The dictionary defines ‘waste’ as “waste material or food, useless remains or by-product, refuse, scraps, shreds.” It is a well-understood term coming up daily in some form or the other. Food that is prepared but not consumed is waste. The paper and articles we throw away as useless is waste. Empty bottles and cans, used batteries and syringes and needles that are thrown into the waste paper basket or dustbin are all considered waste. In farms, the weeds, leaves that are not used, flowers that are worn and thrown away, fruit seeds are also waste. In factories and mines there are heaps of by-products not used, material coming out of machines as scrap, rejected mined material and so on. Many of the factories and laboratories generate material in semi-liquid form, which enters water courses as waste water or effluents or seeps into the ground – all considered waste. Offices throw away waste paper, pens, plastic chips, pins, bottles, old computers, printers, etc., which have been rejected after use. From the kitchens in households and hotels, a lot of vegetable skins and remains not cooked, meat morsels and bones not considered edible are all thrown out as waste. The list of such rejected material is almost endless as human beings eat more, produce more, buy and sell more, because of which more and more waste is generated.
It must be noted that animals generate waste like dung and urine. Human beings also generate similar waste material in their toilets. Plastic bags, containers and other products are found as waste everywhere in gardens, parks, forests, farmlands, roadsides, marketplaces, factories, restaurants, hotels, etc. Municipalities try to collect the waste and sometimes their actions create mounds of waste, which breed mosquitoes, flies, etc., and lead to bad smells.
Organic and inorganic waste
Wastes are categorized as organic wastes like plant and tree material rejected in kitchens, farms and vegetable markets and inorganic waste generated in offices, factories and households. This distinction has to be kept in mind while discussing waste management. Waste can also be characterized as recyclable, bio-degradable, and toxic. In nature no waste is generated, except when volcanoes erupt and all the matter goes back to Earth to be used again in some form or other. The saying is, there is nothing in nature which is not useful to plant and animal life and human beings. Leaves fall to form mulch, which helps in the growth of more plants, bushes and trees. Fruits are consumed by animals and birds and the rejected seeds fall on the ground to germinate again. Other plant material is converted by earthworms and similar insects into useful manure, which is again helpful for growth. This recycling process also involves biodegradability, i.e., waste which is converted into good material by biological means or nature. Where material cannot be so converted at all, it is considered non-recyclable or non-biodegradable. This distinction should also be kept in mind in waste management.
Why waste management?
If waste is not managed, it interferes with human life in many ways creating more problems. Waste enters our waters like rivers and groundwater and pollutes them threatening our drinking water sources. Wastes enter the land and render it infertile. Wastes are produced in such quantities by the transport and industrial sectors that they pollute the air, water and land to an extent where our health is affected by diseases like lung infections, fevers, eye diseases, gastro-intestinal disorders, etc. The accumulation of waste breeds insects such as mosquitoes and flies, which cause infectious and non- infectious diseases. Rats, pigs and stray dogs, which feed on waste also spread illnesses. The world is now facing a severe crisis called Global Climate Change caused by waste material escaping as air pollutants like oxides of carbon and nitrogen as well as methane from coal mines and similar sources. These also affect human health. Waste material like thrown away plastic enters all spheres of life and also affects our health. It also enters animals, which do not recognize it as non edible. Plastic also covers the Earth, preventing rain water going through the land to create groundwater sources for our benefit. Toxic wastes like gases and liquids, which have poisonous chemicals, are also bad for human beings, animals and even soil. Thus our survival itself is threatened by waste, and therefore its management with a view to eliminate or reduce it is crucial for our welfare.
How to manage waste
The primary approach to managing waste is to treat it as a resource or material that can be used or modified to suit our daily requirements and without generating more waste. Examples are waste paper, which can be converted into paper again, chemicals used in producing goods, which can be recovered from waste and re-used for production. Pieces of wood when trees are cut or when furniture is made can be burnt as fuel, or better still help in producing toys, paper, etc. Fly ash waste from thermal power plants can be converted into briquettes. These are but a few examples of using waste as resource. In these matters, we can draw inspiration from nature, where everything produced or grown is reused. Carbon in carbon dioxide is absorbed by trees to help their growth and oxygen is produced by trees to provide clean air. Seeds fall down to produce more plants. Leaf litter becomes green fertilizers. Dead tree trunks are consumed by termites as food and in turn, termites become food for some animals. Snakes shed their skins and deer their antlers, which decompose on the forest floor to enrich nutrients in the soil.
But it is not always possible to use waste as a resource. Toxic wastes liker wastes from nuclear power plants are an example. It does not change character even after years, i.e., it does not degrade and cannot be reused. Poisonous chemicals and infected material like hospital wastes (needles etc.) are not always amenable to recycling as they may carry the risks of human health hazards in the new form also. In such cases, waste has to be minimized or eliminated by giving up the activity process or adopting incineration methods. It must be noted that incineration is not free from problems like escaping gases and residues. Producing substitutes, which cause less waste, is another option.
Techniques and options
The techniques and options may vary, depending on the type of waste generated, location of the wastes and the nature of available technologies of production and waste management itself. Some examples have been given earlier. However, it must be recognized that there must be a change in approach and techniques for better waste management.
