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Towards Shunya: The Zero Waste Lifestyle

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Authors - Shreeyam Kedia, Navneedhi Meena and Madhulika Prakash



Introduction


“It’s only one straw,” said 8 billion people. A study by Forbes estimates that about 120 billion pieces of plastic cutlery are produced in India every year. This is a very tiny part of the increasing mammoth amounts of waste we are generating every day. Aggregate waste generated in India every day is 1.50 lakh metric tonnes. Without any initiative taken to curb this, the waste will continue to grow exponentially. This will result in severe environmental consequences such as climate change, contamination and depletion of natural resources, and so on – some of which we are already experiencing.

Sarah Blyth Lundquist stated “Modern society presently operates under the presumption that solid waste is an inevitable output of economic production and consumption” . But it doesn’t need to be. If we strategize to reduce waste at earlier stages of production and consumption, we can reduce the ecological footprint on earth and allow more of nature to be restored.

To deal with this ever-increasing quantity of waste being produced by consumers and producers, governments have a crucial role to play in order to deal with these challenges. Most narratives have focussed on finding sustainable ways to collect and dispose waste; however, the paradigm is now shifting towards waste prevention instead. This is where the concept of Zero Waste comes in.

Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as “a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water and air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant heal”.

With zero waste, our aim is to minimize the use of resources and maximize the inherent value within the waste generated by society through a 5R approach – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.

5R approach of waste processing



Background & Related Policies

Solid waste management (SWM) has been a serious issue, especially for many Indian urban local bodies (ULBs). Due to increasing urbanization and industrialization, municipal solid waste (MSW) generation per person is rising at alarming rates. Developing an effective and efficient SWM system is becoming a big challenge for urban cities with high and constantly increasing population density. Currently, local municipal bodies play a key role in the waste collection under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Even so, the significant process of extraction of value from waste is still a major responsibility of the informal sector, with approximately 90% of residual waste currently dumped instead of being properly landfilled. In 2016, the Waste Management and Handling Rules in India were introduced by the Ministry of Environment and Forests but the implementation is still a big question because of different compliance issues and limited resources and knowledge ("The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 (As Amended) – Repository of Environmental Laws", n.d.).

An information data set from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) mentions that the estimated waste generation in the country is 1,41,064 tons/day out of which, 127531 tons/day (90%) is collected and 34,752 tons/day (27%) processed. This garbage is composed of 40-45% organic waste which can be utilised from conversion to compost, 20-30% is inert waste and leftovers comprises plastics, papers, rags and other materials (“The National Action Plan for Municipal Solid Waste Management”, n.d.).

Special attention has been given to solid waste management from Central and State Governments and local (municipal) authorities in India through public-private partnerships. National Solid Waste Association of India (NSWAI) is the leading professional non-profit organisation in the fields of Solid Waste Management in India. It deals with all kinds of waste including hazardous and toxic waste such as the Biomedical waste of India. NSWAI only helps the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in forming policies related to solid waste management.

There have been several government initiatives taken in the area - SWM practices adopted under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), The Plastics Manufacture and Usage (Amendment) Rules (2003), Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small & Medium Towns (UIDSSMT), The Plastics Manufacture and Usage (Amendment) Rules (2003) and others.

The details of SWM strategy varies from city to city as it is based on strategies adopted by the local bodies. But a general observation noted is that all those strategies are not suitable to achieve sustainable waste management.

Recently, the 7th report by the Standing Committee on Urban Development (2020-21) presented to the Parliament on the status of waste management in India states how municipal solid waste generated in India is set to increase by seven times in the next 30 years. This however, doesn’t mean that India does not have ample possibilities to reach this aim. If dedicated to the task, not only can India significantly improve the condition of waste management in the country but with one-sixth of the world’s population, it has the potential to change the global picture on waste. The problem of waste management keeps becoming more and more serious – especially in the urban setup. A lack of awareness on the issue, the myths attached to adopting a zero-waste lifestyle and a lack of accessible alternatives are the biggest obstacles to achieving this at present. Therefore, this is exactly where we need to start.


