How Can India's Waste Problem See a Systemic Change?

India generates 62 million tonnes of waste every year, of which less than 60% is collected and around 15% processed. With landfills ranking third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in India, and increasing pressure from the public, the Government of India revised the Solid Waste Management after 16 years.. This paper proposes an institutional framework that will address this grave environmental and public health concern and bring about a systemic change in the sector. 

The population of India crossed the 1.2 billion mark in 2013, and now it stands at 1.33 billion. With a population density of 325 per square kilometres, India’s 2.9 million square kilometre of land area holds close to 18% of the world’s population (Census 2011). Although the administration has tried to keep up with the burgeoning cities, either policies designed to address basic public services have been poorly framed or the time taken to implement policies has taken decades, thus virtually rendering them ineffective. 

The Census Department categorises urban India into six tiers, based on population. According to the 2011 census report, there are three megacities holding a population of 10 million or more, 53 urban agglomerations with a population of one million or above and 468 towns with a population of 100,000 and above (Census 2011).

With megacities spurting a growth of 30.47% (Census 2011), India’s basic necessities have sometimes been ignored. With an increasing focus towards services such as water, electricity and food for the growing population, the Indian administration has unfortunately ignored another major public service: waste management. 

I attempt to understand the existing scenario of waste management, impact of poor waste management solutions, policies that have been framed to address it and the major systemic changes that need to happen to ensure this important public issue does not turn into a national calamity.

Waste Generation in India

According to the Press Information Bureau, India generates 62 million tonnes of waste (mixed waste containing both recyclable and non-recyclable waste) every year, with an average annual growth rate of 4% (PIB 2016). The generated waste can be divided into three major categories: Organic (all kinds of biodegradable waste), dry (or recyclable waste) and biomedical (or sanitary and hazardous waste).

As shown in Figure 1, nearly 50% of the total waste is organic with the volumes of recyclables and biomedical/hazardous waste growing each year as India becomes more urbanised (McKinsey Global Institute 2010).

Figure 1: Waste Composition of India, in Million Metric Tonnes per annum. Source: PIB 2016

Methodology of Waste Audit in Urban India

A waste audit was conducted across 500 households of Hyderabad, a city with a population of 3.6 million. The residents were divided into three segments by income levels: low, middle and high. The specific target segments for the waste audit were “middle” and “high” income categories. The incomes were derived from the nature of property they resided in; incomes were assumed to be directly proportional to monthly rental costs of the property, real estate value, monthly maintenance costs, and area of each flat or villa (in square feet).

Two housing societies in the “high income” segment, with 249 households, and two societies in the “middle income segment” with 251 households, were chosen for the waste audit. The wet, recyclable and hazardous waste of each household was measured using a digital weighing scale across a span of seven days to account for variations in food consumption and hence waste generation across all days of the week (weekdays and weekends). Each category was audited across two different months of the year, May and September (May, being a summer month, and September, being autumn) to account for seasonal variations in food consumption and hence waste generation.

The results indicated that there is a marginal increase in waste generation with rise in incomes, as shown in Table 1. While the “high income” group produced an average of 0.902 kg of organic waste and 0.378 kg of recyclable waste per household per day, the “middle income” group produced about 0.015 grams lesser organic waste and 0.143 grams lesser recyclable waste every day.

Table 1: Primary Research Results Conducted Across 500 Households


Average Waste Generated per day per Household (in kgs)






'High income' households





'Middle income' households





Final Averages






With rising education and income, the per-capita increase in generated recyclable waste becomes a serious problem for the country, further compounded by a population of 1.3 billion. The fact that nearly 60% of the typical household waste is organic renders options such as RDF and WTE ineffective, due to the low calorific value of organic waste (Annepu 2012).

Waste Management in India

As shown in Figure 2, less than 60% of waste is collected from households and only 15% of urban India’s waste is processed in a country 12 times as dense as that of the United States (US) (PIB 2016)

Figure 2: Collection vs Dumped Statistics (numbers in million MT per annum) (Source: PIB, Government of India)

While the collection rate needs to be improved to avoid illegal dumping and burning waste at street corners and unoccupied lands, what happens to the waste post-collection is the subject matter of focus of this section.

