Waste System Comparison: US & India

Blog Post by Rahul Kulkarni, Plant Chicago Waste Diversion Project Intern – Summer 2020

A Quick Note

This analysis is purely based on my experience working in waste management in India as well as the US, and is not intended as a formal research document. Also, each of the sub-topics mentioned here are vast and could be the subject of an entire research project on their own. I have tried my best to recapitulate thoughts and points that I feel are most salient. For a more formal report with data and research, please refer to my research on waste management practices in the US. You can access this report here.

The behavioral comparison

Solid waste management, as a function, is inherently decentralized. Most federal governments in the world have devolved waste management responsibilities to either city or state governments. This is because waste requires a decentralized administrative system, and is largely driven by the community of a particular region. For example, the kind of waste that a high-income neighborhood would generate looks different from the kind that a low-income community would generate. High-income communities invariably generate more waste per capita than lower ones, and the composition of waste will also understandably differ. This extends to countries as well; richer, advanced countries consume and waste much more per capita than their less developed counterparts.

Due to this disparity and access to certain resources, the type of packaging available is different across different contexts. It is due to this difference in consumerism patterns that the solution to waste is a decentralized one, and that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It is also due to this lack of a centralized solution that governments and companies all over the world are finding it difficult to coordinate and handle waste.

This is something that I experienced first-hand when I came to the US from India, especially with regards to plastic waste. Psychologically, I believe that because Americans do not see waste on a daily basis, it is a much less urgent problem than in other countries, especially poorer countries. Also, born out of poverty, people in poorer developing countries like India have a natural tendency to repurpose and reuse purchased items instead of discarding them after its initial use.

The policy comparison

Comparing national policies in the US and India also reaffirms this observation. In the USA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) deals only with “the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous waste”. In India, the SWM Rules of 2016 is a comprehensive blueprint which, while giving room for contextual adaptation, also has specific details about how each kind of waste generated should be treated and diverted, along with guidelines aimed at encouraging waste generators to segregate waste. These differences can also be traced to how the government and positions of authority are treated in the two countries. In the US, distrust towards government and insistence on absolute freedom is in stark contrast to the subservience towards government officials in India, thanks to the remnants of obedience towards the British Raj. Further, the centralization of waste management duties in India makes management and accountability much easier than that in the US, where countless private players exist in a market that is largely undesirable and hardly has any political capital. On the other hand, centralization of these duties is the cause of massive inefficiency and corruption, and disallows any innovative thinking from entering the fray.

Moving towards a circular economy

A common argument that I have heard against an efficient waste diversion system is that it is too idealistic and goes against the essence of a capitalistic society – that the soaring flight of consumerism is bridled by the humble three Rs. I believe the answer to this argument is in the transition to a ‘circular’ economy from a linear economy. Through dedicated investment in sustainable packaging and capacity building, the world economy can continue running as it is, while also being sustainable. Repurposing used materials into raw ingredients for other processes will not only generate new jobs and revenue, but also do all the good things that people don’t like hearing about: save the environment, reduce climate change, and reduce landfill areas. Seeing the work that both larger organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as well as local non-profits like Plant Chicago are doing will ensure that the necessary momentum is gathered to transition us to this dream of a circular economy.

This is also not a distant, imaginary dream. Several local governments and communities are also taking proactive measures to do their bit in changing the waste management landscape. Through my work, I have found two prime examples – one in Mill Valley, California, and the other in Mumbai, India – of how localized waste management can increase participation, build capacity, increase recovery rates, and generate jobs.

Cover photo by Leah Kuhn

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