My childhood memories are mostly about the time spent with my maternal grandmother at grandparents’ house, which, even though it was located within the city, was surrounded with greenery, plenty of poultry, birds, and our occasional feline friends. Today, when there is a flood of news of acres of waste in Brahmapuram plant in a buzzling city, it makes me wonder how my grandmother used to manage waste in that house even though it was situated within the city. During those days, things that could be classified as waste or unwanted, was very minimal, because they were somehow handled at source itself – Food waste was less, even if there was leftover, it was either consumed the next day as a refurbished recipe or was served as feast for the poultry; biodegradable waste was compulsorily disposed in our compost area in the backyard; and what little was left, which could not be disposed in either of the afore manner, was sold to the rag-picker. A day when a waste management plant like Brahmapuram or Vilapilsala would be a reality was never thought of, in those times. However, this is no time to mourn over our glorious past of less waste, but it is high time to tackle the challenges and come up with solutions for a bright sustainable future.

What are the challenges?

1.      Exponential growth of waste – As per various studies conducted by World Health Organization (WHO), The World Bank and The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as of today the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste annually and in the year 2050, it is expected to increase to 3.40 billion tonnes. As humans are the only species on earth that generates waste, as long as humans exist on earth, waste generation also will continue to grow. Even if humans are highly educated to manage the waste and equip cutting edge technologies for waste management, the generation of waste will not cease. Obviously, there is no single solution or a one-time solution to tackle 2.01 billion tonnes and as we think of solutions or are in the process of developing them, the waste silently, exponentially is growing.

2.      New types of waste – Just a decade ago, plastic was not considered a waste material or was never thought that it would be such a humongous waste, years later. Same is the case with electronic waste or e-waste. As lifestyle improved and inventions developed, new types of waste also cropped up. Covid era ushered in another type of waste namely, bio-medical waste like disposable masks, syringes, and other equipment. Today, waste has grown to places where humans can neither see nor touch – thanks to the growing outer space waste and under-ocean waste. Till date, human knowledge is inadequate and does not have a foolproof mechanism to manage each of these types of waste. Mankind is now burdened with the enormous waste as well as pressured to find apt ways to manage each of these types of waste.

3.      Financial burden – Any kind of waste disposal incurs cost – even if it is a simple garbage collection activity, the manpower involved incurs cost. This cost is irrespective of whether it is done at individual level or societal level. Because of the financial burden, the majority of the waste is either left undisposed or untreated, or improperly disposed of or very conveniently ignored. This contributes further to the vicious circle of challenges of waste management.

4.      Time and manpower – Time and manpower needed for waste management is equally important as the finance needed for the same. In current times, it is difficult to harness manpower for waste disposal /garbage collection or cleaning activities, both at households as well as workplaces. Even if some people take up the responsibility of disposing of their own waste with the motto “My waste, my responsibility”, many do not get adequate time to be spent for carrying out proper disposal. Last but not the least, not to mention the scorns they would receive from others for carrying out the less attractive task of waste management.

5.      Inadequate measures at societal level – Waste management should be a wholesome process and it will not be a success if only some stakeholders adhere to the practices, and some do not. If waste is being controlled, it should be done across the whole earth and if there are rules and regulations for waste management, it should be done globally. However, this is a highly utopian thought and there will never be a flattened world. Some places may have adequate measures and laws, while some other places will continue to be with poorly managed waste. Even if individuals follow proper waste disposal, if there are no government/societal measures to support the system, waste will not be properly managed. It is highly unlikely that we will have a world where the individual and societal/governmental process of waste management is highly efficient and foolproof.

What are the solutions?

Man does not have a magic wand to solve these waste management woes, but baby steps can be taken to atleast control the situation:

1.      Waste management process according to the place generating the waste – A village does not need a waste management plant as seen in a city, because villages may have open spaces for proper waste disposal, compost dumpyards, scrap disposal etc. So, the solution for the village would be to identify proper practices of waste disposal and measures to reduce waste. However, in a city where space is constrained, the solution would be to have a waste management plant with a necessary support system to collect and transport the waste to the plant. Similarly, waste disposal measures needed at a hospital are different from what is needed in a shopping mall. Same goes for a developed country and a developing country – a developed country can have plastic recycling plants at frequent places, but for a developing country instead of spending the money on many recycling plants, it can spend on maybe one recycling plant and think of other solutions to collect and control plastic.