Source: Top 5 municipal solid waste generators annually (in million tonnes). Adapted from: “In 30 years, India tipped to double the amount of waste it generates”, 2020, March 4, Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/in-30-years-india-tipped-to-double-the-amount-of-waste-it-generates/articleshow/74454382.cms




About ‘Towards Shunya’

The policy initiative 'Towards Shunya: The Zero Waste Lifestyle' aims to incentivize a zero-waste lifestyle using a two-tier approach. With the target of waste minimization at the source of its generation, the policy addresses the challenges and myths associated with this lifestyle by spreading awareness about it through an easily available resource base accessible online and offline, at the initial stages of policy implementation. This will be followed by the goal of making zero waste lifestyle more accessible through incentivization of waste segregation and provision of alternatives coupled with an active role of the government and NGO network, which will provide further impetus to the policy implementation. Further, this policy focuses more on the urban setups because maximum waste generation largely concerns more developed regions where people have the resources to consume more.

Being a consumer is an inevitable roleplay if we are a part of a society, regardless of the sector or section we belong to. The grave environmental consequences as a result of our unsustainable use of resources have put forth an urgent demand for concrete actions. Thus, the need to mitigate waste as a priority action cannot be realized until the need for behaviour change is recognized. Therefore, ‘Towards Shunya’ is primarily directed towards the consumer groups and focuses on how adopting a zero-waste lifestyle can, if not stop, slow down the rapid pace of waste generation via judicious changes in our consumption patterns within our environmental limits.



Pillars of policy implementation


The essence of implementing ‘Towards Shunya: The Zero Waste Lifestyle’ lies in decentralization. Accordingly, we have 4 pillars of policy implementation in a bottom-up approach:

Individual

1. Mindfulness of consumption - Educating consumers about their purchasing power

2. Increasing public awareness about less-toxic, recycled, re-usable, durable and composted products

3. Incentivising use of sustainable alternatives and segregation of waste



NGOs and Volunteer Networks

1. Carrying out elaborate outreach campaigns to spread awareness on the need for a 5 R lifestyle and ways to achieve it

2. Conducting workshops to train and impart knowledge about better waste management practices and easily accessible alternatives


Local Government Bodies

1. Enforce and ensure compliance with waste segregation and other waste related policies and regulations

2. Encouraging the role of NGOs to work regionally in zero waste planning and implementation

3. Collecting data about waste management at regular intervals in their respective areas to assess the impact of individual legislations


Institutions

1. Building the right waste management infrastructure and facilities to increase the accessibility of a zero waste lifestyle for the public

2. Researching and analysing the feasibility of alternatives accessible to people in all social stratas

3. Allocation of sufficient funds to ensure smooth execution of policy

4. Ensuring compliance at all levels of policy implementation for effective outcomes




Waste Management in India

Waste Classification based on the Origin of the Place


Waste Classification in terms of Chemical Characterization, Utilization and Safe Disposal





Source: Waste classification based on the origin of the place. Adapted from “Waste Classification and Inventorisation”, by Dr. DD Basu and Swati Singh Sambyal, Centre for Science and Environment New Delhi, India, p. 4, 5. Retrieved from http://cdn.cseindia.org/attachments/0.29314300_1506062840_Waste-Classification-and-Inventorisation.pdf




Waste Generation

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) consists majorly of waste from households, commercial establishments in municipal areas. They are usually in solid, or semi-solid form which excludes industrial hazardous wastes but includes treated biomedical waste. In particular, households waste majorly includes wet/kitchen waste, dry waste (like paper, glass, etc), domestic hazardous waste (like tube lights, expired medicines, etc.), Construction & Demolition and furniture waste, sanitary waste, and occasionally E-waste. Studies and reports suggest that around 62 million tonnes of solid waste are generated yearly out of which around 43 million tonnes per year is collected, 11.9 million tonnes are treated and 31 million tonnes are dumped in landfills. This shows us that approximately 75% of municipal waste gets collected and only about 25% of that gets treated (Agarwal, 2020). If we do not reduce the generation of waste, the numbers are only predicted to multiply in the coming years.



