The Social Dimensions of Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India

photo of a dump truck across buildings

In India, like in several other developing countries, the improper management of solid waste poses a serious problem (Patwa et al., 2020), as it affects the lives of thousands of people and presents many risks to the natural environment (Kumar and Agrawal 2020; Gupta et al., 2015). A large quantity of solid waste is generated (~9000 metric tonnes daily) in India. A considerable portion of this waste is collected, handled and sorted by the informal sector and processed using primitive methods. Unfortunately, the vast majority of solid waste is disposed of in open dumpsites and uncontrolled landfills (Sharma and Chandel 2021), rather than being properly segregated for reuse and recycling.

There is an urgent need for solid waste to be properly processed, for use as a source of materials for future production and renewable energy, and to minimize both the exploitation of raw materials and the deleterious effects on both the environment and human health (Pandey et al., 2018). In this context, public campaigns must emphasise residents’ obligation and responsibility for their solid waste as well as the significance of every citizen’s support and cooperation, hence forming a sense of a collective social goal in order to solving the solid waste problem. At present there is a pressing need to identify the best ways to manage solid waste, and address the lack of awareness that may perhaps be helpful to changing behaviours towards more environmental-friendlier and socially equitable management of solid waste (Kumar and Agrawal 2020). The valuable information-based motivation campaigns need to be enhanced with measures and proper actions that could enable resident more active participation. Therefore, the more effective implementation of solid waste management rules and regulations and policies for proper solid waste collection, treatment and recycling, more better educate consumers on the risks of solid waste contamination, restrict, and support the development of a proper, planned solid waste processing industry by funding incentive programs constructing recycling infrastructure could a long way to improving the recycling capacity and decreasing the amount of solid waste contaminating the environment and endangering public health (Pandey et al., 2018). Therefore, as India’s fast-growing economy, and the consequent mounting solid waste, has demanded the essential for a well-organized, more effective solid waste management system for guaranteeing an environmentally sound as well as cleaner sustainable future.

Gupta N., Yadav K. K., Kumar V. (2015). A review on current status of municipal solid waste management in India. Journal of Environmental Sciences. 37(1), 206-217.
Kumar A. and Agrawal A.  (2020). Recent trends in solid waste management status, challenges, and potential for the future Indian cities – A review. Current Research in Environmental Sustainability, 2, 100011.
Pandey R.U., Surjan A., Kapshe M. (2018). Exploring linkages between sustainable consumption and prevailing green practices in reuse and recycling of household waste: Case of Bhopal city in India. Journal of Cleaner Production. 173, 49-59.
Patwa A., Parde D., Dohare D., Vijay R., Kumar R. (2020). Solid waste characterization and treatment technologies in rural areas: An Indian and international review. Environmental Technology & Innovation, 20, 101066.
Sharma B.K. and Chandel M.K. (2021). Life cycle cost analysis of municipal solid waste management scenarios for Mumbai, India. Waste Management. 124, 293-302.

Written by Dr Abhishek Kumar Awasthi, School of Environment, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023, China

Abhishek Kumar Awasthi is Associate Research Scientist in the area of Waste Management at the School of the Environment, Nanjing University. Also, he is an interdisciplinary researcher and his research has a strong background in overall systems & policy research and social practices on sustainable waste management and related environmental issues. His research covers global perspective countries including India, China, Nigeria and Ghana. Mainly, his research focuses on enhancing community based scientific and social innovation solving waste management issues in developing country. He is also in editorial role of the leading interdisciplinary journal Waste Management & Research, Science Progress, Resource Environment Sustainability, SN Applied Sciences, and Guest Editor for Sustainability (MDPI) and Environmental Innovations and Technology (Elsevier). He is a Life member of The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), member of International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Young Professional Group (YPG), and working group on Communications & Social Issues of ISWA where group addresses public concerns, comprising public support of and public opposition to waste management policies, public consultation and participation, and communication with focus on basic human attitudes towards waste.


blue and yellow graph on stock market monitor

A world haunted by the spectre of a seemingly never-ending pandemic has been mobilizing trillions of US-dollars to prop up its ailing economies. Now, as a historically unprecedented roll out of vaccines raises the hopes of a swift end to the tragedy, further fiscal and monetary tools are being deployed to path the way for a swift and – at least so it is being heralded by the general chorus – sustainable recovery. Indeed, “building back better” has become a catch phrase in political circles, not only here, but also overseas. Many governments around the world have yet to deliver on their promises and pledges, though. Otherwise, we risk squandering a – what is likely to be a – once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an environmentally, socially and economically more sustainable production and consumption system.

