In these gloomy and forlorn times of COVID-19 pandemic where we have only been hearing of loss of lives and livelihood, most of us would have also come across some positive statistics, pictures and videos showing how the earth has begun to heal. With all economic activity coming to a standstill and humans locked inside their homes, the other beings of this earth could come out and what belongs to them as well. My personal favourite, unfortunately a fake news clip (it was real but pre-covid), was that of a deer frolicking on a sea shore with complete abandon, like a small child!
This lockdown has shown us what a massive impact we can make by slowing down and that it is very much possible to slow down. The lockdown unfortunately was like applying breaks to a car that was speeding at 200 Kms/hr hence the human suffering has been tremendous but we have survived this. Going forward, as we pick pace, can we accelerate slowly and also set a reasonable speed limit? While the primary focus of the world right now is on fighting the virus and coming out of the crippling economic crisis and the resultant human suffering; it is critical that we deliberate the lessons can learn from this pandemic in addressing an even bigger challenge, Climate Change.
Looking at the future, using my 3R* glasses, while I see a lot of challenges, I sense more hope than despair with regard to sustainable waste management.
In the coming 0-9 month, we are likely to see more hurdles in our path towards sustainable waste management practices. The biggest and immediate challenge that has come up due to COVID-19 is with regard to the disposal of bio medical waste. In Bio medical waste, the hazardous and infections category of waste is to be collected in yellow bags and has to be primarily either incinerated, or put through plasma pyrolysis or should be disposed through deep burial (only allowed for remote villages). India and many other nations do not have enough facilities1. The situation is much worse in the towns and villages in our country where there is no infrastructure for collection and handling of the bio medical waste. Whatever limited facilities that exist are not managed well2 with regard to emission control and safe disposal of the ash. It is likely that the government will go on an over drive in setting up incineration facilities, giving a big impetus to the ‘waste burning’ technologies and equipment suppliers. The worry is that it could become the go-to technology for waste management in the country, going against the ideas of resource recovery and Circular Economy. It is critical that we learn from the various de-funct plants across the country based on different waste burning technologies, they have failed technically and economically. Very few that are operational, are badly managed facilities resulting in highly toxic emissions. Additionally, with the fall in oil prices and the impact on energy pricing and the kind of waste we generate, incinerators would become white elephants with high very opex, Capex is already high compared to other waste disposal technologies such as Biogas, composting etc. India must not take the waste burning path, we should instead look for more progressive approaches such as Circular Economy, re-manufacturing etc. While the current rules in the form of SWM 2016 rules provide protection against burning of recyclables as well as bio degradable matter, we must remain cautious about any policy change by the government in this regard.
It must be noted that, as the virus spreads, there would be significant amount of bio medical waste getting generated from the residential units too. If this is to be handled properly, the government must get strict about 3 way source segregation as mandated by SWM 2016 rules. The focus of waste segregation campaigns has been on Dry and Wet waste categories, neglecting the critical third category called ‘Domestic Hazardous’ waste. The local administration must ensure that people dispose off their biomedical waste strictly in the red bin which is then handled appropriately through primary and secondary collection set up. If this is not taken up on a war footing, we would be subjecting our sanitation staff and waste workers to serious risk and even aiding the spread of Corona virus. When mixing the household bio-medical waste with dry recyclable waste, we are exposing the entire recycling industry to Corona threat.
The other worrisome trend is the likely increase in the plastic packaging due to the heightened sensitivity towards hygiene. Food and many other items cannot be washed with soap but when packaged in plastic, that layer can be washed easily. This could result in more items getting packed in plastic. The little progress that had been made in recent years with regard to reducing plastic packaging by switching to paper/cloth or even selling loose items, is likely to take a hit. The shift from brick and mortar retail store to online would further increase packaging. Government will have to step in to ensure that only recyclable packaging material is allowed and high rates of collection and recycling are achieved through strict enforcement of Extended Producer Responsibility.
