Waste management in India: Solving a social dilemma

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In April 2016, the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which mandated that waste generators segregate their waste before it is collected. However, there is no compliance with the rules at the household level. This column finds that while information and provision of dustbins leads to source segregation, changes in collection systems are required to bring about compliance. There is also a need for effective dissemination of information and monitoring to ensure efficient waste management.

The Indian Context                                  

Income and waste generation

In India, biodegradable waste constitutes 58%-76% and recyclables 14-23% of the total household waste generated (Talyan et al., 2008). This means that 65-70% of the waste can either be processed by anaerobic or anaerobic digestion (biodegradable waste) or recycled, and only 30-35% needs to be landfilled. However, biodegradable as well as recyclable waste is dumped in the landfills2.

Given the rising income levels and the positive relationship between per capita solid waste generation and per capita income levels (Vishwanathan, 2006) the already burgeoning mounds of waste are only going to grow further unless waste is managed more efficiently, beginning from the stage of its generation.

Environmental impacts of landfills

Since landfills are not scientifically managed there is groundwater contamination by the leachate generated, acidity of surrounding soils, epidemics of infectious diseases among people living nearby, and emission of methane, which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas as compared to carbon-dioxide.

Policy regulations and schemes in India

The National Environment Policy 2006 highlights giving legal recognition to and strengthening of the informal sector systems of collection and recycling. In 2010, India launched the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, which emphasised the importance of recycling of materials and urban waste management as a major component of ecologically sustainable development. Clean India Mission 2014 has as one of its objectives the achievement of 100% scientific disposal of municipal solid waste by 2019. The Mission aims to provide solid waste management services to 80% of the urban population.

Recently, under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change issued the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, mandating waste generators to segregate their waste before collection for better management of waste, with a timeline of two years for its implementation.

The waste scenario in Delhi and the need for segregation

According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee website, Delhi generated 8360 mega tonnes (MT) of waste per day in 2013, which will increase to 17000-25000 MT of waste per day in 20211. At present, Delhi has four landfills at Okhla, Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Narela Bawana of which, the first three have long passed their closure dates. With no new sites available for landfills, due to stiff resistance from citizens1 ,it is not feasible to shut down these landfills. Thus, it is becoming imperative day by day to better manage the waste generated, by reducing the proportion that may be landfilled.

Given the present scenario of the waste generated in Delhi, as well as the policy emphasis on shifting the focus towards the generator, this study seeks to understand the determinants that could induce households in Delhi to segregate waste at source.

The Study: Waste as a social dilemma: key insights from previous studies

To dispose of their waste, households may choose to use the waste collection services provided, or burn or dump the waste generated. In the case of using waste collection services, households are charged a flat fee, which does not consider the amount of waste generated. In case of a flat fee being charged for the waste generated, the cost of every additional unit of waste generated to the household is zero, but the social cost is greater than zero, thus leading to negative externalities and market failures. In the case of dumping or burning, the household foregoes the payment for waste collection services, however the actions lead to adverse environmental implications for the society as a whole.

Influence of norms on waste generated

Social dilemmas, as defined by Ostrom, are interdependent situations in which optimisation of short term self-interest leads to outcomes leaving all participants worse off (Ostrom, 1998). Given the above definition, improper disposal of waste can be viewed as a social dilemma. Studies have looked at the role of norms and social capital on the waste disposal behaviour of households. Abbott et al. (2013) concluded that in the context of household recycling, it may be more attractive for government to use measures that activate the social norm, thus shifting the burden of monitoring and enforcement from the regulator to the community.

Unit pricing/weight based schemes

In addition to activation of norms, market based instruments have also been found to promote participation in waste minimisation schemes as these provide them with room to exhibit optimising behaviour (Afroz et al. , 2009). Studies have found that unit pricing programmes/’pay as you throw’ schemes, increase the sorted waste ratio as well as recycling, after a weight based billing system was introduced (Sterner et al., 1999; Allers et al., 2010;  Bucciol et al., 2011).

