During the first half of 2022, India was ranked as the world’s second-highest methane emitter, a potent greenhouse gas 84 times more effective in warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported that 78 out of 82 units of methane released during this period were predominantly from sources such as landfills, agriculture, livestock, and sewage. The open-air landfills contribute to global warming and pose a significant health risk to the people living in nearby slums. Most of these individuals belong to lower-income groups and lack the resources to relocate or change their current situation. The root cause of this issue lies in India’s ineffective waste management system, which cannot cope with the rising volumes and changing composition of municipal solid waste resulting from rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles.

Potential of Landfill Sites - Sheet1
The Ghazipur landfill, in Delhi, had exhausted its capacity in 2008 but dumping continues_©Anil Shakya
Potential of Landfill Sites - Sheet2
Most recent tonnage of waste dumped per day and height of garbage mounds for the 6 sites across 6 cities_©WRI India

According to projections, the volume of waste in India is expected to increase from 62 to 72 million tonnes to 125 million tonnes by 2031. The untreated waste consisting of both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste lies for months and years at dumpsites initially meant to dispose of residual waste safely. The decomposition of organic matter in these dumps releases Green House Gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Since the current waste generation needs to be handled more effectively, the problem only worsens.

Landfills in India | Landfill sites

In India, the term “landfilling” has come to denote simply depositing rubbish outside of cities without taking any sanitary steps. Landfills are intended to mitigate toxic waste exposure to humans and the environment. Nevertheless, they have adverse effects since they cause garbage-related problems, such as soil and groundwater degradation. Incorrect segregation or a lack of segregation facilities at waste generation sites results in hazardous waste accumulation in landfills. The waste pickers are exposed to these harmful substances, which poses a significant risk to their health and environment. Those living near landfills are the most vulnerable since the landfills can collapse at any time, causing loss of life.

The chaotic landfills function like a ticking time bomb that could explode anytime, causing havoc. When the heap of waste reaches its maximum capacity and can no longer endure the heat caused by waste accumulation, it ignites.

Potential of Landfill Sites - Sheet3
Ragpickers at the Bhalswa landfill site on April 28, 2022, in New Delhi, India_©Sanchit Khanna

Growing economies such as India are experiencing an expanding economy, surging urban populations, increasing living standards, and rising consumption levels. As a result of India’s prosperity, which is built on the same foundations, an increase in purchasing power parity has resulted in greater affordability, resource accessibility, and a rapid increase in waste quantities. The current trend towards urbanisation in India is expected to double the existing volumes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) within ten years, reaching approximately 80-85 million tonnes by 2030. This represents a business opportunity that is estimated at US$20 Billion.

Potential of Landfill Sites - Sheet4
Statistics about Municipal Solid Waste_©MoHUA

Issue of Municipal Solid Waste

Municipal solid waste, a combination of household and commercial refuse, is generated due to high consumerism. Indiscriminate disposal of this waste is increasing, linked to various factors like poverty, poor governance, urbanisation, population growth, low environmental awareness, inadequate management, and low living standards. Around 60% of waste in Indian landfills is organic and decomposes without oxygen, producing methane. Unfortunately, the lack of segregation of organic material and failure to use it for composting is a significant setback in solid waste management. India generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, of which only 12 million tonnes undergo treatment while 31 million tonnes end up in landfills. 

Potential of Landfill Sites - Sheet5
Causes of Waste Pollution_©BioRender

Waste pickers, who are informally trained, play a vital role in waste segregation but often burn the waste in open areas, causing pollution. They are also exposed to hazardous and unsanitary materials, leading to skin and blood infections. The government hesitates to restrict the informal recycling sector, as several hundred thousand people earn their livelihoods from waste picking. The lack of public bins, poorly covered garbage trucks, and citizen littering worsen the problem. Although the government introduced solid waste management rules in 2016, there needs to be more enforcement. The infamous Ghazipur dump near New Delhi, covering an area larger than the Taj Mahal, leaked an estimated 2.17 metric tonnes of methane in an hour in March 2022, causing fires, pollution, landslides, and breeding grounds for tuberculosis and dengue.

Business case into Waste Management in India_©Enincon Consulting LLP

In an interview with The Hindustan Times, Owais, a citizen living close to Ghazipur, said, “Most of us have health problems. Our community has no government health centre, and many people don’t realise that pollution from the dump is causing health problems.”

Asia’s largest dumping ground, the Deonar landfill in Mumbai, covers an area equivalent to 268 football fields and receives 9,000 metric tonnes of waste daily, which is neither segregated nor processed. The stench and smoke from this garbage are responsible for numerous heart and respiratory diseases among people residing in nearby slums. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences reports a high incidence of malnutrition and tuberculosis among these residents, with a life expectancy of only 40 years compared to the urban average of 73-74 years. According to Farha Shaikh, a 19-year-old waste picker in Deonar, “Hunger will kill us if not illness.”

