FEATURE | What about Waste? – The Meghalaya picture



Meghalaya forms a part of the Indian Himalayan region (IHR) along with Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and the Hill Districts of Assam (Dima Hasao, East and West Karbi Anglong) and West Bengal (Darjeeling and Kalimpong). A substantial part of the region is host to a "Biodiversity Hotspot" making it imperative to understand and acknowledge the essential ecological services it provide to its people. When one thinks of the IHR, one's imagination would be immediately transported to beautiful mountains, rolling hills, pristine rivers and lakes. With the spurt in developmental activities and accessibility, there is also a "mountainous" increase in waste accumulation magnified by rapidly growing tourism, pilgrimage, mountaineering and changing consumption patterns. In this region, 22372 metric tons (MT) of municipal solid waste is generated every day. Meghalaya is no exception to this phenomenon.

The Himalayan Cleanup

A group of dedicated people, under the aegis of Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI), a civil society movement across the IHR, recognised this ever-growing problem and decided to do something about it. After a 2-day workshop on "Envisioning Sustainable Waste Management Pathways" at Gangtok on 11-12 May, 2018 with participants from all the IHR states, the "Himalayan Cleanup" initiative was born. Unlike most conventional cleaning drives involving only collection and segregation of waste, this cleanup intends to understand and highlight what constitutes the trash and how much (Waste Audit) and who are the polluting brands (Brand Auditing). These audits are based on the concept called the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) of the Polluter Pays principle, a key element in all the new waste management rules notified in 2016 by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Government of India.

Expressing solidarity to the cause, all the IHR states, including Meghalaya, came together for the first ever "Himalayan Clean-up" on 26th May, 2018 spearheaded by the Zero Waste Himalayas (ZWH), Sikkim and the Sikkim chapter of IMI. In Meghalaya, the cleanup was undertaken by the faculty and students of Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong and members of IMI's Shillong Chapter, Meghalaya Integrated Mountain Development Initiative (MIMDI) at Khyndailad (Police Bazar), Shillong with the State Mission Director, Swachh Bharat Mission (G) sponsoring the one-day event. The cleanup started with waste collection and segregation followed by the waste and brand audit. An astounding 193 kg of waste was collected with non-branded plastics dominating the waste fraction. The Brand auditing revealed that Bailey mineral water bottle (PET bottles), Shikhar gutkha (multilayered plastics) and Frooti (Tetrapaks) constituted the major plastic pollutants. The figures from the other 89 Cleanup sites from the 12 IHR states combined also painted a grim picture where 97% of the waste collected was plastic. Staggering numbers filled up the datasheets. 2,50,697 numbers of multi-layered plastics, 68,780 single use plastics, 36,389 pet bottles and 12,869 tetrapaks with beloved brands like Pepsico India Limited and Hindustan Coca Cola topping the branded item list. For a one-hour cleanup from just 89 sites, the figures presented before us was startling and definitely an eye opener. The findings were later presented before the Minister in charge of MoEFCC, Government of India on 1st June, 2018.

Meghalaya had its second cleanup on 26th May, 2019 at two popular tourist and picnic destinations, Dainthlen and Weisawdong in Sohra. The volunteers collected 399 kg of waste in which, unsurprisingly, glass beer bottles (164.4 Kg) and multilayered snack packets (47.98Kg) were the dominant fractions. The major polluting brands included Beads packaged water bottles, Lays manufactured by Pepsico India Ltd, Frooti and Coca-Cola. Similar trend was observed across the 12 states which undertook the cleanup. Both the operations threw up similarities in terms of the waste composition and the brands preferred by the public. The findings brought to the fore the urgent need for adoption of policies to ban single-use plastic with a focus on EPR concept and strict enforcement and compliance of the different Waste Management Rules, 2016. More importantly, what resulted from the exercise was not just the data and figures but a deeper understanding of how small lifestyle changes, from using our own water bottles instead of buying packaged water to buying a fruit instead of a Frooti, can make a huge difference.

Waste in the COVID-19 era

Fast forward to 2020 and we are now grappling with a health and humanitarian crisis unleashed by the novel coronavirus. In such an unprecedented and challenging time, waste management has emerged as an urgent and essential public service to minimize possible secondary impacts upon health and the environment. Waste collection and disposal has been hit hard by the ongoing pandemic but more so, the grave impact it has on the safety and livelihood of sanitation workers, waste pickers and garbage collectors, the backbone of the waste management system. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the virus can survive on cardboard for about 24 hours and on plastics and stainless steel for about 72 hours. This poses a higher risk of exposure to the virus for the waste handlers from handling unmarked medical and contaminated waste. Underlining various challenges like gaps in compliance of bio-medical waste rules and solid waste handling, a set of guidelines on the handling, treatment and disposal of waste generated during treatment, diagnosis and quarantine of COVID-19 patients was released by the Central Pollution Control Board on March 18, 2020 in addition to the existing BMW Rules, 2016.


In Meghalaya, the same guidelines are being followed and a public notice was issued by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) on 13th May, 2020 for sound management of used masks and gloves generated from home quarantine. But are these guidelines enough when in our country you still read reports about dumping of face masks by users under home-quarantine in household garbage that were being collected by rag pickers and people reselling used face masks. Similarly, in Meghalaya, a news report doing the rounds where used personal protective equipments (PPEs) and empty food packets were seen to have been disposed off recklessly around the vicinity of IIM, Shillong. To add to the problem, plastics has emerged as an unlikely hero as demand for masks, gloves, PPEs and disposable plastics skyrockets. As we are grasping to understand this unfamiliar reality, it is understandable for individuals and families to make difficult and often necessary lifestyle changes for their safety and well-being. Plastic has become a double-edged sword but it is a real and present crisis that poses a grave threat to the environment and sustainability.

So, what is the way forward?

For an effective waste management ecosystem, a multi-actor approach should be followed where corporate social responsibility initiatives, non-governmental organisations and waste management players must come together. Few things can also be done. For example, the data and information can be sent to the concerned authorities so that it can trigger policy change. However, upon waiting for policies to change, the fear is that we waited too long. At an individual level, we can surely make a difference. We can equip ourselves with the knowledge of different waste management rules and identify the areas we can contribute. Availing the take back system or collection centres as part of EPRs for the producers as imposed by the E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 is one instance. We can also practice the zero waste concept individually first, and then eventually rope in the family, our neighbours and the community. Especially as we navigate this new reality together, let the COVID-19 crisis be a reminder about the need to reshape how we all think and act about waste. The solution lies within each one of us if we only care enough.


Members of MIMDI:

Dr Subhasish DasGupta, Associate Professor, Department of Environment & Traditional Ecosystems, MLCU
Ms Gardinia Nongbri, Research Scholar, Department of Environmental Studies, NEHU
Dr Larilin Kharpuri, Associate Professor, Department of Environment & Traditional Ecosystems, MLCU
Mr Evan D. Diengdoh, Assistant Professor, Department of Environment & Traditional Ecosystems, MLCU