Make Waste Segregation a Habit and not an Obligation

(picture sourced from Trishul)

Segregation of waste at source is important. It’s an effort that pays everybody and solves half the city’s problem of waste management. Waste segregation costs nothing and takes hardly any extra time. It’s a matter of understanding and more about responsible behaviour.

When you segregate waste into two basic streams like organic (degradable) and inorganic (nonbiodegradable), the waste generated is better understood and consequently recycled and reused with higher potential for recovery. Waste pickers typically use inorganic waste and segregate waste further into paper, metal, plastic and then sell them to earn a livelihood. These waste streams get collated through the informal ‘eco-system’ of waste bankers and waste traders who become ‘material suppliers’ to the formal manufacturing sector. As a result, you see products being made from recycled plastic, metals getting reused for product-making and waste paper getting mashed into pulp to make recycled paper.

The organic waste component is often converted into compost and/or methane gas using Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT). Compost can replace demand for chemical fertilizers and biogas can be used as source of energy. As a result, much of the waste gets utilized as a resource – benefitting waste pickers, waste traders, small and medium industries, citizens and the local municipal authority.

Waste, if not segregated, can pose risks and constraints on the choice of operation of waste processing technologies. Plastic in waste if incinerated could lead to release of dioxins that are toxic. Household hazardous waste if not segregated (e.g. spent batteries) can result in compost that is contaminated.

Proper segregation of waste thus leads to a “circular economy” creating green jobs, reducing consumption of virgin resources and promoting investments and innovations. Furthermore as waste transportation reduces, emissions reduce; life of the landfill increases and risk to the ecosystem goes down. Segregated waste reduces health and safety related risks to waste pickers and to the ecosystems around the waste treatment and disposal sites.

It is intriguing however that despite these benefits, waste segregation does not happen much at the source. Most of us understand the importance of waste segregation but still do not practice. So where is the problem? Is it an issue of attitude or do we simply not care!

Today, the percentage of waste segregation in Asian cities is rather low. It hovers between 30% and 60%. Segregation at source is however much higher in Japan, EU and Northern America, where it ranges between 60% and 90%. Some cities have progressed on waste segregation by raising awareness, offering incentives and by imposing penalties or through enforcement. Providing business links, facilitating microfinance, providing waste sorting infrastructure and setting up better institutional arrangements through establishment of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) have been the other strategies.

Cities like Singapore and Hong Kong where availability of land is an issue, waste sorting centres or Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have become integral to building design. Generally, for sorting, basements of building are used. Chintan, an active NGO in India has come up with planning norms for locating waste sorting centres in cities based on surveys carried out in New Delhi. Local authorities are encouraged to provide sorting sites on this basis, in order to promote segregation. The National Solid Waste Management Department (JPSPN) in Malaysia distributed for free 120 L Mobile Garbage Bins (MGB) with two compartments for installation in the premises of households in Kuala Lumpur. These MGBs were compatible with the new Refuse Collection Vehicles (RCVs) and hence less waste was expected to reach the landfill. 

Tamil Nadu State in India is attempting various incentives to increase the extent of segregation. In the city of Coimbatore financial incentives are given to the wards that perform better on segregation of waste at source. So, the ward officers and communities work together to improve upon segregation. In the city of Salem in Tamil Nadu, one pencil was given for 1 kg of plastic waste and a notebook if 10 kg of plastic waste was segregated. The community in turn sold plastic at INR 2.50/kg to the market. Jars were kept outside city temples where worshipers were encouraged to bring used glass bottles. Glass was then sold at INR 0.5/kg and the monies collected were used to whitewash the temples. So here the strategy was to tap on the religious sentiments!

Waste segregation is best promoted by involving communities and self-help groups. In Mumbai, more than 100 self-help groups operate as Advanced Locality Management (ALM). Every housing society that registers with ALM contributes Rs 1/ day to promote waste segregation at source. Today most metro cities in India have such citizen groups and are supported by local municipal authorities.

Levying fines has been a strategy ‘enforcing’ waste segregation. City Government of San Fernando in the Philippines imposed penalties for individuals who failed to segregate under its program “HandaKa Na Ba San Fernando? Now Na! Mag- Segregate Na!” (Are you ready, San Fernando? Now is the time! Do segregation now!) Fernandinos were asked to segregate their garbage or pay P500 to P1000 if waste comes from a residential source. Business establishments found violating the law were fined P2000 to P5000. The city installed 100 MRFs in its 35 villages that included composting facilities. San Fernando’s initial investment was around two million Philippine pesos (nearly $38,000). Now, the savings that come from recycling and diverting waste from landfills is roughly 50 million pesos every year. City of San Fernando is touted today as one of the world’s model cities in terms of waste management.

In order to ‘localize’ the benefits of waste segregation, technology is brought in for the rescue. Companies that are famous for moulded water tanks are now producing quick-install biogas plants. Vegetable waste goes into a fermented segment in these units and, with the help of microbes, starts producing methane that can be piped to a stove in the kitchen. The sludge that remains at the end of the process is applied to plants as fertilizer. A version of this technology that uses waste vegetables and sugar won an Ashden award for the NGO ARTI in Pune, in India a few years ago. These emerging technology options will certainly provide an incentive towards waste segregation at the source. Recently, researchers have  developed automated motorized bins that separate the dry waste into paper, metal and plastic fractions, making on-site recycling safe, efficient and easier.