Indeed, we risk missing out on a unique opportunity to avert an even greater threat to mankind than Covid-19, i.e. global warming, while tackling not only those economic challenges that have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the pandemic, but also those that have been undermining the long-term sustainability of the economic system well before the advent of the crisis. For decades, the working and middle classes in Western societies have been suffering from stagnating or even declining disposable incomes. Secular shifts in the economy have led to a greater concentration of the upside of any economic activity, while its cost and downside risk is increasingly being borne by the broad masses. Major calamities such as the 2008-9 Financial and Economic Crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have further aggravated this situation as the quantity and quality of income prospects have declined in the wake of major layoffs, restructuring, fixed-term contracts, and misguided austerity policies, while the tab that the taxpayer had to pick up in the form of bailouts has increased manifold. The rise of parties on both extremes on the political spectrum over the last couple of years pointed already to some of the major rifts caused by such developments to the fabric of society. These are only to worsen unless the underlying disequilibria are not appropriately addressed. The economic system itself suffers from such disequilibria, because a severely weakened consumption sector cannot support the demand required for economic growth, and we cannot borrow from the future indefinitely.

In other words, the world is currently facing multiple, yet interlinked, challenges that require a well-coordinated, multi-dimensional, systemic approach (i.e., a focus on illusory one-dimensional metrics such as GDP and the current performance of major stock market indices simply won’t do(!)). The urgency of these matters, and the window of opportunity afforded by the current political situation makes immediate action imperative, while their nature necessitates that we get it immediately right to minimise the chance and negative impacts of any unintended consequences. Let’s begin with surveying the current situation: The full economic damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic needs yet to be fully determined. Recent estimates put the figure for the economic contraction at around 3.5% (IMF, 2021). Further, amidst widespread business closures and extensive job losses, poverty increased for the first time in over two decades (UNDP, 2020), while income and wealth disparities has skyrocketed. So, what has been done so far to address the situation? The world’s fifty largest economies have pledged around USD14.6tn (excl. the commitments by the EC; if those were included, total spending would approach USD17tn) in fiscal measures since 2020, of which approximately USD 11.1tn have been directed to more immediate economic support efforts, while USD1.9tn has been pledged to long-term recovery measures. Findings by Oxford University suggest, however, that only a very small percentage of that spending is likely to promote climate-friendly economic growth (e.g., only 18% of recovery spending and 2.5% of total announced spending is estimated to reduce GHG emissions). It seems, that the world is squandering a major opportunity to transition to an environmentally sustainable growth path. It might also be forfeiting economically attractive investment opportunities, as a growing body of evidence (e.g., Hepburn et al., 2020), suggests that ‘green’ fiscal spending can deliver stronger economic returns than traditional spending alternatives.

The thinking of decision-makers thus seems to be stuck in those type of old, one-dimensional patterns that have traditionally focused on the maximisation of some – entirely inadequate – metric such as GDP growth or the recent surge of some major stock market index that even fail to accurately gauge the state of the economy itself, never mind the state of our society and of the environment.

Supported by the IMF and GIZ, Oxford University, UNEP and their partners have made an important first step toward addressing this one-dimensional and short-termist approach that risks further exacerbating socio-economic and environmental crises long-term through the creation of the Global Recovery Observatory, which aims to significantly increase the transparency of such policy decisions by tracking the fiscal rescue and recovery spending programs of the world’s fifty largest economies. The greater transparency will hopefully push governments around the world to adopt the type of longer-term and systemic approach that is urgently required if we want to successfully navigate the treacherous waters between Scylla and Charybdis in order to meet the long-term economic, social and environmental objectives in alignment with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.