Process of Waste Collection and Dumping

Every Indian town has at least one specific area earmarked as a landfill area. As shown in Figure 3, the collection process begins with contractors employed by government bodies performing door-to-door collection services covering all households, scourging for any recyclables that may fetch a market price and later transporting all remaining waste to landfills. Each truck typically waits in line for two to three hours for its turn to weigh the amount of waste collected that day and then typically waits for some more time to dump the waste into the landfill. This process creates two perverse incentives:

i) The contractor has an incentive to dump it illegally onto any vacant plots, to save on transportation costs from across the city to the landfill and to save time waiting at the landfill for his turn to dump.

ii) The contractor earns revenue proportional to tonnage of waste dumped. This perversely incentivises him to dump more, resulting in existing landfills receiving an unmanageable amount of waste. This leads to open burning of waste to create space and the cycle of collection, dumping and burning goes on infinitely. 

Figure 3: Waste Management Process in India (Source: Primary research through collection operations at Waste Ventures India)

Impact of Solid-waste Management

The impact of the waste dumping system that is legally practised today is humungous—to human health, environment and the socio-economic well-being of an estimated two million waste-picker families who live off the dumping grounds today in India.

Effect on human health: The US Public Health Service has identified 22 human diseases that are linked to improper solid waste management (MIT Urban Development Sector Unit 1999). Several studies have been published that link asthma, heart attack, and emphysema to burning garbage. Human faecal matter is also frequently found in municipal waste—this, along with unmanaged decomposed garbage, attracts other rodents, that further lead to a spread of diseases such as dengue and malaria (Biswas 2012).

Dump yards are frequently known to catch fires – the one at Deonar in 2016, located in Mumbai (the most populated metropolitan city of India, with a population of more than 11.5 million people [Census Department, Government of India, 2017]), raged for three months, pumping tonnes of cancer-causing smoke into the air, caused by burning plastic, leather, etc. Holding waste equal to the height of an 18-ft tower, the dumping ground at Deonar has led to the areas surrounding Deonar to be classified as the city’s most polluted suburb (based on data from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research [SAFAR]) (Times of India 2015).    

Effect on environment: Burning garbage is classified as the third biggest cause of greenhouse emission in India—apart from the impact on human health, the effect on land, water and food pollution is a matter of grave concern. Burning releases carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and carcinogenic hydrocarbons, apart from particulate matter into the air, resulting in India releasing 6% of methane emissions only from garbage (compared to a 3% global average) (Planning Commission 2014).

By 2047, it is expected that 1,400 sqkm of landfill area would be required for dumping India’s increasing volumes of municipal solid waste; this space is roughly equal to the combined area of three out of top five most populous cities in India: Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai (Annepu 2012).

Leachate from rotten garbage contains heavy metals and toxic liquid; with such emissions ending up either absorbed into the soil or flowing into water bodies today (Awasthi 2013), the entire food chain can be affected when this contaminated water is utilised for agriculture, human consumption and animal consumption.

Effect on waste-picker families: An estimated two million waste-pickers exist in India today (Chaturvedi 2010); these are families that live off dump yards through collection and sale of recyclables from the dumped mixed waste. While some estimates state that nearly 40% of the waste-pickers are children aged below18 years, what is definite is that these families live off in unhygienic environments, succumbing to malnutrition, extreme poverty, and adverse health infections. With no physical protection such as gloves, uniforms, shoes or masks, most children scourge for metals with magnets attached to sticks, thus putting their health to extreme risk.

Not only do the landfills emit methane that is approximately 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide (OECD), toxic leachate continuously flows out, making dump-yards susceptible to natural and artificially caused fires, hence putting the lives of waste-picker families at risk. These families are also recorded to be affected by several respiratory diseases, physical cuts, worm infestations, and skin diseases (Hunt 1996). 

Key Areas of Intervention

The umbrella act, called the National Environment Policy Act, was passed in 1986 and later revised in 2006. Several policies that have been passed subsequent to this have either been too cumbersome for organisations to implement, thus creating a market for under-the-table transactions, or they have been ignored even by local government bodies. The first comprehensive solid waste management rules were passed in 2000. Thereafter, 16 years later, after poor implementation led to diseases and wide scale protests (Hindustan Times 2016; Annepu 2014; Hindu 2012; Times of India 2016) in several states of India, the rules were revised in 2016 by the Ministry of Environment, thus releasing the latest solid waste management rules in 2016, to govern effective collection and disposal of municipal solid waste in India.

