around this issue, for it affects us all. Why can’t production materials and packaging be fully reinvented? There is already exciting research into new materials that are greener or that disintegrate.

We need to incentivise such innovation. Or bring out a policy stick. Only then is there hope that a country that aspires to democratise abundance will not first be buried in its own waste. more  

View all 23 comments Below 23 comments
In our building of 42 Apts. we have attained 95% segregation and our garbage is stored in three different large wheelie bins with lids. We have adequate spare drums to hold garbage for 5 days. It is collected by a private contractor approved by BBMP and transports the waste to his facility in Doddabalapur. In addition to paying garbage cess to BBMP annually of 25,200/- we pay the contractor 5000/-plus tax monthly to remove our waste on a daily basis. We allow 4-5 days in a month for him to skip picking up our waste. more  
While I do find some improvement in sweeping and collection of garbage at dumps, I do not find much progress on having adequate size dumps and clearing of the same which is essentially the responsibility of the administration. Thus the dumps are overflowing with garbage scattering all over again. more  
How about striving for ZERO population growth. Unless we start thinking in that direction, any amount of progress we make will be quickly overwhelmed by people demanding services. Street vending should be strictly licensed and controlled. CCTV cameras installed at strategically selected points and reviewed and violators identified and fined. We the people should keep our eyes open and spot violations, persuade the offenders to stop throwing any kind of rubbish on the roads, footpaths more  
Sweeping of roads and footpaths has to be regular and more frequent.Similarly garbage collection and disposal has to be proper i.e. vans must be covered and no spillage of garbage should be there.We have seen in Singapore that trucks coming out of construction sites are water washed so that mud etc does not go on the roads. more  
Every Indian citizen shall take responsibility for his/her actions and shall not throw any kind of waste onto the road, footpath or anywhere except in designated waste bins at home or by the roadside or any other public place more  
Please go to Indore and see what innovation they have done for disposal, collection of waste. It was declared No.1 city under the SBA for 2017. We did not see a single garbage truck that was open or spilling waste onto the roads. It is concerted will and effort of all - the people and the authorities, the rich and famous and the common man more  
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