Waste Disposal

Steps of waste disposal



(Author’s suggestion and interpretation)

Out of all the funds the urban-local bodies spend on solid waste management in India, the budget allocated to treatment and disposal is meagre. Due to the increasing population in a developing country like India, landfills have been highly inefficient because they get exhausted quickly due to their limited usage time frame. Besides this, they are also becoming expensive due to the rising cost of construction. As per the reports of India’s Central Pollution Control Board, 70% of waste is diverted to landfills, many of which are illegal and unregulated (Dobrowolski, 2021), consequently endangering the quality of drinking water. Another commonly used method is incineration. However, the ash generated from incineration contains hazardous compounds that are harmful to the environment. A relatively safer way to dispose of waste is by recycling. However, this is not hugely popular in India and is confined mostly to larger cities. The role of the informal sector is significant when it comes to recycling. Largely unregulated and unregistered waste pickers are responsible for extracting value from the collected waste. Quite often waste picking is the only source of income for some families.

In some larger cities like Mumbai, Delhi, etc. garbage disposal is also done by public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the private sector is responsible for door-to-door solid waste collection, sweeping of the streets and waste treatment and disposal

Key Issues Identified

After the above analysis, we can make the following observations:

  1. Lack of waste reduction: Waste management is not practiced at the household level to reduce waste at an earlier stage. There is also a lack of incentives to segregate waste at the source. While there are some examples of partial waste segregation, they are on a small scale and not entirely sustainable at present.

  2. Lack of accountability: There is no accountability attached to collection of recyclable waste by waste collectors. Such recyclable waste goes to the informal sector where waste of less calorific value is discarded reducing their possibility of utilisation in waste-to-energy projects.

  3. Lack of awareness: Most people lack knowledge about the need for a zero waste lifestyle in the first place, much less about how to practice it. Even with people who are aware of this, there are many prevalent myths and misconceptions about a zero waste lifestyle which leads to reluctance in practicing it. This is mostly an outcome of inauthentic information about the zero waste lifestyle.

  4. Lack of accessibility: While there are many alternatives one can adopt to have a more sustainable lifestyle, the actual availability and accessibility to it for most of the population in the country is quite low due to lack of suitable infrastructure due to unavailability of zero waste production and disposal units and inadequate funding for the same.

  5. Lack of vision: Local bodies operating in various urban towns don't have a long term plan for solid waste management. All the schemes/policies implemented till date have short term benefits but mostly long term hazardous consequences. For instance, at present there is no scientific management of landfill sites which if continued will result in groundwater pollution.



Policy Statement - Way Forward


As we have now seen, waste management that is ineffectively executed is far from sustainable and is in immediate need of a change. This calls for a radical shift towards a more sustainable and preventative approach which is the driving force behind the Zero Waste Lifestyle. There is also a need to carefully analyse the consequences of our present waste disposal techniques in the long term. The focus of our economy till now has mostly been on a linear process of waste disposal which traditionally follows the steps of “take-make-dispose”. The process begins with raw materials which are converted into products and then finally discarded as waste when their traditional use-value is exhausted. However, this needs to change. We need a modified system of sustainable waste disposal that follows the 5 R hierarchy. This is the model of a circular economy where products are designed to be reusable. Its essence lies in reducing lost resources as much as possible where people see the value in things they use. While a complete shift to a circular economy is quite far off right now, adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is the first and closest step towards it at present.

Current Linear Process:


(Author’s suggestion and interpretation)

Circular Economy Model for a Zero Waste Society:


Source: Circular Economic Model for a Zero Waste Society, Adapted from “THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY: VISION, PROBLEMS AND SMART CITY SOLUTIONS”, by Jon Glasco, 2019, July 23, bee smart city, Retrieved from https://hub.beesmart.city/en/strategy/the-circular-economy-and-smart-city-solutions



Objectives of Towards Shunya: The Zero Waste Lifestyle

  • Refuse: This is the first step towards a zero-waste lifestyle. While this can be difficult to implement, it is quite essential and ensures efficiency at the beginning stages of our efforts to reach zero waste. The focus should be on refusing non-recyclable products, especially single-use plastics. It is one of the most effective ways to minimize the amount of waste we generate.

  • Reduce: Reduce is one of the beneficial components of the waste hierarchy. From an economic perspective, this helps in saving more money and at the same time also benefits the environment. When the number of such materials is reduced, especially items which are non-recyclable or non-biodegradable, less of it goes to the garbage disposal. Reduce will also involve donating or selling any existing items which are no longer a part of our necessities.

  • Reuse: This step promotes diligent use of any material to reduce the high amount of waste generated. It allows consumers to reuse materials, look for compostable and eco-friendly options rather than opting for more replacements which in turn add to the waste accumulation. It ensures cost-effectiveness so that one saves money along with energy and resources that would have been utilized to make a new product.

  • Recycle: After we exhaust our options with refusing, reducing and reusing, waste is still generated. With recycling, we can reprocess many of our waste materials to form other products which can be seen as inputs to new processes. Recycling saves money, landfill space, and energy as it takes fewer resources to make new products from recycled materials. To execute this properly, we need efficient waste segregation (preferably at the source), collection and proper processing of all materials that have the option of being recycled.

  • Rot: The last step, rot, involves composting our organic waste. Composting transforms them into humus which has multiple uses like nutrient-rich fertilizers and so on. It also helps decrease greenhouse gas emissions that landfills produce.

Towards Shunya: Guiding Principles

  • Resource conservation by more efficient use of resources

  • Protection of the environment

  • Sustainable development

  • Focus on awareness and education

  • ‘Polluter pays’ principle

  • Shared responsibility of government bodies and institutions, consumers, NGOs and the general community



Key Domains and Strategic Actions


Key Domain 1 – Spreading Awareness

Strategic Actions:

  • Authentic and free information should be made available offline and online by government channels and NGOs about ways to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle. Well researched and easy-to-understand resources should be made available in all common regional languages. An official government portal can be set up consisting of all the necessary information with a FAQs section.

  • Efforts must be made to bust prevalent myths about the zero-waste lifestyle such as the fact it is expensive, one person's action does not make a difference and so on. We must redefine waste at every level of society. To achieve this goal, certain campaigns should be carried out:

  • Social Media Campaigns - Local administration can collaborate with influencers, celebrities and local leaders.

  • Offline outreach Campaigns - Brochures and templates with relevant information can be distributed in public places.

  • Regularly mandated workshops in societies, schools and workplaces

  • An information help desk can be set up both online and offline to sort out queries of the public along with a feasible feedback mechanism.



Key Domain 2 - Increasing Accessibility


Strategic Actions:

  • Public-private partnerships can set up chains of Zero Waste stores in several accessible locations - urban and remote. Already existing Zero Waste stores (Adrish Zero Waste Store, 7 to 9 Green Store, Going Zero and others) can be provided subsidies for further expansion of their business. Special attention must be given to the provision of alternatives like economical reusable food ware (kullads, bamboo and wooden utensils etc) designed for prolonged usage and biodegradable menstrual products.

  • Certain barter schemes and options can be provided where people have the option to trade their trash for useful items or cash. For example, 1 cloth bag could be given in exchange for 10 plastic bags, reverse vending machines can be set up at various convenient locations, a specified volume of recyclable products could be exchanged for more sustainable everyday essentials, etc.

  • Government can provide subsidies to businesses in order to help them set up small manufacturing units for Zero Waste products. This will also help boost up employment opportunities in the waste management sector and increase the recycling workforce.


Key Domain 3 - Waste Segregation

Strategic Actions:

  • Environmental protection legislation should be passed to ensure that the public complies with the set minimum standards of the waste management hierarchy.



