With increasing green-house gas (GHG) emissions nationally, one sector that is often disregarded is waste, which accounts for 3.7% of India’s total national-level GHG emissions (including land use, land use change and forestry), as per 2013 estimates prepared by GHG Platform India.
In aggregate terms, the waste sector was responsible for 96.92 million tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2015. Whilst the aggregate contribution may be insignificant when compared to sectors like land energy or land use change, waste sector emissions have risen at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.2% for the reporting period of 2005-2015. In light of this, it beckons further national attention.
Waste is divided into solid waste disposal and waste-water treatment and discharge, as per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reporting standards. The majority of emissions come from wastewater handling which accounts for more than 80% of sectoral emissions. In the reporting period (2005 to 2015), domestic wastewater (64.8%) accounted for highest GHG emissions, followed by industrial wastewater (23.4%) and municipal solid waste (MSW) (11.8%).
In terms of GHG composition, waste predominantly consists of methane (CH4) (78.4%) and nitrous oxide (N2O) (21.6%) which are then converted to CO2 equivalents for aggregations. Methane is produced and released as a by-product of anaerobic decomposition of solid waste or treatment and disposal of wastewater whilst nitrous oxide occurs due to protein content in domestic wastewater.
In terms of top emitters, most waste is produced domestically. Reasons include, “dependency of population on discharge/treatment systems with high GHG emission generation potential such as septic tanks, inadequately managed aerobic treatment plants, and untreated discharge of domestic wastewater,” as per GHG Platform India.
In terms of industry, most commercial emitters are responsible for organic wastewater generation, which is the highest in the pulp and paper, meat and dairy industries. With an CGAR of 6.1%, this has the highest waste sector growth among the three sub-sectors.
On a subnational level, waste emissions are highest in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, which contributed to 56% of the total waste sector emissions from 2005 to 2015. This is predominantly attributed to higher population size and relatively higher domestic waste generation. In terms of MSW disposal, the states with the highest total GHG emissions (in million tonnes of CO2e) are Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Beyond waste generation, GHG emissions can also be attributed to inadequate waste processing systems. This is the case of 10 Indian states with less than 10% of the waste being processed (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Mizoram, Odisha, Uttarakhand and West Bengal). Given the exploration of sector specific emissions, there are various government initiatives aimed at reducing GHG emissions in waste.
Legally, most Indian waste management rules are based on the principles of “sustainable development,” “precaution” and “polluter pays” as noted by Down to Earth. For example, under municipal authorities, “there are many laws pertaining to waste management including on hazardous waste, bio-medical waste, construction and demolition waste, municipal solid waste, plastic waste, and e-waste,” captured in the UNFCC Report India Report 2018.
The most prominent national policy in this domain has been the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which aimed to achieve a clean India by October 2, 2019. MSW management is one of six components covered under SBM. The programme recognised “dual benefits that can arise from efficient waste disposal leading to enhanced environmental benefits along with conversion of promoting waste to energy,” as per the UNFCC report. To this end, the government co-financed numerous waste processing and waste to energy plants. MSW has witnessed progress, with national MSW processing capacity increasing to nearly 23% by 2017.
However, there are various criticisms of SBM with regards to GHG emissions reduction. As the GHG Platform India note, “the progress of the SBM or SWM has been slower than anticipated and consequently the considerable mitigation potential of this initiative remains untapped.” One aspect is the waste processing rates.
For instance, only about one-fifth of the MSW generated by the largest states is currently processed, “states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi need to fast-track augmentation of their waste processing capabilities.”
Moreover, whilst technological development, like bio-methanation and waste to energy technology has been promoted, critics claim this as an “irrational obsession.” This is because of low returns on investment (i.e. low waste to energy potential) as compared to alternative policies.
In view of the drawbacks, various alternatives have been championed. For instance, waste segregation paves way for higher compositing and recycling. As GHG Platform India highlights, with “Reduce, Reuse, Recover, Recycle and Remanufacture (5Rs) and appropriate choice of technology, India can profitably utilize about 65% of SWM in producing energy and/or compost and another 10 to 15% to promote recycling and bring down the quantity of wastes going to landfill or dumpsites to under 20%.”
Furthermore, substantial investment is required in “waste infrastructure, sustained behavioural change” and capacity building “at a grassroots level.” One example to engender this is “collaborative efforts between the central and regional stakeholders…for realising the potential of a nationwide Jan Andolan [mass movement] against waste.” Community engagement is required with those at margins of society.
For example, Down to Earth suggests almost 80% of the waste at Delhi landfill sites could be recycled provided civic bodies start allowing ragpickers to segregate waste at source and recycle it. Moreover, community initiatives, like local level compost pits can champion current waste management, as well as encourage the recovery and recycling of other forms of waste, like electronic waste, locally.
Finally, synergies can be identified with existing government initiatives, like ‘smart cities‘ promoted nationally. These cities should “rework their strategies as per changing lifestyles…and reinvent garbage management… so that we can process waste and not landfill it,” as per Down to Earth.
Overall, whilst building toilets, and solid waste management have captured the imagination of the Indian electorate in recent years, the link between waste and contributions to GHG emission remains tenuous at worst and unambitious at best. It is hoped that the increasing CGAR of the waste sector, as percentage of total national GHG emissions, will draw further attention to this use.
Moreover, a revamp of programmes like SBM, smart cities, and spearheading local waste management initiatives, will put waste related GHG emissions, at centre stage of government climate change mitigation policy.