Why I segregate waste at source despite a broken waste management system in Chennai

A resident who has been segregating waste for two decades lists out the issues in solid waste management in Chennai and how it can be fixed.

The phrase Singara Chennai has captured the imagination of many of us who have grown up in the city. I am one of many who have taken up the cause of improving Solid Waste Management (SWM) in Chennai. My key motivation to do so has been the desire to leave behind a beautiful, green and pristine city for the future generation without any filth, garbage or pollution.

I have been a close observer of the SWM landscape in the city and the changes it has undergone in the past 20 years, ever since the first instance of roping in of private players in the process. It has been heartening to see the city make great strides in managing its waste while still facing some issues that it has been unable to solve.

Much of the issues we face can be tackled effectively through source segregation. Addressing source segregation at the household level is the key to solving Chennai’s SWM woes. 

Waste segregation as a way of life

One of the important drivers of change is the sense of responsibility that residents have towards keeping the city clean.

The first step we take in this regard should be towards responsible disposal of our waste, through the door-to-door collection service; we must ensure that all the waste generated in public spaces is deposited inside bins and avoid littering at all costs.

I segregate waste regularly as I feel my waste is my responsibility and I must do what it takes to dispose of it safely and scientifically without harming others. It would help to think of this as a gesture that we do for those near and dear to us to make the planet more livable. 

Considering how we have affected the environment through the use of single-use plastic and other harmful substances, disposing of our waste responsibly is a little act of penance that can be performed by us.

Coming to the logistics of day-to-day waste segregation at the household level, I’ve implemented a practice where I divide the waste generated into five categories.

1) Wet/biodegradable waste. 

2) Dry/ recyclable waste

3) Hazardous waste

4) E-waste

5) Garden waste

I compost the wet waste in my house and the rest of it is disposed of through appropriate channels. I keep aside torn and used clothes, cushions, and used footwear and dispose of them with a proper recycler once or twice a year.

Read more: Chennai is missing the most important piece in the waste segregation puzzle

Tracking the solid waste management system in place in Chennai

As responsible citizens, merely segregating waste is not enough. It is important to be aware of the waste disposal and management system in place in the city. This would help us hold those responsible accountable for any failures and lapses.

Until a perfectly functional system is in place, we cannot adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to dealing with our waste. 

To know what happens to the waste I dispose of, I have followed the waste collection vehicle to its destination. I have also visited the local processing facility and observed how it works. I know that those who segregate wet waste in my neighbourhood also make sure that it goes to a micro composting centre, where it gets converted into manure. The dry waste goes to a material recovery facility and from there to the baling unit at Perungudi. Unfortunately, I have no clue what happens to our domestic hazardous waste.

I would urge each and every resident to take proactive steps to visit these facilities and observe their working. Any irregularities or lapses can be brought to the attention of the local authorities and the councillors. I also regularly interact with conservancy workers to understand larger issues within the system. Taking some time out of your day to do so will ensure that the work done on segregation is meaningful and that different streams of waste do not get mixed. 

Worker drying the compost in South Cooum Road micro composting centre
Worker drying the compost in South Cooum Road micro composting centre. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

Big picture in disarray

Despite having the necessary rules in place on paper, Chennai currently falls short in the implementation of the decentralised solid waste management system. A majority of Chennaiites do not segregate waste at the household level. There has been very little effort to spread awareness in this regard. As this is the first step, any issue here will have a domino effect on the rest of the process.

A key contributor to this is the lack of will on part of the government and the residents. There is no penalty system in place for violations or non-compliance when it comes to source segregation at the household level. It is unfortunate, but punitive measures might be more effective in ensuring compliance than merely leaving action up to residents’ whims. 

Read more: How can Micro Composting Centres in Chennai be improved?

How can solid waste management in Chennai be fixed? 

To begin with, there must be greater awareness about how residents can carry out source segregation. Door-to-door campaigns are necessary. The government can also use mediums like TV, radio and film. Influencers like movie stars and sports personalities can be roped in to speak about the issue. Much like how awareness campaigns were run during COVID-19, a similar template can be adapted for SWM. 

There must be enough processing facilities set up to effectively deal with the quantum of waste generated on a daily basis. There have been instances where residents have found MCCs and MRFs in their locality defunct. When residents notice that the waste they have spent time segregating is mixed and ends up in the landfills, this disincentivises those who segregate waste. There must be greater transparency on the waste collection process and updates on the quantity of waste collected and how it has been used. This would reassure residents that their efforts are not in vain.  

Improvement of logistics with more vehicles for collection, staggered trips and more points to deposit the collected waste can also improve waste collection.

All commercial establishments and institutions must also fall in line. Bulk waste generators have long been let off the hook. They must be made to carry out in-situ processes wherever the rules mandate. 

All government institutions should set an example for others to follow.

A framework must also be evolved to tackle hazardous waste and e-waste in an organised manner.

Waste disposal systems must be set up in schools and colleges so the next generation learns the practice from an early age. Like rainwater harvesting was made compulsory in all institutions and commercial establishments, it should be made compulsory to have safe and scientific waste disposal systems.

We must wake up to the fact that mass cleaning drives are not the solution to our woes. Nor is beautification the only aim of managing waste better.  Stringent implementation of SWM rules and tweaking the processes to work for the people is the need of the hour. Having a working system in place will also serve to encourage more residents to take up source segregation and realise the goal of a clean Chennai.

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  1. Suresh Kanthan @BJP says:

    Leaving the choice to the common man, to rely in his responsibilities, to do this kind of segregation at source is not going to work for us especially in India!! Because there are all grades of people, who dont care for the impact it does to our nature.. What will happen if we stop the plastics at source?? !! A Complete BAN on the production of plastics at source, no matter how its used and disposed.. Our Ancestors definitely did not use Plastics, so can the present generation should do away with it, simply because our people are not going to do enough to do away with waste disposal properly.. Am sure, thats the only way (stop the plastics at its source, so NO Plastics production) to have a better Nature for us and our future generations. So Dont leave this responsibility to the choice of common man, he is not going to do this properly.. Mind it, that Technology at the hands and disposal of the common man will be a disaster for the world at large… Am sure that stopping at source, will eliminate the need to worry on, how and what the common man would or would not do with his waste !! Only this will work for India and the world at large !! Stop every harmful product/technology from reaching the hands of ignorant common man, and leaving it at his disposal !!

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