Greater (financial) commitments and pledges will, however, not suffice to ensure a successful transition. It is crucial to thoroughly understand the nature and dimension of the task at hand: The cyclopean task involves no less than the restructuring of major parts of the production and consumption system as we know it, a system that has evolved under the pressures and incentives of the purely economic imperative created by the respective socio-technical and institutional frameworks. No financial or technological silver bullet solution exists for the problems that the world is currently facing. In fact, technological solution in the cleantech sector might even face major uphill battles as they are often targeting large, well-established markets (e.g., energy markets) that are dominated by powerful companies with vested interests. Further, the risks associated with the development and commercialization of such technologies are often too great for the private sector to assume, particularly as their introduction often requires significant complementary and add-on investments, e.g., infrastructure. For instance, electric cars need a network of charging stations. Besides, these assets are not always of a tangible nature. Sometimes, significant investments in intangibles are required that only the public sector might be capable to stem (e.g., research funding) and to protect (e.g., via patent laws). Also, the existing institutional framework might be underdeveloped. The transition therefore won’t occur through market forces alone. In fact, in several instances, markets might have to be created in the first instance (e.g., feed-in tariffs in the early stages of solar energy). The role that the state needs to play for this transition to be successful will therefore extend beyond its role as a provider of money and lender of last resort. It needs to play a greater role in coordinating the activities of the relevant stakeholders, to support the development and commercialization of new technologies, to assume risks where necessary, to create new markets where required, to tackle market failure and to ensure an equitable distribution of the economic benefits of the transition.

Written by Dr. Norman Ebner, CRES strategic advisor

The Global Methane Assessment: Cuts and Acts

city sky sunset water

On the 6th of May 2021, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the UN Environment Program released the Global Methane Assessment. This new assessment analyses the benefits and costs of reducing methane emissions and identifies the sectors in which the most progress can be made by 2030.

Methane, a short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) with an atmospheric lifetime of roughly a decade, is a potent greenhouse gas ten of times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. Its atmospheric concentration has more than doubled since pre-industrial times. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in driving climate change, and more than half of all methane emissions come from human activities in three sectors: fossil fuels (35%), waste (20%) and agriculture (40%). We need to manage methane now to manage the climate crisis. The Assessment highlights five key points.

  1. Human-caused methane emissions are growing, and we must reduce them by 40 to 45% by 2030 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. This would avoid nearly 0.3 °C of global warming by 2045 and complement all long-term climate change mitigation efforts.
  2. Reducing methane emissions is low cost and one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming. Methane is the only greenhouse gas for which ample, cheap, off-the-shelf emission control technologies exist. There are readily available targeted methane measures that can reduce 2030 methane emissions by 30% if fully implemented. Many of these are zero to low-cost solutions.
  3. There are significant health, economic, and development benefits from acting now. The benefits of acting are numerous and benefit a wide range of constituents including children, the elderly, the climate and economically vulnerable, and minority populations. This includes improved air quality that can save hundreds of thousands of lives; improved food security by preventing crop losses; and the creation of jobs through mitigation efforts, while increasing productivity through reduced heat stress. Reducing methane emissions by 45%would prevent 260 000 premature deaths, 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits, 26 million tonnes of crop losses annually, and 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat.
  4. These benefits far outweigh the costs. By implementing a 1.5°C-consistent-methane mitigation strategy, the global monetized benefits would be approximately USD $4,300/tonne of methane reduced. The benefits from avoided premature deaths alone would be approximately USD $450 billion per year by 2030.
  5. We need to make 2021 a ‘methane moment’. Methane mitigation is one of the most significant climate actions the world can take this decade. Meeting the 45% target would be a significant political victory with international and national benefits. Slashing methane emissions is the only lever to slow the pace of global warming in the near term.

Methane emissions affect and therefore concern everyone. We have the solutions, we have the technology – there is no reason not to act now.

Written by Dr Eleni Michalopoulou
Stockholm Environment Institute, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York.
Eleni is a pirate but lately works on all things atmospheric. Find out more: