India is currently facing enormous challenges in terms of waste disposal. Collection systems are failing, scientific end disposal solutions are almost non-existent and waste is piling up within the city boundaries. While looking up proposed solutions from politicians and decision-makers, it’s hard to miss one concept: Segregation at source. If possible, with 100% efficiency, starting from now on. Often it remains the only concept to face the challenges in the waste sector.
Segregation at source is fundamental for a modern waste handling and a high recycling rate. It allows customized treatment methods for different waste streams, reduces the pollution rate and the environmental impact and increases the cost efficiency of waste treatment.
However, like every systems segregation at source shows several conceptual weak spots which can be observed in the course of time. But does India have to make mistakes first to learn from them on a later stage and improve the system step by step? Considering the current speed of population growth and waste generation, are stepwise solutions with an implementation period of 10 years and more an adequate response to current challenges?
Nowadays, India has the great advantage to avoid potential mistakes by studying similar systems in other countries and to create and implement an improved concept, which accounts for potential weak spots and relieves citizens from the pressure of waste within a short period.
To do so, we need to find answers on the following questions:
- How is waste management done in other countries?
- Do they segregate at source?
- Where are benefits, what are the disadvantages?
- What can we learn from them?
In Germany, the concept of segregation at source came up in the late 1960s. Hence, the country looks back on more than 45 years of experience in segregation. In the beginning no precise concept or stepwise plan existed, but decision-makers learned from their mistakes and adapted the existing system to it. Focusing the German development in segregation at source we might be able to identify useful items for the Indian situation.
In 1970 Germany started with segregating waste glass into street containers due to high production costs of new glass. Until then, everything was disposed either on local dump yards or in mixed waste bins. Containers for waste paper were added in the middle of the 1980’s. First since the middle of the 1990’s different bins in front of every house emerged and segregation at source started on a larger scale.
Nowadays, segregation at source is done in four different bins in front of every house: paper waste, organic waste (kitchen and yard waste), packaging and plastics (recyclable materials), residual waste (everything else what is not fitting in one of the other bins, like sanitary waste, rubber, etc.). All four containers are collected every (second) week and delivered either directly or through a transfer station to a scientific treatment facility for the specific bin type.
In addition to that, bring systems exist for other waste types. A deposit system exists for PET and several glass bottles as well as for cans (beer, energy drinks, etc.). A bring system exists for glass (fix placed container in the streets, separated into white, green and brown glass), clothes, textiles and shoes (container in the street; the items are going for the poor or the textiles were recycled), batteries (commerce has to take it back), electronic and noxious waste (mobile vehicles).
Industry and commerce has to register by law their packaging, plastics and products to get a specific certification. This is called the DSD (Dual System German). The industry and commerce has to provide capital to ensure a proper end disposal of their products. The costs are added to the product price, so in the end costumers directly pay for the end disposal. As a result, products with less packaging waste are cheaper and will get favoured. The DSD picks up the waste (only waste marked with the mentioned certification) and ensures a proper treatment. New packaging or different items can be made from the recycled materials.
Valuable material which is not certificated with the DSD symbol has to be disposed in the residual bin, where it is not recycled and most likely incinerated. In addition, the majority of people get confused about the certification or just aren’t aware of the complex concept and throw all their plastics and other waste types in the DSD bin. According to recent studies, approximately 50% of the DSD bins are actually certified items. Around 20% is residual waste, 10% organics and 20% other uncertified valuables like plastics, metals and glass.
On the other hand, a lot of valuables (even certified) are disposed in the residual bin. To avoid further confusions, a new bin for valuables, which collects all plastics and packaging material, shall be implemented in the next years. With the new bin for recyclables the whole recyclable and value waste shall be collected. The objective is that these values, which are currently disposed in the residual waste bin, can also be reused or recycled – the aim is to get more valuables out of the waste and to make segregation at source easier to perform.
Rising awareness in the society is one fundamental point in segregating at source. Germans are taught in segregation from kindergarten age onwards. In the past 45 years, awareness for waste segregation was increased step by step. In the beginning it was tried to do within few years, but decision-makers had to face that behavioural changes happen very slowly. But even with this knowledge and training segregation is not happening to 100 %. In German cities segregation at source is not happening properly – up to 50 % is disposed in the wrong bin. People don’t know where they have to put which kind of waste exactly, or just don’t care. For example tissues don’t belong in the paper bin but the residual bin, an old toothbrush doesn’t belong in the plastic bin, but in the residual waste. Other people are unsure due to many different systems what happens afterwards with their waste and if segregation is really necessary. As a result, they throw everything in one bin. Additionally, lot of people get confused about the complex segregation system and refuse to segregate at all. Lastly, for some people it’s more convenient to just use one bin.
Despite all training from children to adults, awareness rising programs and information campaigns in the last 30 years, Germany’s segregation rate reached a level of 50 to 70%.
As a result, additional technologies and mechanical equipment is necessary to sort the waste after collection and to ensure a higher recycling rate and end disposal.
Today’s material recovery facilities (MRF) can segregate dry waste very precisely due to modern technologies like infra-red sensors. While sorting technologies improve more and more and segregation rates won’t reach 100%, segregation at source is getting more and more unnecessary. The separation at source will never reach the exactness from MRF’s sorting process. So, why do Germans still segregate? They learned it and are used to it. As already mentioned, behavioural changes are slow. In the next years a change is likely – less segregation at source, but an improved collection and use from recyclables and valuables.
Waste scientists in Germany have tested a new concept with only two bins in front of each house – one for wet and one for dry waste. The dry waste is easy to handle and segregate mechanically. The wet waste could be used for power generation e.g. through biogas. Another testing was the mixing of the residual with the organic waste. Bacteria could take their energy from the organic waste and transformed it into heat. Thus the waste is dried and can be mechanically sorted easily afterwards. To lead segregation at source to success, the segregation system should be as simple as possible – complex and confusing systems like in Germany reduce the efficiency of waste segregation.
Modern concepts are increasingly based on mechanical separation and sorting after receiving the sorted waste, as decision makers are realizing that segregation at source will always have a certain inefficiency.
- With new high-efficient sorting technologies emerging, is segregation at source still necessary?
Yes. Segregation at source supports the mechanical sorting process at the end disposal plant.
- Can we waive high-efficient sorting technologies when segregation at source is implemented in India?
Rather no. Segregation at source (on a larger scale) requires incremental behavioural changes, which will take time, and is unlikely to reach a high efficiency within the next years. Additional sorting solutions are fundamental. A proper waste concept should rely on both, segregation at source and segregation after collection, to ensure an adequate and customized treatment for different waste streams.
As we see from the example Germany – where segregation at source is happening since more than 20 years – 100 % segregation at source is nearly impossible. India can learn from the development in other countries and avoid making the same steps for improving the waste management system.
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