Waste management hierarchy



(Author’s suggestion and interpretation)

  • Zero-waste goals can be adopted in the form of regulations for public spaces and activities. For example, events conducted must be provided with a Zero Waste event checklist which facilitates them with detailed instructions to ensure compliance with set zero waste standards, service ware provided must either be compostable or recyclable, and trained staff must be placed to monitor such events.

  • Waste haulers must be licensed or receive permits from the local administration to practice and ensure waste segregation, contingent upon their compliance with Zero Waste regulations. These haulers must also submit periodic reports to the local administration which includes collection and disposal data. To further improve the accessibility of services, they would also be required to offer recycling and composting services to households and businesses.

  • Legislation should be passed to ban landfilling of recyclable materials. Such bans should apply to various waste streams including hazardous waste as well as recoverable materials. Waste segregation should be taken care of in the beginning to stop recyclable material from reaching landfills. For this, existing recycling facilities should be expanded.



Key Domain 4 - Provision of Incentives

Strategic Actions:

  • An incentive program could be initiated which provides guidelines to households on waste segregation after which they are required to take evidence of it. On providing such evidence, households can be rewarded with incentives like basic goods, food coupons, electricity bill discounts, etc. Further, fines should be given for not meeting minimum waste segregation standards.

  • A policy must be developed to mandate a minimum recycling rate for businesses and residents.

  • Businesses should be encouraged to provide work incentives such as recognition as ‘employee of the week’, free coffee/tea, appraisal points, etc. where benefits can be given to the employees who are trying to reduce waste in the workplace



Extended Producer Responsibility



Source: Extended Producer Responsibility, Adapted from Extended Producer Responsibility, JB Ecotex LTD, Retrieved from https://www.jbecotex.com/epr


  • Extended-Producer Responsibility (EPR) should be adopted where producers have a significant responsibility to treat and dispose of post-consumer products. Tracking mechanisms can be developed which ensure waste standard compliance. This can help build up an incentive structure to assure better involvement by the producers.

  • A pay-as-you-throw scheme can be implemented to incentivize a waste reduction in sync with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Here, waste haulers would provide a volume-based pricing structure for their services of waste collection. People can subscribe to them based on the waste they anticipate producing. In the more deprived areas, large scale waste segregation dustbins can be set up which are emptied periodically without charges.

  • Awards and special recognition can be given for exemplary waste minimization efforts.



Key Domain 5 - Government and NGO Networks

Strategic Actions:

  • NGO networks and local government bodies can research and compile resources on waste management hierarchy and adoption of a zero-waste lifestyle.

  • Campaigns to spread awareness and bust myths as mentioned earlier can be carried out by NGO groups in collaboration with local administration.

  • NGOs can be encouraged to organize regional, state-wide, and national waste reduction and sustainability working groups and training workshops. Volunteers participating in these working groups and workshops can further hold information dissemination workshops for the larger community and even be given recognition for their efforts.

  • Government must provide economic backing by allocating sufficient funds to relevant stakeholders.

  • Government must ensure that standards are being met properly and be vigilant about any fraudulent activities that might hamper the process of achieving a zero-waste lifestyle with the help of a committee. They must take the responsibility to constantly monitor the functioning of local administration and institutions in the process as well as ensure compliance to all set targets.


Success Stories of Zero Waste Models

A thriving zero waste model has been implemented in Katraj, Ward 40 of Pune. It was the first pilot “zero garbage” project launched by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) in collaboration with two NGOs SWaCH and Janwani in 2010. The SWaCH NGO organized ragpickers and helped make waste collection financially feasible for them. This led to a substantial increase in waste coverage from 10 to 70 percent. On the other hand, Janwani strategized the entire zero waste model. PMC’s bureaucratic will has made it possible for this project to achieve its goal. It has shown positive revenues, employment and income - serving as indicators of a financially sound project. Added to this there have been countless social and environmental benefits: it has achieved zero landfills, reduction of methane emissions to the extent of 2,42,000 cubic meters annually and several others. With detailed research, it has been assertively confirmed that Ward 40 has been a successful zero waste model and a cogent representation of a sustainable circular waste model.