A study by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi in 2020 revealed that there are 3,159 garbage dumps in India holding 800 million tonnes of waste, with no concrete plans for converting them into sanitary landfills anytime soon. Limited environmental awareness, low motivation, and public attitudes towards waste hinder innovation and the adoption of new technologies that could revolutionise waste management in India.

Biocapping of Gorai’s Dumping Ground_©Ayush Tapdiya

Towards Resilient & Sustainable Solid Waste Management

There are two ways to reclaim dumpsites: bio-capping, biomining, and bioremediation. Bio-Capping is used when reclaiming waste separately from the dumpsite is costly due to large quantities of legacy waste, high levels of contamination, or unpredictable material that would come out of the legacy dumpsite. Biomining involves recovering soil and recyclable materials, and the dumpsite is reclaimed for secondary land usage. However, capping is only one of the options for environmentally safe legacy-waste management, as per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016.

Sustainable waste management requires significant efforts and costs, but it is worth it. Research suggests that investing in sustainable waste management makes economic sense since poorly disposed of waste and uncollected waste have significant health and environmental impacts. The cost of addressing these impacts is many times higher than the cost of developing and operating simple, adequate waste management systems.

Ideal Examples_©Swati Singh Sambyal & Sonia Henam

Legacy waste and dumpsites pose a serious problem in India, requiring professional management to achieve a landfill-free nation. India’s economy is under immense pressure due to rapid urbanisation and population growth. Landfill mining technology could be utilised to repurpose landlocked landfill sites, currently sources of pollution and unsightliness, for large infrastructure projects such as stadiums, bus terminals, and residential complexes. This approach could also attract private investors to fund landfill mining activities and amortise the lands, thus saving government funds. As a signatory to the Paris Climate Summit, India is strongly committed to implementing dumpsite reclamation projects.

According to UNEP, waste is a challenge and an untapped potential. Waste management that is appropriately done allows us to prevent the negative consequences of waste and recover resources, realise environmental, economic, and social advantages, and take a step toward a more sustainable future.

“Solid waste management is everyone’s business. Ensuring effective and proper solid waste management is critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez (Senior Director of the Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice of the World Bank)

References List: Landfill sites

  1. Philipp, J. (2022) How India’s Waste Management System is causing health issues, The Borgen Project. Jennifer Philipp https://borgenproject.org/wp-content/uploads/logo.jpg. Available at: https://borgenproject.org/indias-waste-management/ (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  2. Clark, A. and Chaudhary, A. (2022) Trash heaps in South Asia threaten climate and pose health hazard, Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2022-methane-landfills-south-asia-climate-health-hazard/?leadSource=uverify+wall (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  3. Resilient Cities Network (2022) Approaching urban waste management through a resilience lens, Resilient Cities Network. Available at: https://resilientcitiesnetwork.org/approaching-urban-waste-management/ (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  4. What a waste: An updated look into the future of Solid Waste Management (no date) World Bank. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2018/09/20/what-a-waste-an-updated-look-into-the-future-of-solid-waste-management (Accessed: April 23, 2023).

Image List:

  1. Shakya, A. (2019) Ghazipur Landfill, India Legal Live. Ghazipur. Available at: https://d2r2ijn7njrktv.cloudfront.net/IL/uploads/2019/08/04162946/Lead2-768×505.jpg (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  2. Goswami, S. and Basak, S. (2021) Most recent tonnage of waste dumped per day and height of garbage mounds for the 6 sites across 6 cities., WRI India. Available at: https://wri-india.org/sites/default/files/Living-near-urban-landfills-India-Figure2.png (Accessed: May 1, 2023). 
  3. Khanna, S. (2022) Ragpickers at the Bhalswa landfill site on April 28, 2022, in New Delhi, India., CNN. New Delhi. Available at: https://media.cnn.com/api/v1/images/stellar/prod/220823041412-12-india-landfill-intl-hnk.jpg?c=16×9&q=h_720,w_1280,c_fill/f_webp (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  4. Municipal Solid Waste Management (2019) Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/SwachhBharatUrban/photos/a.1520858104873855/2034201996872794/ (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  5. (no date) BioRender. Available at: https://www.preprints.org/img/dyn_abstract_figures/2021/06/24f6aff6731a9c0c399ce48e78efde7f/Figure%201.png (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
  6. Business case into Waste Management in India (2018) Enincon . Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/Business_case_into_Waste_Management_in_India.png?20180213090850 (Accessed: May 1, 2023). 
  7. Tapdiya, A. (2021) Gorai Dumpsite Closure (2021).
  8. Sambyal, S.S. and Henam, S. (2018) Case Studies, Down to Earth. Available at: https://cdn.downtoearth.org.in/library/large/2018-07-05/0.76380400_1530796342_standing-tall.jpg (Accessed: April 23, 2023).

Ayush Tapdiya, a Pune-based Architect, currently works on Large-scale Architectural Projects. He finds pleasure in delving into ideas and theories on a wide range of subjects, and particularly relishes engaging in conversations with individuals holding diverse viewpoints. His enthusiasm & optimism fuels everyone around him. He's a goal-oriented person who thrives on challenges and constantly seeks to improve himself.