The story of Suryapet, a town in Nalgonda district in Andhra Pradesh, demonstrates how communities across the globe are celebrating the practice of integrated zero waste management. Suryapet generates over 48 tonnes of garbage a year. The municipality of Suryapet came up with the system of waste management, particularly for solid wastes, by introducing a door-to-door-collection system. Two bins were supplied to all the residents - red bins for dry wastes and green bins for wet garbage. Source segregation was implemented in each household. Municipal vehicles collected the garbage in the morning. The wastes were either composted or recycled. There is no landfill in the town today. What's more, this scheme provides employment to many people in the village. (For an earlier India Together report on this, see: Municipalities overruling the Supreme Court)

It in keeping with the characteristics of Indian municipal solid waste -- low calorific value, high moisture content, high proportion of organic matter, and considerable inerts like earth, sand and grit – that the Supreme Court Committee on Solid Waste Management headed by Asim Barman suggested simple technologies and easily achievable standards with liberal timeframe knowing the limitations of urban local bodies and their institutional capabilities. It made recommendations to improve the finances of urban local bodies and to boost the composting of waste and recycling industry in this field. Recycling can eliminate a large chunk of the problem. Wet biodegradable wastes (e.g. cooked and uncooked foods and flowers) make excellent for composting. Indian soil is deficient in carbon and that is also the need of the hour to enrich the soil.

In the US alone, recycling conserves an equivalent of approximately 11.9 billion gallons of gasoline, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking one-fifth (40 million) of all US cars off the roads every year.

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However, the reality is that in Indian cities and towns on an average, only 60 per cent of solid wastes is collected leaving the balance 40 per cent unattended to. This gives rise to the insanitary conditions and diseases, especially among the urban poor who constitute 40 per cent of urban population.

What is holding better waste management back nationwide? The lack of a resource management plan which embraces zero waste as a vision for the future is holding back progress. Such a plan would need to call for waste prevention, reuse, repair, recycling, and composting. The plan will target a wide range of materials for reuse, recycling, and composting and will keep these materials segregated at the source to maintain quality and enhance diversion levels. It will treat composting as the key to achieving 50% and higher diversion levels and aim for doing so cost-effectively. Keeping organics out of landfills will make landfills less of a nuisance and source of pollution. Instituting economic incentives that reward waste reduction and recovery over disposal, such as reduced tipping fees for delivering recyclable and compostable materials to drop-off sites, tax incentives to encourage businesses and haulers to recycle, and pay-as-you-throw fees for trash collection will ensure management in true sense.

This plan will also involve enacting policies and regulations to improve the environment for recycling and recycling-based businesses by banning products that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled, or composted, banning recyclable and reusable materials and products from landfills and incinerators and banning single-use disposable products from public events and festivals and as many other places as possible.

Such a plan also will also seek to establish recycling market with incentives to create industrial parks for reuse, recycling, and composting firms. It will include policies that require reuse and recovery of building materials in new construction and in building deconstruction projects.

The plan will also include educational and technical assistance programs that provide residents and businesses with information about 'how' and 'why' to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost. It will showcase the environmental and economic benefits of preventing, reusing, and recycling discards. It will manifest the role these activities play in moving toward an environmental health sensitive sustainable economy.

Plans apart, what's really going on

Despite the inherent wisdom in such measures, the combustion or incineration of garbage is often suggested as a solution. The fact is that burning or incineration or combustion is unambiguously polluting. As noted in my earlier article, mother's milk in areas where waste burning takes place has already been tested and found to contain high amount of dioxins. Dioxins, are wellknown carcinogenic chemicals. Incinerators also emit greenhouse gases, especially from plastics. Incineration drives a negative spiral of increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Also, restrictive policies in typical incinerator contracts require a set amount of garbage. These contracts impose fees that that are a disincentive for a city to improve waste prevention strategies (i.e. reduction), recycling and composting collections.

Also, suggestions of there being good and bad incinerators are not well-founded. India does not have even one laboratory to test for dioxins. Indeed, sophisticated technologies are available, in theory, which can control, not stop any pollutant, including dioxin, from being emitted. This is because dioxins are emitted when waste is burnt at a low temperature. It is also argued that if a plant runs for 24 hours at a high temperature it will destroy the dioxins anyway. First, it isn't clear there are waste to energy plants in India as of today or proposed in future that will run for 24 hours. Second at the starting and closing times, the temperature of the incinerators are low, and it takes time for the system to reach high temperature.

Further, it is despite talk of 'sophisticated technologies' for stopping dioxins emissions that in the first week of February the European Commission adopted a new law setting maximum levels of the some of dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in food and animal feed. Starting November 2006, any food or feed having levels of these chemicals higher than the norms would not be marketed in the European Union.

Under such circumstances, and given that India does not have even one dioxin testing facility in place, is it fair to argue for burn technologies? Those suggesting that 'sophisticated technologies' are available to stop any pollutant, including dioxins, seem to be going contrary to all cannons of the precautionary principle.

Despite all this, numerous such projects are proposed in cities all over the world. As a consequence, toxins are building up in the environment especially the aquatic ecosystem of villages and cities and drinking water bodies in their vicinity. The emission of these notorious pollutants is linked to cancer, immune and reproductive system disorders, birth defects, and other health threats. Besides environmental groups, the villagers and city folks themselves are resisting such waste burning techniques because of the stark evidence they themselves experience. This is further corroborated by scientific and medical findings that indicate that chemicals are leaching in the ground and air pollution because of waste burning is entering the food chain.

The move by the incineration industry to term waste incinerators as 'renewable energy' projects is not only fraudulent but also dangerous. Municipal solid waste is not considered to be a renewable energy source since it tends to be a mixture of fuels that can be traced back to renewable and non-renewable sources. The advocates of incinerators prefer to pre-empt segregation and recycling efforts being made by municipalities and communities around the world.

Civil society pressure against burn technologies

Communities in more than 30 countries are recognising that waste incineration results in massive increases in energy consumption worldwide. Recycling saves more energy than these obsolete machines produce. In the US alone, recycling conserves an equivalent of approximately 11.9 billion gallons of gasoline, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking one-fifth (40 million) of all US cars off the roads every year. Waste prevention and recycling reduce energy use by avoiding the energy-intensive processes of extracting and processing raw materials to replace materials wasted in incinerators and landfills. Because less energy is used, fewer fossil fuels are used and that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

In sum, zero waste schemes provide a road map for an economy that accepts the massive significance of hitherto ignored natural capital and sustainable resource recovery to create jobs, protect the environment, and improve public health. Zero waste means eliminating the volume and toxic impacts of waste, through waste prevention, recycling and composting.

The Global Day of Action (GDA) against Waste and Incineration, observed this year on 6 September, supports and recognises the role of waste prevention and recycling in saving energy. As part of the 5th Global Day of Action against Waste and Incineration this year events were organised across the world. Participating groups celebrated victories against incinerators and for alternatives advancing community achievements for environmental health and justice' in recognition of our many accomplishments at the grassroots and the need to safeguard these gains.

The GDA's central theme this year was 'choosing zero waste and clean production solutions amidst the rise in wastes and toxics' and it came from the need to push for upstream approaches to lessen the volume and toxicity of discarded materials, and to move away from waste disposal to sustainable resource use. Other themes included 'Standing up against incinerators in disguise' considering the proliferation of the so-called 'state of the art' incinerators that come in many packages, 'Waste to energy', and 'Zero waste as pathway to toxic-free future'.