Producing biogas or using solar cookers are among substitutes that do not generate waste. Biogas produced from agricultural, animal, and human waste can be used for heating and lighting. The residue from biogas plants becomes good fertilizer. Having compost pits and introducing earthworms in them (vermiculture), which digest the waste and produce nutrients in the soil, is another biological option, which also saves the energy wasted in producing chemical fertilizers. Using animal and human energy for baling water or running oil making ghanies or transporting goods, etc., are examples by which animals also can be put to good use and their wastes recycled. In goshalas, the dung and other wastes can be vermicomposted and natural pesticides ’made like ‘panchakavya’. Oils from sources like neem or neem cake can be used as pesticides or fertilizers, which do not create waste. Animal residue from carcasses like bones may be converted to bonemeal fertilizers. The residue of poultry farming can breed fish and the remainder can be used as fertilizer. Smokeless ovens can reduce air emissions while saving energy.
In the case of industrial manufacturing or even waste water treatment, the present methods of waste management are based on ‘end of the pipe’ solutions. Thus, after pollutants like chemicals and gaseous emissions come out through waste water pipes, chimney stacks or automobile exhaust pipes, efforts are made to clean by using techniques like chemical treatment, which again are energy intensive or waste water treatment using aeration ponds that take up valuable land or catalytic converters that do not eliminate waste altogether. Municipal wastes are dumped and then covered up to create landfills which pollute ground water.
The alternatives to ‘end-of-the-pipe’ solutions in waste management are the emerging ‘cleaner’ technologies, which do not create wastes at all by using them up in the process of manufacture and similar activities. Using waste heat by capturing it, direct reduction in iron and steel making, washing coal before burning it, re-using old batteries and cell phones by buying them back and re-processing, waste water treatment by using reeds which draw in the wastes or methods like upper anaerobic sludge using microbes and bacteria which can imbibe wastes are some examples. Some of these are being tried but not whole-heartedly on the ground of extra cost and labour, disregarding environmental consequences. Segregating wastes at household, office, and hospital and factory into biodegradable and non-biodegradable elements by using technologies to treat them differentially by collecting them separately is an option being tried in several countries and to some extent in India. This leads to waste minimization, if not elimination. Thus, a change in outlook and techniques can help in waste management.
Limitations to waste management
In many of the above instances, techniques for treatment of toxic wastes have not been successful in many cases like hospital wastes, nuclear wastes or hazardous wastes. The available methods to treat them also create problems like gaseous emissions or affect flowing or surface and groundwater.
Efforts to create ‘zero emission’ vehicles are not yet bearing fruit. A ‘cradle to grave analysis’ made of many practices, which look like sound waste management shows that somewhere in the chain of processes there is generation of waste where treatment is intractable as of now. Examples are cement industry where manufacturing techniques are improving air stock and dust emissions at factory site but mining of limestone and coal used in manufacturing cement and transporting them creates wastes. Use of electric vehicles or solar photovoltaic energy ensures less waste but the disposal of batteries used for them creates problems in waste management. Even bicycles, which are environment friendly, create waste through the materials manufactured for their assembly.
The limits and limitations to waste management have to be recognized and efforts made through better research and development.
Solutions at individual, community and school level
Individuals, communities and schools and even colleges can help in the effort of better waste management. Their efforts must be complemented by moving away from a ‘throw-away’ culture increasingly practised now with greater demand for more and more goods from a growing population and economy. Reducing wants by recognizing the distinction drawn by Mahatma Gandhi between ‘greed’ and ‘need’ is a must, even if it involves sacrifices and changes in attitudes. “How much is enough” asks an economist describing the current insatiable desires to want more and get more. During World War II, the slogan popularized was, “Waste not, Want not.” Individuals and communities should recognize the writing on the wall and try to lead a contented but socially and spiritually uplifting simple life. ‘Simple living and high thinking sounds like Fool’s Paradise now but not preaching them now will land us in Fool’s Hell sooner or later.
Children and youngsters in schools and colleges and their teachers can help in this matter in several ways. They can absorb the lessons of the problems of waste management and spread awareness even among their parents of the consequences of neglecting better waste management. They can get into the spirit of wanting less and caring/sharing more. Food should not be wasted. Recyclable and biodegradable material should be used, thinking twice before using any item that is difficult to recycle. The most important contributions would come by thinking afresh on the whole subject, coming up with novel ideas, goading others to do better and thinking of the Earth and future generations which may inhabit it in a healthy and peaceful manner free of the severe problems of creation of waste and its poor management. The slogan should be Renew, Reuse, Recycle all materials and Reduce Pollution.
It is difficult, but can be done with a spirit of “We shall overcome!”
The author retired as Secretary, Environment & Forests, Government of India and lives in Hyderabad.
The final R
The culture of disposal has caught on and we find ourselves burdened with more waste than any earlier generation. We all know of the three Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) that are ranked in order of importance. While the first two Rs are about reducing the amount we consume and ensuring we consume well-designed products that can be reused, the third R is what this article is about.
