Tuesday 19 Jan 2021

Energy & economics linkages in waste management

Urban India generates about 59 million metric tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Out of this, 10.11% plastics and 9.63% paper and cardboard are also generated. However, recent estimates reveal that only about 60% of plastics and about 27% of paper and cardboard are recycled in our country. These numbers, however, are well above global average recycling rates. But are we aware what actually drives this recycling in India?

Sourabh Manuja and Suneel Pandey | SEPTEMBER 19, 2020, 09:42 PM IST

There are few solid wastemanagement services like collection and transportation which are demand drivenand, in contrast, treatment and disposal services are policy driven. Whereas,Policy is driven by need for public health and environmental protection, marketdemand for recycling waste materials is often driven by economic valueassociated with recycling and recovery of waste materials.

Now, what sustains this economicvalue is energy involved to recover recyclables from dry waste or mixed wasteand transport waste materials to recycling industries vis-a-vis sale price ofproduct made from these raw materials. This formulates a business case for anenterprise to earn profit.

Obviously, energy requirementsare least and recyclability potential is high when waste material is segregatedby citizens at source and handed over for recycling. Similarly, when recyclingindustries are closer to urban areas which generate recyclable waste, andappropriate transportation is carried out (waste compacted into balers),material haulage costs are reduced and the recycling business fetches moreprofits for collected material thus clearly indicating why purchase price ofrecyclables is high among waste dealers closer to recycling hubs, compared toremote or difficult terrain cities/towns.

In Delhi where a recycling hub ison the outskirts of the city,  PETbottles fetch around Rs 20/kg for rag pickers whereas in Varanasi it fetchesabout Rs 15-16/kg and about Rs 10-12/kg in Panaji, where recycling hubs arelocated at distances of over 100 km from the city.

Now if we look at the marketdemand side, the most pertinent reason why we see an increase in informalsector waste collectors in cities is because there is a demand for lower valueraw materials to produce products which are cheaper, compared to products madefrom virgin raw materials.

Many times, manufacturers alsoblend recycled raw materials with virgin materials to produce products whichare competitive in market. As a result, the one who is at the last end of thevalue chain i.e. an informal waste collector gets a price for services of wastesegregation and collection.

In the recycling chain, wasterecyclers are at the top, followed by large scale waste dealers and then smallscale waste dealers, through whom informal ragpickers are generally connected.

Mostly, these informal wastecollectors are even associated with dedicated small scale dealer who providesthem social and financial securities but buy products at lower values. Theinformal waste collectors are often labours of the last resort. There is a needfor stronger policies and monitoring mechanisms that allow furtherstrengthening of these recycling chains by increasing price of servicesprovided by informal waste collectors and formalising this marginal but acritical stakeholder of waste value chain.

There is also a requirement ofmore research and developments to manufacture products which bring more valuefor recycled materials and benefits are transferred to the whole recyclingchain. As seen in case of PET recycling in India, which has led to around 90%recycling rates.

The energy required fortransporting waste to recycling industries and manpower requirement forsegregating materials at times can make economics for recycling of low valueproducts unsustainable. As a result, a lot of low value mixed paper andlightweight plastics may end up in the environment. There is an urgent needthat the energy required to recover valuables from waste in cities is reducedthrough citizen engagement. Also, recycling hubs needs to be established closerto the city centres and a support for market development of recycled productsshould be provided by the government to make recycling of even lower valueproducts feasible.

Simultaneously, more materialrecovery facilities within urban clusters with integrated informal sectorworkers should be established, uplifting social and economic status of theworkforce and reducing environmental burden of cities. 

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