Insights from the pilot survey

The team conducted a pilot study in three localities of Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) (110 households) in which we distributed dustbins and brochures providing information on waste segregation and its advantages to the households in the treatment group.

Information banners put on the notice boards of the localities

Observations from the pilot survey showed that though the households are aware of the different streams of waste generated at home, only 14% segregated their waste before its collection. They cited lack of systems for segregated waste collection and lack of awareness about vendors who would collect segregated waste. 41% of households not segregating their waste reported lack of a fine or punishment as a reason for not segregating their waste.


Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs)

Though the study finds that the intervention was significant in bringing about a change in behaviour in the households, the researchers believe that this change would be hard to sustain until the collections systems are changed. Field observations point out that this is where Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), which are legally recognised entities, could play a pivotal role in the dissemination of information regarding effective waste management at the household level.


Moreover, in terms of segregated waste collection, the actions of the waste collector can also compound the household’s efforts to segregate waste. Thus, mandating households to segregate waste without provision of infrastructure, both at the garbage collector level (i.e. in terms of segregated collection) and the community bin level (i.e. ensuring that waste stays segregated), is essential in leading to compliance with the rules.

A group effort

Therefore, although the better handling of waste must start at the level of the waste generator, the concerned authorities (in this case the RWAs and Urban Local Bodies) also have to simultaneously work to change the processes—ensuring collection is done in a segregated manner and monitoring the same at the level of RWAs, in the short run. In the middle to long run, the Urban Local Bodies will have to ensure that there is the provision of disposal of waste in a segregated manner, right up to the endpoint of waste disposal.


Abott, A., Nandeibam, S. and O’Shea, L. (2013), “Recycling: Social norms and warm glow revisited”, Ecological Economics, 90, pp 10-18.

Afroz, R., Hanaki, K. and Hasegawa-Kurisu, K. (2009), “Willingness to pay for waste management improvement in Dhaka city, Bangladesh”, Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 90, Issue 1, pp 492-503.

Allers, M. and Hoeben, C. (2010), “Effects of unit based garbage pricing: A differences in differences Approach” Environmental and Resource Economics, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 405-428.

Bartelings, H. and Sterner, T, (1999), “Household Waste Management in a Swedish Municipality: Determinants of Waste Disposal, Recycling and Composting”, Environmental and Resource Economics, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 473-491.

Bucciol, A., Montinari, N. and Piovesan, M. (2011), Don’t trash the incentive! Monetary Incentives and waste sorting, Working Paper, 11-093.

Ghose, D. (2016), Waste management is imperative in Delhi as the national capital inches closer to another Deonar, First Post, Accessible: http://www.firstpost.com/india/waste-management-is-imperative-in-delhi-as-the-national-capital-inches-closer-to-another-deonar-2697564.html

Government of India (2014), Guidelines for Swachh Bharat Mission, the Ministry of Urban Development, Accessible: http://swachhbharaturban.gov.in/writereaddata/SBM_Guideline.pdf

Government of India (2010), National Action Plan on Climate Change, Accessible: http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/Pg01-52_2.pdf

Government of India (2016), Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. Accessible: http://www.moef.gov.in/sites/default/files/SWM%202016.pdf

North Delhi Municipal Corporation, Solid Waste Transportation Management System (STMS),    Accessible: http://mcdonline.gov.in/tri/ndmc_mcdportal/dems/

Ostrom, E. (1998), A behavioral approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action, Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, Indiana University.

Reschovsky, J. and Stone, S. (1994), “Market Incentives to Encourage Household Waste recycling: Paying for what you throw”, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 120-139.

Talyan, V., Dahiya, R.P. and Srekrishnan, T. R. (2008), State of municipal solid waste management in Delhi, the capital of India, Waste Management, 28, 1276–1287.

Visvanathan, C. and Glawe, U. (2006), Domestic Solid Waste Management in South Asian Countries – A Comparative Analysis, Environmental Engineering and Management Program