Policy-level Interventions

Seventeen rules have been passed or revised since the first National Environment Protection Act, 1986, each dealing with the management and handling of a specific type of waste, such as e-waste rules, 2011, plastic waste rules, 2011, and batterie rules, 2011. The lack of one comprehensive policy with an umbrella framework of governing bodies has perhaps been the greatest stumbling block for effective implementation. Different rules require different certifications from Central Pollution Control Boards (CPCB), making the process tedious.  Here are the key features of the solid waste management rules, 2016:

  1. A mandate for all waste generators to segregate waste, but with no specific penalty on non-compliers
  2.  A mandate for bulk generators (any institution with an area greater than 5,000 square metres) to manage their own waste, but with no penalty mentioned for non-compliance of the same.
  3.  An extended producer responsibility on brand owners to set up a collect back scheme for managing waste produced during packaging.
  4.  Promotion of WTE (waste-to-energy) plants and a directive to the Department of Fertilisers to market compost along with chemical fertilisers.
  5.  Provision for local bodies to levy waste collection fees on waste generators, with no penalty on non-compliance.

Introduction of Right Incentives for Behavioural Change

A bird’s eye-view of the waste management value chain from the waste generator to the final contractor dumping the waste in landfills shows that the system is currently replete with perverse incentives that encourage waste dumping and burning, rather than environmental solutions such as composting, recycling and reuse.

Three major stakeholders are present in the waste management value chain: waste generator, waste collection agent and other middlemen in charge of collection and transportation, and the final contractor assigned to dump the collected waste.

Unlike other developed countries, in India, the waste generator expects payment for waste, and hence the entire revenue flow is backward: the resident (or waste generator) gets payment from the local collector, who gets paid by middlemen, who finally get paid either by the government for dumping (called a tipping fee) or from the recycler for supplying raw materials for the recycling process.

Consider the following two cases to observe the incentive structure along the entire value chain.

Case 1: When Recyclables are Segregated at Source and Stored

A survey from recyclable collection stalls conducted at three different communities revealed that 73.5% of the total collection was either newspapers or carton boxes, with the remaining spread across a variety of materials such as metals, plastics, and e-waste, thus making newspapers and paper derivatives the most recycled type of dry waste by households.

While households are financially incentivised to store recyclables for recycling, the high material costs at the very beginning of the value chain squeezes the margins for every subsequent player, thus encouraging him to move towards informal labour practices (including child labour), hazardous environmental emission standards and largely cash payments in the economy.

In a primary survey of 100 scrap dealers (largely the first level of collection agents for households), the players were barely able to break even; they earned revenue of Rs 6,000 (US$ 88) on average per month and a profit of Re 1 (1 cent) per kg of newspapers and cartons collected. As Figure 4 illustrates, due to high material (variable) costs, volumes did not necessarily translate to profits; in fact, higher volumes also increased other fixed costs of storage and maintenance. 

Figure 4: Flow of Recyclables and Reverse Flow of Money Through the Value Chain for Old Newspaper

Case 2: When Recyclables Are Wasted Along with Organic Waste

Since source segregation is not enforced in majority of the cities in India, the segregation of recyclables from mixed waste is done by middlemen and rag-pickers at the dump yards. This drastically reduces the quality and quantity of recyclables that can be retrieved from the waste. As illustrated in Figure 5, the reverse flow of money not only encourages residents to generate more trash but also makes dumping a more popular option to recycling or composting. 

Figure 5: Value Chain of Waste Collection and Dumping into Landfills

Thus, all the stakeholders need to be incentivised in the right way to maximise collection, minimise dumping and maximise composting and recycling operations.

The incentives for each of the three stakeholders need to be designed keeping final goals of the exercise in mind.

Waste generator

User fee: Similar to other public services, waste management service should not be provided free of cost to residents. With goals of maximising segregation, a user collection fee needs to be levied. This practice is widely followed across nations today, including Singapore, US and various countries of Europe, proving that the model is viable for implementation in urban India as well. Our survey has shown that larger communities housing 200+ families pay a fee to the local collector for collection of waste (Case 2 in the above scenario) – but these are largely under-the-table transactions to ensure regular and prompt service and the fee is contingent on the bargaining capacity of residents and the agent. A state-levied fee would ensure standardisation and accountability, with residents demanding regular collection from the administration. This also helps increase collection rates, avoid illegal dumping and reduce the existence of a parallel cash economy.

Introduction of financial penalties: To deter non-compliance, both residents and collection agents need to be penalised by introduction of penalty clauses into the policy. While residents need to be penalised for generating mixed/un-segregated waste, holding agents also accountable for collecting only segregated waste will further enforce the policy of segregation, by deterring collection of mixed waste at the household level itself.

Contractor/Collection agents

The incentive terms need to be revised to achieve the twin goals of maximising collection and minimising the use of landfills, while also ensuring illegal dumping is averted in the process. Fourfold structural changes that need to be implemented on contractual terms are:

(i) Payment incentives based on collection targets to maximise collection

(ii) A landfill tax to reduce usage of landfills

(iii) Payment only on receiving segregated waste at recycling and composting centres

(iv) Imposition of stiff penalties on illegal dumping  

Urban Local Bodies

Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) not only need to be mandated for managing waste but also penalised for use of landfills. A survey reveals that Nanded, a city in Maharashtra with a population of just 430,000 people, spends more than RS 15 crore to collect and transport waste to landfills, against a tax collection of only Rs 75 lakhs[1].

Only two cities of India, Pune and Bengaluru, have regulations mandating bulk generators to segregate and manage their waste, also imposing penalties on non-compliance (Public Notice, Municipal Commissioner, Pune 2015; Public Notice, Commissioner of Bengaluru 2012). Inspite of this, ULBs have shown a great level of inertia to step up the efforts.

Accountability needs to be brought by:

(i) Enabling disbursal of funds only through goal setting, and measurement of performance by monitoring achievement as a percentage of targets.

(ii) Penalties on non-compliance that include cuts in revenue sharing.

(iii) Establishing a central waste management digital tracking tool – that displays regular information on the level of ULB preparedness, emission levels of landfills, cleanliness index reports and impact numbers, will cultivate the ‘social incentives’ necessary through to instil healthy competition amongst government bodies.

Process Decentralisation

While on the one hand, India needs highly scientific and automated mechanisms of managing the huge volumes of waste, on the other, facilities need to be decentralised to enable efficient management of end-to-end operations and save on transportation costs. Only two cities, Pune and Bengaluru have implemented by-laws recommending decentralised processing of waste. The rest of the country has stayed on with centralised dumping of waste onto earmarked areas for landfill, leading to perverse incentives, waxing transportation costs and massive air and water pollution.

As is evident from Table 3, even cities having a population of more than five million people have just 1-3 landfills. The centralised model has three major challenges and impact:

(i) Increase in transportation cost, incentivising the collector to drop the waste onto unused land spots.

(ii) Increase in wait time per truck (with an average of more than three hours per day[2]), leading to illegal dumping across open spaces in the city. This translates to very little increase in recycling since the waste is typically mixed, and very few recyclables can be segregated from such waste, washed, dried and transported in a form that is accepted by traders for recycling. Downstream impact of increase in traffic, noise and air pollution due to a daily surge in movement of trucks towards a central zone regularly. For example, Hyderabad has hundreds of trucks carrying more than seven million Metric tonnes of waste towards the Jawahar Nagar dump yard every day, leading to colossal damage to the environment and the city.

A de-centralised ‘zonal’ management of waste where each block or zone has both a composting facility for managing organic waste and a dry waste collection centre for sorting and storing recyclables would help alleviate the challenges listed above. The current SWM Rules make no progress towards achieving a decentralised management of waste in India. 

Table 3: Data Analysis of Landfill Area by Population Served, for Top five Populous Cities of India

Name of city

Population (millions)

Land area (ha)

No of landfill sites

Area of landfill (ha)

Population per unit landfill area (persons/ha)
































The other benefit of decentralisation also includes an opportunity to increase private player participation in the sector. Introduction of decentralised sites helps usher in healthy competition, reduces demanding power of single contractors, and also nurtures accountability and transparency into the system. For example, to the author’s knowledge, the city of Bengaluru, which has by-laws recommending decentralised management has five players working in the waste management space, unlike other cities which do not, such as Hyderabad or Chennai.[3]

Market for By-products

Proper waste management generates useful by-products (compost in the case of composting, energy in the case of WTE plants and fuel in the case of RDF plants) and creates a circular economy. With heavy subsidies in chemical fertilisers, farmers are disincentivised to move towards organic farming, thus reducing the market for compost drastically. While the new SWM rules attempt to correct the inefficiencies by mandating the Department of Fertilisers to take up marketing of compost, a lot more needs to be done to create a market for compost and encourage farmers to adopt organic farming.           

