As the world gets more and more urbanised, a significant challenge is presented in the form of municipal waste. Municipal solid waste (MSW), one of the most significant by-products of an urban lifestyle, is increasing even more quickly than the rate of urbanisation as the world races towards an urban future. A report by the World Bank, “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management”, stated that 2.9 billion people lived in metropolitan areas ten years ago, producing 0.64 kg of MSW per person daily (0.68 billion tonnes annually). However, around 3 billion people live in cities today, producing as much as 1.2 kg of municipal solid waste per person per day (1.3 billion tonnes per year). By this estimate, one can draw a dark conclusion that by 2025, 2.2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste could be produced as the urban population rises to 4.3 billion. 

Over 200 million metric tonnes of municipal waste are produced worldwide each year by the United States and China. According to the World Bank, daily per capita waste generation in high-income nations is estimated to climb by 19% by 2050, compared to low- and middle-income countries, where it is projected to rise by around 40% or more. Furthermore, it is predicted that waste generation in low-income countries will increase by approximately three times by the year 2050. In terms of total waste production, the East Asia and Pacific region produces the most waste (23%), and the Middle East and North Africa produce the least (6%). The trajectory of waste generation in fast growing regions like the Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa will also significantly affect the environment, human health, and economic success, necessitating immediate action. Currently, more than half of the waste is openly dumped in these areas.

As much as there are merits to urbanisation, there could be several problems if urbanisation is unplanned and non-conducive to the ease of people living in the cities. We cannot simply have cities to absorb the population leaving the countryside, but we need cities that are prepared to meet challenges that could hamper the everyday lives of its citizens. Municipal waste management is not only paramount but a necessary function of city governance, especially in a post-pandemic world. Poorly managed waste typically results in expenses that are higher in the long run than it would have been to manage the waste effectively in the first place. Poor waste management has a significant detrimental effect on health, the environment both locally and globally, and the economy. The global dimension of MSW is proven by its role in GHG emissions and by the growing interconnectedness of goods, urban practices, and the recycling sector. An estimated 62 million tonnes of MSW waste are produced annually by 377 million people in India’s urban areas, according to the Task Force on Waste to Energy Report (released in October 2017). Motivated initiatives by the government – driven by revitalising the urban governance mechanisms and broader participation of people – like the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) in India could offer a way forward. 

The level of industrialisation, socialisation, and regional climate all impact MSW generation rates. Generally, the amount of solid waste produced increases with economic growth and urbanisation rates. Urbanisation and income levels are closely associated, and as disposable incomes and living standards rise, so do the consumption of goods and services and the amount of garbage produced. Residents of urban areas generate nearly twice as much waste as those in rural areas. Unsanitary, unscientific and poor disposal of such waste could further result in environmental deterioration and health issues. In this regard, an integrated strategy to waste management that involves the planning, funding, construction, and operation of facilities for the segregation, collection, transportation, recycling, treatment, and final disposal of waste should be taken into consideration to manage the present issues of urban waste management. In this context, the harrowing statistics of global waste generation could be indicative of two issues – the lack of proactiveness or governance mechanisms in cities to manage waste sustainably and the consumption and behaviour of citizens that leads to tremendous amounts of waste generation. 

Due to inadequate resources and shortcomings in the current systems, rapid urbanisation has resulted in an overstressing of urban infrastructure services, particularly Municipal Solid Waste Management. Therefore, in order to prevent urban waste from causing environmental pollution and health risks, it would be necessary for urban local bodies to increase, operate, and maintain their solid waste management systems in a sustainable manner. This would require significant capital investment, the introduction of cutting-edge, cost-effective technologies, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) in waste management, as well as the introduction of appropriate waste management practices.

The article was published with Business Standard on June 14, 2023.

© 2024 Institute for Competitiveness, India


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