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Waste Bomb Ticking in Kerala: Time to Act Before It’s Too Late

Disposing of municipal waste poses a big challenge to human health, the economy and urban aesthetics unless managed with care. The south Indian state of Kerala alone is responsible for creating as much as 480 tonnes of plastic waste every day. As the recent floods have shown, open waste dumps across the state are vulnerable to being dispersed by elements of the weather and spread toxic substances across the land. Hence, they can potentially multiply cancer causing contaminants in the environment and combined with human excreta and toilet waste, contribute to the growth of vector borne diseases throughout the state.

Open waste dumping poses a continuous threat to life

According to the study titled, ‘The burden of cancers and their variations across the states in India: Global Burden of Disease Study 1990-2016’, cancer rates in Kerala are the highest in the country at 135.3 per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 106.6 per 100,000 people. This is oddly coincidental with the proliferation of open waste dumps in the state from where contaminants can seep through to groundwater and other sources of water.

Environmental toxins in rivers and streams that affect the quality of water we drink, and, in soil that impacts the food we eat, are significant risk factors for development of cancer among communities. The skin, lungs and intestinal tracts provide an exposed area for the action of cancer-causing metals in particulate matter and growth of disease-causing microbes.

When the body’s immune system is made weaker, it is made more susceptible to communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis and could result in widespread epidemics in the near future. Lung cancers can be a potent threat to those living near open dumps containing abandoned mining and construction debris, which release asbestos, one of the most lethal factors of lung, throat and ovarian cancers. Brain development in the unborn child can be severely affected due to poisons in food, water and air.

Because landfills and dump yards are exposed to the environment, continuous chemical changes take place at their surface thereby releasing harmful pollutants into the air. Burning or burying this waste is not a solution either as in both cases contaminants continuously percolate into the environment.

Disturbing practice of burning piles of garbage by households

Kerala also faces the peculiar problem of burning of household waste as a ritual practice under the mistaken impression that this practice effectively disposes of garbage, both dry and wet. Households may be able to boast that they keep their backyards clean and shiny because no waste is visible after burning. But the combustion of components such as plastic, diapers and electronics in an unscientific manner merely leads to a transfer of trash and toxic emissions to the air. Burning at low temperatures in the open results in excessive smoke production and leaves unburnt residue giving rise to environmental hazards. In summers, heaps of garbage are particularly susceptible to catching fire because ignition points are easily attainable.

Exposed dumping sites abound in Kerala

While Kerala leads the country in terms of literacy and education, none of its cities found a mention in the list of cleanest places in the Swachh Survekshan 2018 – a ranking system for city performance under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Solid waste management – including collection and transportation of waste as well as its processing and disposal make up for 55% by weightage in this survey. In 2016, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode were classified under the ‘Acceleration Required’ list. Among the 434 major cities surveyed in 2017, these two major urban centers ranked numbers 372 and 254 respectively. Rapid urbanization, transformation in consumption patterns and social attitudes are said to be behind the increased generation of Municipal Solid Waste in Kerala. This has led to accumulation of quantities of excess waste that are beyond the handling capacities of the environment and existing waste management systems.

Where does your garbage go after it is collected by municipal authorities?

Unlike most other Northern and Southern states where availability of land is not an issue, Kerala, has a deficit of this resource for municipal waste management and guidelines make it hard to maintain centralized treatment plants. Most districts have now turned to decentralized waste management in order to reduce open garbage dumping. Alapuzzha has won acclaim from the United Nations Environment Program in 2017 for possessing one of the five best waste management models in the world. A meticulous policy of segregating waste from kitchen bins, pipe composting units and biogas plants helped dispose of 80% of waste within neighborhood limits. This significantly reduced the load on the Sarvodaya plant which was reported at 58 tonnes per day before the implementation of the new program. At some point, we have to be responsible for the waste that we produce and display the strength of our collective selves as a society by taking a proactive stance in disposing of our trash.

Waste management begins at home: Segregation of waste

Clearly, there is an excess of waste and there is an urgent need to dispose of it effectively and without leaving it to cause health hazards for future generations. Examples abound in developing nations in Asia and Africa, where waste is increasingly being employed in producing both materials and energy. As a process, recycling saves more greenhouse gases than it generates. Recyclable materials include types of glass, paper, cardboard, metals, plastics and tires, textiles and electronics. Biodegradable waste, such as food or garden waste can be composted to produce fresh fertilizer or energy. However for recycling and reclamation to work, garbage has to be segregated at the home. Households must take care to separate solid waste from liquids, plastic waste from organic waste and electronic waste from sanitary waste. Local scrap dealers can be contacted to collect and process dry waste, especially of e-waste. Disposing of such items into open drains can clog drainage systems and cause them to fail.

Composting of biodegradable waste in sealed containers is a good way to dispose of waste provided it is done scientifically. Electronic and plastic waste should not be buried or burned as these are not biologically broken down.

Promote scientific burning of combustible waste

Burning of open piles of trash is an unscientific practice that leads to emanation of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, and small particulate matter responsible for devastating lung cancer. For effective combustion to occur, waste must first be separated into combustible matter, and then heated to at least 650°C. Below this temperature, the longer the waste remains burning, the more smoke and contaminants that are produced. Beyond this level, smoke and air pollution are generally not created. A closed and sustained environment is required to completely consume burnable matter.

Open Dumping Sites continue to be an eyesore to urban living spaces across Kerala. They take away from aesthetics and tourist experiences and are a poor indicator of economic competitiveness of the state. If corrective measures to correct behavioral tendencies toward garbage are not taken soon, societies stand to lose out on a great economic opportunity.

  • This post is based on inputs from KSIDC, the official nodal agency appointed by the Govt of Kerala to handle the waste to energy project.

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