Similarly, recycling companies today compete at par with industries using fresh raw materials (virgin products). Buyers of recycled plastic pellets, for instance, have no incentives to go for sustainable initiatives, unless lucrative cost savings are involved.

Case: Analysing the P&L for a Composting Facility

My survey across three decentralised composting facilities in Hyderabad has shown that the operating costs of running the composting operations by far outweigh the revenue generated by sale of compost (Table 4). As illustrated through Appendices A, B, C, D and E, composting is a highly scientific and operations-heavy process. There are three major costs involved in operations: labour, machinery and additive cost. While costs remain fairly similar, the two potential sources of revenue, sale of compost and service fee paid by households for processing waste are currently too low or nil.

Chemical fertilisers are heavily subsidised by the government – urea, for example, sells at less than Rs 5/kg (Government of India, Department of fertilisers). My survey indicates that in the absence of financial incentives such as tax benefits or government subsidies, compost is sold at much lesser, sometimes at a price point as low as Rs 2/kg.

As illustrated in Table 4, a composting facility servicing 5,000 households only recovers 0.86% of monthly operational costs.

Table 4: Revenue by Operational Cost Breakdown for a Composting Facility (Source: Primary research at a composting facility in Waste Ventures India)


Number of households



Kgs of organic waste handled per day



Labour FTE required



Supervisor FTE required



Monthly Operational Costs (Rs)

Labour costs



Other labour costs



Material costs



Machinery leasing costs



Total monthly costs



Monthly Revenue

Revenue per kg of compost (Rs)



Amount of compost produced per month (kg)



Total monthly revenue (Rs)




This observation reinforces the first recommendation that residents need to pay for the waste management service, in order to make up the deficit and ensure the sustainability of the process. The government also needs to take a more holistic view of:

(i) The impact of overuse of fertilisers on agricultural land

(ii) How sustainable waste management models could be encouraged to attract more players and investments into the market.

Thus, key policy interventions need to be in place for:

Compost: Tax incentives and buy-back of compost from waste producers while fixing minimum standards of compost quality would enable more formal certified waste management companies to thrive in the system sustainably. 

Recycled products: Along with the EPR introduced by SWM 2016 rules, mandating corporate companies to also use a minimum percentage of recycled products as part of their manufacturing process would be beneficial. Tax benefits to recycling companies will bring in standards and therefore accountability into the recycling system. My survey reveals that only five recyclers out of 300 plastic recyclers in the city of Hyderabad are Pollution Control Board (PCB) certified, thus increasing the importance of standardising the industry to national norms.

The European Commission’s ambitious Circular Economy Package is a right step in this direction (European Commission 2015). While the European Environment Agency aims to establish a recycling rate of atleast 50% across the 31 countries, some countries have surpassed the targets. Sweden, for example, has a recycling rate of 99% and only 1% of daily waste generated goes into landfills, with most of the organic waste being used to generate power through WTE plants (Sweden Sverige 2014).

Research and Development on Indigenous Techniques

While RDF and WTE plants have worked well in many countries, most notably China and Europe (Qiu 2012), India has had eight failed projects worth millions of dollars in the last two decades alone (Chandra 2014), showing that there are country-specific issues that need to be understood before trying to replicate the success of China or Europe. Two major issues exist specifically in India:

Low calorific value of organic food: The higher content of organic food (this is 65% of household waste and 50% in municipal solid waste) is a reflection of cultural values of consuming more cooked food as compared to processed and packaged food. Although this trend could quite possibly reverse as food habits become more Westernised, today’s municipal waste is soggy and heavy in water. Organic food generates 30% lesser calorific value as compared to recyclable waste, and this has been the primary reason for the malfunctioning of WTE plants in India.

High cost of construction: While WTE plants need to be highly regulated for pollutant emissions (otherwise completely negating the benefits of waste management) the high cost and scale of such projects are also an impediment to a decentralised set-up for successful waste management system in India.

While the concept of producing energy from waste seems to be a panacea, the Indian administration needs to invest in research and development to come up with locally designed cost-effective solutions that would work better in the current cultural context.


With two Indian cities leading the way in India today, through source segregation and decentralised waste management system, the central government should create an appropriate national framework to incentivise and monitor implementation by the states. European countries have set clear benchmarks, which India can adopt. Ultimately, to overhaul the waste management sector and induce the necessary behavioural change, citizen participation and engagement is the key. Building appropriate institutional framework along with policy-level directions will help facilitate the necessary change. 

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