Effective Waste Management Can Help Us in the Fight against Air Pollution and Climate Change

By Amishi Tewari

Piles of waste lying around, rotting, or being openly burnt are not uncommon sights in India. It is aesthetically unpleasing and jeopardises the environment, degrading air quality and exacerbating climate change.

The World Bank estimates that 2.24 billion tons of solid waste were generated globally in 2020, of which ~9% was contributed by India. This figure is set to grow with population rise and economic growth. Besides being one of the highest generators, India is among the leaders in waste burning owing to its inefficient waste management system. Open burning is rampant despite the National Green Tribunal issuing a nationwide ban on the practice in 2016, with a fine of up to INR 25,000. Apart from open burning, improperly managed overflowing landfills also plague the country’s waste management system.

Waste collected is generally mixed with little to no source segregation and can contain food, paper, plastic, and biomedical discards. When this waste is openly burnt or left to rot, a cocktail of harmful substances is released into the atmosphere. Rotting waste emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), two major greenhouse gases (GHGs). In addition to CO2, open waste burning emits carcinogenic pollutants (dioxins and furans) and particulate matter, including black carbon (a short-lived climate pollutant 460–1500 times more potent a warming agent than carbon dioxide).

Although waste burning is a significant source of air pollution and GHG emissions, the sporadic nature of the activity makes it difficult to estimate emissions with certainty. Researchers have attempted to estimate the sector’s contribution to emissions of air pollutants and GHGs. A recent study published in Nature Communications estimated that waste burning emitted ~8% of the world’s PM2.5 in 2015 while landfills contributed ~8% to the global anthropogenic CH4 emissions. Air pollution is responsible for as many as 4.5 million deaths each year, and climate change is making extreme events more frequent, displacing close to 31 million people each year worldwide.

Improving solid waste management can have co-benefits such as improving air quality, mitigating climate change, and improving public health. At the heart of the waste crisis lies two major issues: we are generating more waste than ever, and our waste management systems remain inadequate. The way forward is to reduce the quantum of waste generated and ensure that waste is segregated at the source. This must be followed by sustainable waste management practices such as recycling, composting, and landfill gas capture. Wherever possible, centralised waste management must be aided by decentralised waste management practices, such as individual households or residential complexes composting their waste.

Another added benefit is the reduction in resource consumption for the production of new materials and the mitigation of emissions resulting from those activities. For example, reusable products can reduce the need to produce new goods and recycling the waste as raw material can reduce the need to extract virgin natural resources. For these measures to bear fruit, stakeholder participation and community engagement, along with strict monitoring by concerned authorities, are key. The continued success of Indore as the best performer in the Swachh Survekshan for the last 5 years is testimony to the fact that with concerted efforts, the goal of an efficient and sustainable waste management system can be achieved.

The author is an Analyst working with the Centre for Air Pollution Studies (CAPS) at CSTEP. She may be contacted on the following social media handles. Instagram- @amishi_tewari; LinkedIn- Amishi Tewari or Twitter @TewariAmishi

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