Waste Segregation by PMC

Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/idol-immersion-in-pune-swach-to-divert-nirmalyas-from-ghats-to-containers-5974250/


Another flourishing decentralized waste management model has been implemented in Mysore which pays special attention to waste segregation. The residents here are trained to separate wet organic waste from dry waste which is further separated into 24 categories after which it is sold to recyclers and industries who can reuse these segregated materials. This has successfully reduced the quantity of waste in Mysore and ensured that the maximum possible waste gets recycled.


Alappuzha, Kerala has revolutionized solid waste management with a very innovative aerobic composting system ideated by Kerala Agricultural University. Here, households are required to either install a biogas plant or pipe compost to process the organic waste it produces. If households are unable to process their waste for any reason, they are supposed to bring it to collection points set up by municipal corporations. In case of any litter, fines are imposed. This process has enabled them to produce high-quality compost. Further, their decentralised system has effectively transformed the process of waste management with municipal workers now managing compost bins rather than garbage collectors.

Other successful policies targeting incentivisation of waste segregation and a Volume-Based Waste Fee System (VBWFS) where the quantity of waste and recycling rate is increased have been implemented in Norzagaray, Bulacan and Jeju Island, South Korea respectively.



Challenges

  1. Lack of proper mechanism of solid waste management

Regardless of thorough measures suggested under “Towards Shunya” to spread awareness, many factors like increasing workload of bureaucrats, the scepticism of citizens in the face of such awareness campaigns, corruption and other microscopic issues may get overlooked. Some of the most prevalent issues are due to more deprived areas being a closed community with lesser adaptability, lack of vigilant monitoring systems and certain other economical and governance factors leading to severe agency problems like corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, collusion between private and government entities.


2. Decentralized approach

While there are innumerable benefits of a decentralized approach, one cannot deny the challenges it might create. A few major ones could be problems of coordination, increment in administrative expenses, lack of uniformity, miscommunication and possible delays. Establishing adequate controls, periodically evaluating performance with subsequent revision of goals, focusing on innovation and appropriate dispersion of resources can help us evade these obstacles.


3. The feasibility of the policy for the country

Certain major elements of ‘Towards Shunya’ has been derived from previously successful (yet local and small) models of zero waste and solid waste management. This helps in ensuring that the policy actions are pragmatic and have viable implementation. With incentives and disincentives, the policy aims at a maximum public engagement at individual and community levels which can be a key feature of a thriving policy model. However, like any other policy, the progress is ultimately determined by the willingness of its key stakeholders and therefore the process of implementation. This specifically becomes a challenge for our policy due to the major role of implementation given to the government and above mentioned prevalent microscopic issues. Despite the issues, there is no other stakeholder who can be given this responsibility.


Conclusion:

With a commitment towards a zero-waste lifestyle, ‘Towards Shunya’ aims to achieve a healthy and sustainable life. This policy document acts as a visionary guide for the nation in its journey to achieve the maximum possible waste minimization with the application of the five R waste hierarchy. The strategic actions suggested in the policy are rightly ambitious but not impractical. If implemented in the right chronology and with relevant considerations at every step, the outcome could be unexpectedly positive. This model aims to tackle the widespread impacts of exponentially increasing solid waste. It uses strategies and techniques which target waste prevention in the first place and further allows for generated waste to be absorbed in the system and continuously recycled and reused. With this, we can ensure the reduction of ecological footprint at both individual and community levels with several other social and economic benefits. In the face of climate change, our focus must be on fostering a sustainable, resilient and just world. Efforts to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle contribute to this through feasible and tangible solutions.

As Anne Marie Bonneau has said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”. ‘Towards Shunya’ calls upon all relevant stakeholders to help us achieve this goal.

References

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