Recycling can take many forms. Finding new uses for old stuff is considered recycling. On a larger scale, the process involves collecting used products and ‘waste’ and converting them into raw material for making new products for consumption. The quality of recycled products is rarely the same as that of the original. When a recycled product is of lower quality, the process is called downstream recycling. Eventually, all products, especially paper and plastic, move down to a stage where they cannot be recycled any further. There are instances of products being up-cycled, where they are more valuable than the original product.
It’s important to know what can and can’t be recycled. Broadly classified, the materials that can be recycled are organics, paper, glass, metal, plastics, wood, textiles, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), and packaging.
The easiest way to get the ‘waste’ started off on its journey towards recycling is by selling it to a ‘raddi wallah’. They make the greatest contribution to the cycle of waste collection and recycling in the country and pay you for it! You could get Rs. 1 for every glass bottle, Rs. 5 per kg of newspaper and Rs. 6 for a kg of Iron. While you can get Rs. 2 per kg of old magazines and books, you would rather leave them at a book bazaar for someone else to read. Aluminium cans, office paper, and plastic containers are materials that are processed and recycled in large quantities.
Recycling paper would result in lesser trees being chopped down and lesser water and energy being used in production. Remove rubber bands and staple pins and keep the papers (newspapers/office paper) clean and dry before taking them to a raddi wallah.
Unlike paper, there is almost no downstream cycling when it comes to glass. Recycling glass (apart from that used in light bulbs and window panes) is much more efficient in terms of energy and cost than making virgin glass. Some companies collect and wash their bottles thoroughly before refilling them. Reusing glass jars and bottles is definitely preferable. For recycling, glass is sorted by colour. Before sending glass containers for recycling ensure they are clean.
Cheap to produce and non-biodegradable, plastic remains one of the most recycled products. Given its nature, plastic is usually converted into a new form but often ends up in a landfill.
Aluminium and steel cans
The quality of aluminium does not degrade on recycling. Steel and tin cans can be recycled as well and made into new cans or products like wires, cookware, etc.
Universal wastes are discarded products that contain significant amounts of mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, and other hazardous substances. Examples of these wastes are batteries, and electronic devices.
Recycling electronics is a risky and labour intensive process with toxic materials such as lead and mercury being found in them. While finding someone to use the electronic product is preferable, there are companies specializing in recycling e-waste that can safely reuse and dispose the materials for a nominal fee.
Batteries contain toxic material so put tape over the battery ends (the + and – terminals) to be safe and help prevent battery acid from leaking. Rechargeable batteries, used in cell phones, cameras and computers, reduce waste and energy needed for manufacture and transport. These types of batteries actually contain even more toxic materials and can be returned to the manufacturer for proper disposal. Car batteries and other automobile products like engine oil and tyres can be handed over to the auto shops.
Household toxics (paints, oils, solvents, pesticides, cleaners)
The best way to deal with these is to buy the correct amount, store it properly and use or donate the leftovers. If you have to dispose them, contacting the company to find out their recommended method would be best. These products should not be emptied in the drain as it could cause blockages and contaminate the water. For paint cans, one method is to allow the little left over paint to dry before recycling the can.
The list is never ending and with the number of products we have today, knowing what to do with the used product can get confusing. While one way is to look online for a solution, another would be getting assistance directly from the company.
The danger with recycling is that it can provide us with a false sense of security. We have to keep in mind that although recycling is a step in the right direction, it can only help a little. The best and long-term solution would be to buy less stuff to stop the ‘waste’ stream at its source.
The author is a student of MA Communication (Print and New Media) at the University of Hyderabad. She can be reached at [email protected].
Points to remember:
- Recyclable items should be rinsed to remove food residues before putting them in the recycling bin.
- For safety reasons, avoid crushing or piercing aerosol cans, and only recycle them once they are empty.
- Oil should not be poured down the drain as it can cause blockages and pollute water.
- Burning plastic is toxic and should be avoided.
What’s not recyclable?
• Carbon paper
• Wax-coated papers
• Plastic-coated papers
• Tissue or paper towels
• Paper or containers contaminated by food or other organic waste
Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is marked with a crossed out wheelie bin symbol to show that it should be recycled. Some distributors will allow you to return old equipment free of charge when you buy a replacement product.
WEEE can be divided into the following categories:
A – Large household appliances (cookers, washing machines, dryers)
B – Cooling appliances (fridges/freezers)
C – Display equipment containing cathode ray tubes (TVs, computer monitors)
D – Gas discharge lamps (fluorescent tubes, low-energy light bulbs)
E – All other WEEE (small mixed WEEE, wires)
It is particularly important to recycle categories B, C and D as they contain hazardous components. For example, category D contains mercury, which is extremely dangerous to water supplies and aquatic life.
- 315 kg: Amount of carbon dioxide not released into the atmosphere each time a metric ton of glass is used to create new glass products.
- 5 per cent: Fraction of the energy it takes to recycle aluminium versus mining and refining new aluminium.
- 20 million: Tons of electronic waste thrown away each year. One ton of scrap from discarded computers contains more gold than can be produced from 17 tons of gold ore.
- 9 cubic yards: Amount of landfill space saved by recycling one ton of cardboard.