While these are some of the immediate concerns, in the long run, there are likely to be some positive developments.
Public spitting, a major nuisance in our country, is likely to become a thing of past as that would be a serious offense even legally3. This is likely to continue beyond the lockdown and there would also be public pressure due to fear of spreading of the virus. For similar reasons, waste dumping is also likely to be looked down upon by the public as the virus could spread to street animals and back to humans. The local administrations must grab this opportunity to increase fines on waste dumping and also mixing of waste categories as there would be huge public support and people would be vigilant in reporting back offenders. However, increase in fines must be backed by regular waste collection, the two go hand in hand. Segregated primary collection is an essential step towards sustainable waste management and this is a great opportunity to implement it strictly. Civic society can support by creating awareness on the health hazards of mixed waste dumping while the local administration can ramp up collection infrastructure.
During this pandemic, across the world, people took notice of the health care and sanitation staff and saw how in such difficult times they shouldered the responsibility of keeping us safe and maintained hygiene through regular waste collection and cleaning. Our own staff at various locations, was recognised by the citizen groups. There is a deep sense of gratitude towards the entire blue collar work force. This can be a game changer in driving wage parity and reducing the income gap between the white collar and blue collar workforce. Dignified livelihood should be a universal right and all governments need to work on that with priority. Most citizen would welcome and support such initiatives now even at the cost of additional taxes etc.
Shared economy has been picking pace in recent times lead by the taxi sharing cabs, home sharing on platforms like Airbnb, furniture and car sharing etc. This was further developing into the concept of product servitisation, where product used for lighting, printing, washing etc. were being sold like services where the product continued to be owned by the manufacturer. These developments were a great boost for the idea of ‘reuse’ but, with COVID-19, the shared economy would be hard hit as people would be vary of reusing any item physically. Better senitisation technologies would be able to revive it, quick mechanism that can work on different types of surfaces (materials, shapes and size) without damaging/spoiling them. Another critical technological intervention would be for people to be quickly check the sanitisation level. These don’t look like major road blocks and are likely to happen soon. The shared economy had picked enough pace so it would not be possible to reverse it now. The millennials have been so dependent on the Olas and Ubers of the world that they have neither learnt driving or have bought personal vehicles and they would continue to push the demand for these services.
The idea of Globalisation has taken a big hit in this pandemic as most nations have suffered due to not having local sources of essential food and medical supplies. It is quite likely that local sourcing and manufacturing would be prioritised over sourcing these items from China or other south east nations even at the cost of higher prices. This is going to have far reaching impact on all fronts, first and foremost it would increase the engagement and control of the local communities in what and how they consume to meet their daily essential needs. Even though the world at large has woken up to the issues of environment degradation and climate change, common people were not able to exercise much control on the multinational operating through large global supply chains. For the shorter supply chains instead, the local communities would have more say and responsibility towards what and how products are packaged and the associated environment burden of the same. Say if a community decides that the milk is to be delivered in reusable steel containers, it would be possible if the milk is produced and packaged locally. Today with large number of multinationals controlling every small consumable, this kind of control is not possible.
With malls and on-line shopping portals being closed for 5-6 weeks, most people got a taste of a life where shopping was restricted to just food and household essential items and people had to get entertained sitting at home. Some found this restrictive but many people also found this liberating as they didn’t have to do any compulsive shopping or socialising. This long period of isolation where people focussed on essential things in life like family, health and emotional well-being, is likely to have a long lasting impact. It is the reckless consumption by middle and upper middle class that is the key driver of climate change. While a majority of us have known this fact, we have been unable to come out of this frenzy. Corona pandemic and the lockdown has given us the opportunity to break loose and experience life beyond shopping malls. This is likely to have the biggest influence and help shift gears towards a truly sustainable world. It is likely that temporarily there would be a big spurt in spending as things open up but having spent these few weeks on higher life goals, people would sooner or later settle down to a life less materialistic. This is likely to be the most positive and long-lasting impact of this pandemic. Fingers crossed!