2.      Waste management based on type of waste – Plastic waste cannot be burnt because they are hazardous when burnt, while paper waste can be incinerated. Similarly, untreated medical waste cannot be disposed into water bodies or dug into earth, while treated sewage waste can be disposed into soil. Waste management based on the type of waste would avoid hazardous side effects and would ensure proper disposal of waste. To achieve the same, the waste will have to be segregated at the source itself and there should be proper process, laws and guidelines laid by governing bodies to manage each type of waste. This, however, is still not being done for the ever-debatable outer-space waste and under-water waste and we do not know how to collect and dispose of that waste.

3.      Financial aids and subsidies from Governing bodies – ‘Divide and rule’ is a simple trick for waste management, wherein we should try to push waste management as a responsibility at the source of waste generation itself, which may be households, workplaces, institutions, or factories. But if the waste management measures are expensive, no one would bother to implement them. Hence if the governing bodies can provide adequate financial/material support to implement such measures, more support can be gathered. However, to sustain the movement, there should be a proper process also implemented. For example, if plastic is being segregated at households, the government has the responsibility to collect the plastic and get them either properly disposed of or recycled. If biodegradable waste can be turned into compost in households, the government can provide subsidised compost plants and buy-back the compost generated.

4.      Rules and regulations – Society should be made aware of the fact that waste management is not the sole responsibility of the governing bodies, but it is a shared responsibility between people and the governing bodies. To drive in that message, rules and regulations can be implemented for the citizens, but during this era of highly considered individual freedom, imposing individual rules will be a challenge. Rather, if there are regulations/guidelines laid down to be followed in an office/institution/workplace, people will adhere to them easily.

5.      Cultural change – Human culture is strongly linked with waste management habits, the reason why we see some countries as spick and span, while others with poorly managed waste. The slogan “Reduce Recycle Reuse” should be driven continuously across all mankind. Today, 75% of daily waste is food waste and ironically an equal percent of people go starving, but no one realises it. It is difficult to practice and easy to preach, but for a sustainable future, we would need to be the change.

(i)                 Reduce: In this era of consumerism, there is tremendous spending on items, albeit small, even if they are not a necessity. Be it in the case of food or consumer items or even the use of public transport, such a splurge in spending was not seen a decade ago. Reducing consumerism may not be liked by industrialists, but Covid era of lockdown did prove to us that mankind could survive with the meagre resources we could have. But our culture is not very tolerant and if anyone does reduce his material consumption, he will be easily ridiculed and termed a miser. There should be a thought process wherein people should be able to classify what is essential, unwanted and a luxury and consume minimally.

(ii)              Recycle: Recycling methods are not adopted widely because they are few, time-taking and sometimes incurring cost. At the same time, if a person tries to recycle an item, he will be termed as wasting time and energy. Only a way of life which thinks that recycling will reduce the waste and the burden on us, will help us to instil recycling behaviour. Be it the recycling of plastic or paper, people should be culturally trained to segregate recyclable waste material from other types of waste and ensure that the recyclable waste is passed on properly for recycling.

(iii)            Reuse: Today, we are ashamed to use an item beyond a short period of time. No one proudly announces that the pen I use today was used by my grandfather. It is interesting to note that the number of repair shops are considerably less these days, since today’s culture is “use and throw” and no one bothers to repair. If at all, someone uses a repaired or refurbished item, he will be considered as a vagabond. We should bring back the old days when we used “hand-me-down” clothes, books, bags, and shoes, with emotions attached to them. Any stigma associated with such objects should be erased so that more people embrace them.

The book “What happened to the shawl”, by Arvind Gupta is a fictional story on how Buddha interrogated his student monk, who came requesting for a new shawl. Buddha quizzes to the point until he gets to know how the old shawl was disposed of. There is no better book that explains the concept of “Reduce Recycle Reuse” in a simple manner. We will have a sustainable future only when we have such simple clarity of thought and simple measures for waste management.


1. The World Bank Report: “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050

2. Global Waste Management Outlook – UNEP

3. Guidance on solid waste and health – WHO