Role of Technology in Waste Management

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Inadequate waste management has made garbage among the topmost crises in urban India. The malaise has spread from tier-1 metros all the way down to the smallest towns, often making our public spaces hotbeds of pollution and infection. Waste contaminates our streets, open areas, and waterways. It chokes our drains and when burnt, pollutes our air. Some estimates state that almost 80% of India’s population suffers from some pollution-related ailment.

The figures are startling: Almost 0.1 million metric tons of solid waste are to be processed by our municipalities daily. Waste generation per capita ranges from 0.2 kg to 0.6 kg.  The more distressing numbers are in the processing of this waste—an average of 94% of the waste is dumped in landfills and only about 5% composted.

Technology can play a significant role in improving this situation, by providing efficient, economical and easy-to-implement solutions for the garbage crisis. Given our large population and the enormity of waste that we generate, technological solutions are almost mandatory.

Techniques to Tackle the Problem

Techniques and processes can be applied from the collection point to the disposal point. As the carbon footprints of our cities increase, segregation at source, efficient collection and transportation become the vital first steps. Several countries have created innovative processes to tackle this issue. For example, with a limited amount of land available for landfills, the Japanese have perfected the art of collecting and compacting solid waste.

In Japan, garbage collected in small trucks (that can navigate narrow roads similar to India) is dropped in hoppers in centrally located compactor container transfer stations. The waste is compressed and loaded into larger containers. Waste collected by three two-ton trucks is compressed into one container, which is then transported to a disposal site or further processed for incineration. This process harvests efficiencies in transportation, reduction in fuel consumption and cost reductions.

Incineration & Recycling

In places like Bengaluru, several cost-effective and innovative devices now convert kitchen or wet waste into rich manure. Similarly, cities like Jamshedpur and have successfully recycled plastic waste to tar roads. Some cities and towns now house licensed medical waste incinerators and e-waste recyclers, which conduct doorstep collection. What is needed is an improvement in design, technology & processes, and replication of these on a large scale.

Modern disposal systems of solid waste include incineration (in which Japan and some Scandinavian countries have the best technologies—Denmark produces 5% of its electricity and 14% of its heat through incinerated domestic waste), recycling (which is boosted by a concentrated effort at segregation at source, and is particularly efficient for glass, metal and plastic wastes), biological reprocessing (for organic wastes) and resource recovery.

Thermal waste treatment technologies are ever-evolving, with some processes—such as pyrolysis that convert waste biomass into useful fuel—proving to be promising. Pyrolysis of waste plastics can produce millions of liters of fuel, for instance.

Wealth Out of Waste

Our city corporations and town municipalities, central and state governments must study such technologies, and deploy appropriate ones as part of an over-arching waste management policy. Not only can they help alleviate the garbage crisis, optimal waste disposal, and recycling can help towards the production of nutrient-rich manure and renewable energy, helping us move towards an eco-friendly and sustainable society.

Among the specific techniques that Indian municipalities can adopt are:

  1. Landfill gas-to-energy bioreactors that generate landfill gas to promote energy efficiency
  2. Micro-turbine technology that generates electricity from landfill gas
  3. Biodiesel generators that convert used cooking oil, tallow and grease into useful biofuel
  4. Anaerobic digesters that decompose organic wastes into useful energy

Several startups in India are focusing on waste management and devising new techniques to turn the trash into profit. These efforts, however, need to be supported by a national policy framework and public–private partnerships at the local level to make a dent in the issue. We can learn from other nations in this aspect, too.

Some of the initiatives in practice in more “waste-developed” economies are:

  1. PAYT (Pay As You Throw)
  2. EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility)
  3. Segregation at Source (being tried with varying degrees of success in a few Indian cities)
  4. Taxes for waste management (unevenly applied and implemented)
  5. Separate collection of recyclables

Waste management is a sunrise technologically-enabled industry. As the quantities and types of waste change around the world, with more inert, inorganic and hazardous waste entering the mix, using the right technologies to treat waste is increasingly critical.

 

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