In India, inefficient waste management, by virtue of the burgeoning landfills, is the second-highest contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. No wonder, 14 cities in the country are considered the world’s most polluted. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an everyday problem such as waste management can significantly contribute to climate change. According to a 2016 World Bank report, despite the lowest per capita production of waste, India is the largest generator of waste globally – an unenviable feat achieved due to our population size. India’s material consumption, having risen from 1.18 billion tonnes in 1970 to 7 billion tonnes in 2015, is likely to be more than 14 billion tonnes by 2030. Growing concerns of hygiene during the current pandemic has undone the slow progress made to discourage the utilization of single-use plastics. With population growth and consumptive lifestyle on an upward trend, the need for holistic interventions to scale the mountains of waste in cities is immediate.  

Propelled by comprehensive measures by governments across the world, the global waste management market size is expected to reach $2,339.8 billion by 2027. But in India, we are barely scratching the surface since only 60% of all waste being generated is collected; of which only 15% is being processed. Over the last few years, the Government of India has built momentum to systematically tackle inefficient waste management. This drive has gained from the impetus given to create a supportive ecosystem for technological innovations – Waste to Wealth has been identified as one of the missions by the Prime Minister’s Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council. With an objective to identify, test and validate technologies to treat waste, the goal of the mission is to move India towards a zero-waste nation. 

Alongside, we need to train focus on the informal sector, comprising waste pickers, sorters, and itinerant buyers, who work in unsafe conditions and suffer from great health repercussions. The cornerstone of waste management in India, they provide essential services and drive climate action by reducing the burden on landfills. To accelerate waste management and improve the lives of the stakeholders, technological interventions should follow a triple bottom line approach (focusing on profit, planet, and people). 

The impact of inefficient waste management on human health and the environment can be mitigated through economic improvement and livelihood enhancement that technology and entrepreneurial solutions can create. The waste management market in India has the potential to grow to USD 14 billion by 2025, with a rapid annual growth rate of 7%. Today, the need to move towards a circular economy has permeated conversations across different sectors and at all levels of governance. But unfortunately, technologies and markets are yet to catch up.  

Innovations don’t thrive in isolation; they require policy support and markets to become scalable and sustainable businesses. E-waste and plastic waste have become lucrative with higher recovery and recycling rates, thanks to a policy push. But this silver lining comes with an ominous cloud as waste pickers concentrate only on the waste that fetches higher returns, neglecting other forms of waste. One way of addressing this lacuna is to promote technological innovations that create value and transform even low-value waste streams such as multi-layered plastics and textile waste into business opportunities. 

Such innovations are gaining ground because people have started to view waste as a precious and reusable resource. The mobile phone, one of the most ubiquitous products of the 21st century and the prime constituent of e-waste, one of the fastest-growing waste streams in India, is now deemed valuable. According to a 2019 World Economic Forum report, there is 100 times more gold in one tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore. 

Given India’s population growth, its economic wellbeing can be ensured through a circular, restorative, and regenerative approach. Innovations in automation, biotechnology, IoT, and material innovations have transformed waste into energy, into compost, into livestock feed, and into upcycled lifestyle consumer products. 

Science and technology have the power to turn the waste crisis into social, economic, and environmental benefits, contributing towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We are sitting on a goldmine of waste; waste management is a sunrise sector in India primed for innovations and entrepreneurship.

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