Turning useless wastes to useful wastes

In Beverly Hills… they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” —Woody Allen.

Indian wastes are ‘useless wastes’. Our consumption habits may have leapfrogged, but our disposal habits are primitive. We mix up useful wastes with useless wastes, destroying the value in the former—you can’t compost paper and vegetable remains mixed with broken glass and plastic pet bottles, nor can you recycle paper mixed with food wastes and electronic remains.
If India has to successfully deal with its wastes, two paradigmatic changes are required in our thinking.
Unfortunately, it is the rag-pickers and the municipal authorities who are made to grapple with the messy problem, without either adequate incentives or resources. The problem has to be back-loaded on consumer product companies who created the non-destructive, non-biodegradable or unconsumed packaging or products and also benefited from it; and instead of trying to segregate mixed wastes, we should prevent it from getting mixed in the first place by appropriate incentives or punishments for compliant or errant behaviour, respectively, at the stage of the mix-up.
If this principle is accepted, (1) all packaging material should also go back to the packager—just like the truck goes back to the truck owner after the delivery of cargo—and they should be made to pay for the costs of such ‘back trace’, (2) what comes into the city and urban centres should go back from where it came, and (3) electronic hardware (which are potential future debris) and packaged food (which comes with non-biodegradable packaging) should be handled at the time of the original sale itself. Outlined below is a system of incentivising segregation at source and the benefits therefrom.

The suggested scheme
1. Every consumer and industrial manufacturer/marketer should be mandated to file their recycling plan or reclamation plan annually, or on a one-time basis. This can be enforced through fines or suspension of licence, till complied with.

2. They should be made to declare on the packaging (where it is multi-layered, on each of them) what value the marketers are prepared to give back to the consumer if he/she hands over the empty containers, cartons, plastics, corrugators, etc, to the point of sale. For example, water bottles may say: “Collect 40 paise against this bottle”. This would help create a ‘waste currency’.

3. Marketing companies should be mandated to collect at least 50% initially, and by the third year if at least 90% are not collected, their manufacturing licence should stand suspended (a similar procedure of disposal to source supplier exists in the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board regulations). The actual collection must be audited by independent entities.

4. To ensure compliance that marketers make efforts to collect back, few things can be done:
–   An upfront deposit with the government can be collected, say, at 3-4% (to be varied based on the biodegradability of leftovers) at the time of manufacture or entry into state or import into India, which can be refunded back based on the percentage collection.
–   Fines on the shortfall at twice the rate will enforce recollection of wastes.
–   Over a period of time, proper price discovery will happen if the enforcement is tight. If competing consumer marketing companies start offering different rates for recollection, it will be a signal to tighten enforcement on manufacturers who offer poorer rates.

5. Marketers may not deal with the wastes themselves. They will locate third-parties to reclaim, recycle, sell to re-users, or incinerators, energy companies, etc. Positive values will be reclaimed by recycling. Reusable material will be sold at commercial values. The rest may be sold to energy or incinerating companies.

6. The end-consumer may not find it worthwhile to go to a shop and exchange the waste currency. Rag-pickers may pick up wastes at the doorstep, and claim the waste currency at a discount and hand it over at sales counters. This will incentivise source-segregation. Rag-pickers should be trained to pick up all wastes and exchange the value of wastes, and dispose of the rest in designated ways.

7. Special shops will emerge that only concentrate on the collection of all wastes for a margin in every shopping mall, street corners, etc.

8. Heavy fines should be levied on selling companies for litters found in the open, which will induce some policing by them directly.
In addition, litter disposal should be made part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Forward distribution is highly working capital intensive, requires expensive shelf space, advertising and product promotion, besides hefty retail margins. Wastes being reclaimed do not suffer from any of these. In fact, the total cost (net of recoveries, if any) involved may not be more than 1-2% of the selling price of base material, excluding the manpower involved.

Estimates of employment and benefits
The Indian retail market for FMCG and pharmaceuticals was estimated at $630 billion in 2015. In FMCG, packaging costs typically account for 3-4% of sales value—the costs incurred on packaging on sales of $630 billion (`42 lakh crore) is likely to be about `1.4 lakh crore.
If the fines for non-collection are kept at, say, 4% of the sales value, hopefully companies could be expected to spend at least 2% on recollection (including on wages, transportation, storage and dealing with wastes), i.e. Rs 84,000 crore.
If roughly one-third of this accrues to labour as wages, it is about Rs 28,000 crore. At minimum wage rates of around `300 on 240 working days, it comes out to be 35 lakh man-years, i.e. 0.3% of our population. This is not wayward compared to the reported 0.7% currently employed in South Africa in similar activities, compared to 0.1% in India currently.

Going forward, probably the government’s role would be minimal. It should create the enabling legislation and set-up a ‘waste police’ whose job will be to catch and fine sellers who are not marking waste currency value, people littering, recyclers not completing their jobs, supervisory audit of audits, ensuring manufacturers file their plans, certifying refunds, etc. This ‘waste police’ should be additional trained staff, and not as an adjunct to the existing police duties.
The government can use a portion of ‘funds in custody’ (through upfront deposits) or fines for training and certifying the people involved. It can train people as part of skill development programmes or get originating companies to train them (for automobiles, e-wastes, hazardous chemicals, etc).
Even if compliance starts with multinational corporations and organised sector companies, it could quickly reach 40-50%. It will have a demo effect and lead to others falling in line.

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