Why Waste Management Should Appeal To Our Business Sense

Explore the potential hidden in the trash heap.

Adversity or challenge, often, is nothing but opportunity in disguise. Almost a century ago, in the 1920s, Tata Steel was faced with a quandary that required the company to choose between two options—an easy way out to get rid of acidic waste, or an opportunity to rise to the occasion. The easy way out was discharging the waste, a residue from their steel sheet mills, into a river. But instead of doing the easy thing, the company devised a way to utilise that waste as an input for manufacturing paints.

Thus, a new entity, Tatanagar Chemicals, was established in 1927 which started using the residue as an input to manufacture pigments commercially. Today, that firm goes by the name of Tata Pigments, and is counted among the largest producers of synthetic iron oxide pigments in India. Although almost a hundred years old, this story of innovation is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. It stands as testimony to the potential that India possesses to convert waste as a constructive input in industry at a time when we as a nation and society are grappling with mammoth challenges of waste management and pollution.

There are immense opportunities to use waste as an input which will not only lead to its proper management but also generate employment, when implemented properly.

The country generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually. Furthermore, it is estimated that the country's waste generation will increase to about 165 million tonnes in 2030. What's worrisome is that only 22-28% of this waste is processed and treated.

A report of the Task Force on Waste to Energy, by the erstwhile Planning Commission, found that more than 80% of this MSW is disposed of indiscriminately at dump yards in an unhygienic manner leading to problems of health and environmental degradation. It further said that if this waste continues to be dumped without treatment, it will require 1,240 hectares of landfill space annually. The requirement for setting up landfill for the projected waste by 2030, considering 10-meter-high waste pile, is estimated to be 66,000 hectares of land, a precious resource which is increasingly getting scarce. Ignoring this crucial aspect of waste management could have a hazardous impact on scarce land resources.

The situation, as adverse as it may seem, still presents a tremendous opportunity towards waste management and utilisation. It is noteworthy that the theme for this year's World Environment Day—Connecting people to nature—finds resonance in this idea. Going back to nature also entails reducing the burden on it, be it through curtailing stress on land and water resources or cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, both of which are directly related to solid waste.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, every adversity or challenge is just an opportunity in disguise, this situation, too, can be turned around on its head. Untreated waste has a potential of generating 439 MW of power, 1.3 million cubic metres of biogas per day, or 72 MW of electricity from biogas and 5.4 million metric tonnes of compost annually which could, in turn, immensely enhance agriculture.

We generate around 1.85 million tonnes of electronic waste each year. The estimated size of the e-waste market... is estimated at $13 billion by 2025.

There are immense opportunities to use waste as an input which will not only lead to its proper management but also generate employment, when implemented properly. The requirement for innovative business models that can convert more and more waste into useful material is growing by the day.

Take, for instance, electronic waste (e-waste), of which India is the fifth largest producer in the world. We generate around 1.85 million tonnes of electronic waste each year. The estimated size of the e-waste market, a substantial portion of which is still untapped, is estimated at $13 billion by 2025. Considering, only a miniscule proportion of the e-waste gets recycled through the organised sector, the huge business opportunity of establishing a clean, green and futuristic business is waiting to be explored and exploited by the Indian industry.

A few Indian start-ups are doing it already by collecting and recycling e-waste in a responsible, sustainable and economical way. Besides, the government has undertaken a bunch of initiatives aimed at improving waste management, including the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Smart Cities program, and the incentives under the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Also, there is a provision of a ₹25 billion grant funding to states and urban local bodies for improving Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management through public-private partnerships. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 provide for infrastructure creation facilitation for waste-to-energy plants along with subsidy or incentives.

Together these initiatives have set the ball rolling but it is imperative that the momentum is maintained. We all are stakeholders in the initiative, be it the public or the private sector, civil society, the eco-conscious consumer or the non-governmental organisations, and it is incumbent upon all of us to do our bit. And with India exploding with technological innovation and entrepreneurial zeal, it is high time that waste management-based ventures and use of waste as industrial input, wherever possible, start appealing to our business sense, and not just common sense.

Hailstorm in Wayanad