So, it is rather worthwhile if you take a few minutes of your time, to put the ‘waste’ in your household and premises ‘in order!’ Waste segregation pays, benefits all and makes our cities sustainable and liveable. Practicing Waste segregation should be a habit and in fact a smart move rather than an obligation.

Do refer to the resources uploaded here on waste recycling business

Final_report_recycling_business_FINAL-July28 2014 (Report prepared by IGES Japan for Asian Development Bank. We did the India chapter)

EkonnectSeminar_Proceeding_Waste Recycling_210612 (Seminar report on Waste Recycling held n Mumbai that was part of the IGES project)


  1. Dr. Modak you have touched a very important area of Solid Waste Management. It is particularly important for our country, India. This article provides important resources for those who want to start waste segregation.

  2. Prasad, in my recent long stay in Chicago & Cleveland, I had an opportunity to experience segregation of waste at source, collection etc. House owners and collection agencies have separate obligations and the interface point is on the pavement of the street.

    It is an efficient & smooth operation at the street level, with specially designed vehicles to check & empty the bins into the vehicle, with only the driver in it! If segregation is not done, waste is simply not collected & a fine is imposed. If its a single owner house, owner has to pay or manage the waste, till the fine is paid. If it is an apartment complex, Manager (society/association etc. in Indian context) has to pay. Rest is his/her problem.

    In an apartment complex, Manager provides 2 × (two different designed bins) in each apartment. Biodegradable waste bin is collected daily from each apartment. Non biodegradable waste is collected twice in a week. If waste is mixed, it is left at the door itself & not collected. A fine is also imposed by the Manager.

    Once collected, waste is aggregated & stored in the demarcated space within the complex & is wheeled out during collection time (twice in a week for biodegradable waste & once in a week for non biodegradable). Apartment bins are washed & returned to the apartment.

    In India, a similar operation can be put in place. Building code should require an area to be demarcated for segregation & storage of waste within the complex, with safety, washing & hygiene provisions, till it is collected.

    Simple operational efficiency, fines & non collection of unsegregated waste will ensure segregation. Training of waste management staff & education of consumers will, of course, be required. No one would like degrading waste to remain at ones door.

  3. Success stories in municipal waste segregation like what prof Modak has mentioned are splintered all around the country. Sarthak an NGO at Bhopal is doing commendable work in waste segregation employing rag pickers. The plastic waste segregated from the municipal waste is co processed by the cement units as a fuel. However, the important question is how we formalise these success stories to make them replicable? Prof. Modak with his expertise and vast experience can suggest some road map.

    1. Dear Dr Singhal

      Many thanks. I did some work in this direction. I am placing two attachments in the main post for downloading. I would propsoe that we build on these reports

      Kind regards

  4. Thanks Prof. Modak. I I fact had a detailed discussions with Mr. Shantanu Roy your organisation when he was in My office along with Prof. A.B. Gupta of MNIT, Jaipur. We in fact wanted to interact with you as we wish to start similar project at Jaipur on the lines of Bhopal. We will we happy to discuss if you could spare some time as per your convienence.

  5. Waste Segregation is really important and it should be started at grass roots level. Even ‘Satyamev Jayate’ showcased about Waste Segregation and Management, and from there we all learnt a lot. Thanks to Dr. Modak for detailing more on this. Learning from these beautiful examples led by commoners like us, I took an initiative in my own local community. Results took time but, we have learnt to segregate our wastes at our houses. Waste collectors, now carry bags of both organic and inorganic wastes, and are happy with our initiative!

  6. A very important issue in the Indian context. I remember reading a weekly column many years back of a jouralist who was living in one of thecscandinavian countries. She was relating her experience of how her garbage can was not picked up by the collectors as she had forgot to segegate waste. Then she went on to explain how the waste segregation works and how that has effected her grocery shopping in terms of buying products which have less of multiple materials (eg a jam bottle had to be discarded in separate bins with glass goin in one, the paper label torn off and going into another). To me it was a good example how residents at the domestic level have been effectively trained to segregate waste. I think with a little effort and training, this is possible in urban cities, specially in the apartment type residential complexes.


  8. It’s interesting how you said that proper waste stream management will help there be a circular economy that creates jobs. This seems like something that is really needed right now with how much pollution and stuff that there is! That way there can be a reduction of waste as well as more jobs for people!

  9. Waste segregation is extremely important due to the fact that if all waste materials such as polythene bags, old furniture, and e-waste gets mixed up in the landfills, it could lead towards contamination of the land through leaking harmful atmosphere. Moreover, non-segregation can also affect climate change leading to drought. Therefore, it is essential to separate waste before disposing off into the landfill.

  10. Dr Modak
    This is a very interesting article. Public awareness and public participation play a crucial role in waste management.

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