Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Emergence of Waste Management as a Strong Business Proposition

Author of “Going Soft is the New Normal” available on Amazon - (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008IUL81O)
Published in TISA August 2012
Winston Churchill said “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Opportunity in Adversity
Hospitals are not one of the best places in this world to be in. It is more strenuous if you are not the doctor but simply sitting next to a patient while the specialists do their jobs. Caught up in a similar situation with nothing else to do but wait, I tried to distract myself by focusing on the surroundings. A particular thing caught my eye. The room had four different waste bins with color coded tags and matching plastic bags mentioning what kind of waste goes where.  My first thought was how complicated is this whole segregation and compliance. Many of us are still used to dumping plastics to batteries, glass bottles to perishables, medicines and medicinal wastes in the same bin bag in our homes.
But compliance is the least of our problems. I tried to imagine if one room of a hospital has four such bin bags how many would be there across the country assuming people are consciously segregating them. Consider that and the mounds of waste generated in households, small and big enterprises and industries. Compound that with wastes which are not bio-degradable and are hazardous. Many of us have heard about Alang ship breaking yard and the quality of life there. All this is simply mind boggling. It is quietly becoming a phenomenon world over. The larger concern here is how do you handle and manage these different kinds of waste? Well there are ways and means and this hindrance poses tremendous business potential for innovative and socially conscious entrepreneurs.

Putting together the pieces of the “Waste” Puzzle
Waste is anything generated in a process which lacks any apparent value to the current owner. Example: For a consumer of Coke, after finishing the fizz drink from a can, the can is useless. A patient has no value for the aluminum foil that contains his medicine after the contents have been ingested or a syringe after the drug has been administered. A dead battery has no value to the user. A computer hard disk is useless after it develops any mechanical defect. A carton protecting a television or refrigerator serves its purpose once the item has been delivered to the buyer and installed successfully. There is no specific use of the carton after that.
Waste is broadly categorized as hazardous and non-hazardous with further classification like domestic, commercial and industrial which also includes healthcare and e-waste. Waste is usually in two physical forms – solid and liquid. Both types need very dedicated methods of treatment and disposal. Once waste is generated, it has to be collected, transported, segregated, disposed off or recycled. There are resources and costs involved at each stage.
Waste management has many facets to it and each stage has immense likelihood for entrepreneurial venture with huge scope to accommodate multiple players.
In cities, the onus of waste disposal is largely on the municipality bodies. Based on conservative estimates, a city like Delhi or Mumbai is said to generate roughly 5800 – 6500 tons per day followed by emerging big cities like Ahmedabad or Bangalore etc generating around 1700 – 2500 tons per day.
Presently majority of the waste disposal work in India is done by the unorganized sector with immensely primitive methods endangering the ecology as well as human lives directly or indirectly involved. This means that a large part of the disposal is improper and a very limited portion of the potential recyclable material is actually recycled.
Here lies the opportunity for organized and scientifically driven businesses to step in and fill the looming gap which is ever widening. Inadequate disposal of waste can be a huge cause of pollution, infection or even epidemic.
The following diagram gives a bird’s eye view of the entire waste disposal options:

The process of segregation right at the waste generation point is very critical. There is a critical need for standard operating procedures, guidelines and policies to ensure proper awareness and appropriate first-level storage of waste till it reaches the point of collection.
As shown in the diagram above, all hazardous waste is usually burnt or buried based on guidelines. The incineration needs to happen in proper facility and not out in the open using firewood. Similarly rightfully burying waste is essential as it can otherwise easily affect ground water and soil quality the effects of which might not be evident immediately but gradually over a period of time. The reversal process might take generations. How often do we read about effluent being released into the rivers or sea? This kind of disposal not only harms marine lives but also the food and water that we ingest. Thus, hazardous waste management is no doubt a high margin specialist job with potential for sustained business as companies would not like to be slapped with a libel suit for harming the environment and causing immense social outrage and image loss.
Non-hazardous waste can be treated either by recycling or allowing it to biodegrade and turn into compost. Compost is often used in organic farming which uses naturally manufactured fertilizer. Unfortunately, the unorganized waste management contractors simply resort to illegal dumping and mindless landfill which is more of a nuisance than usefulness. There is opportunity to improve this latent situation of inadequate utilization of potential.
The lucrative part of the waste treatment business lies in recycling and sales. Why are our aluminum cans collected by scavengers? These can be treated chemically or thermally and converted to new aluminum sheets and again turned into cans.
The interesting part about any waste is breaking it down into appropriate parts for specific handling. One part may be recyclable whereas another can be turned into fertilizer still another part might require incineration. Glass, rubber or plastic – each needs to be handled separately. The technology and the parameters are regularly evolving world over and India needs to keep up with the trends. Incineration is often used to generate small quantities of steam and electricity. This is a wonderful example of waste to energy conversion. 
In the coming few years, the waste treatment sector will see lot of changes, new players, technologies and guidelines creating a steady pull and push giving the entire business it’s much needed importance and dynamics. Needless to say, the first mover advantage will always be there but with burgeoning population and rampant consumerism, changing lifestyles – quantum of waste is simply going to increase and keep the waste treatment business resilient.

Being Socially Responsible
I recall a particular incident that had occurred a decade back. A German engineer was handing over some final instruction sheets before going back to his country after successful implementation of an advanced server. Sitting in the server room, he asked me if I can help him dispose off his digital camera batteries. (I thought why cannot these people walk two steps and dump the batteries in the waste-bin kept in the corner of the room.) I said off course. I took the batteries and threw them in the waste-bin. He was appalled!!! He promptly went to the bin and took out the batteries. He exclaimed that he could have done it but these are hazardous waste. “Do you know how harmful are these batteries?” I said that is how we do it here. He said well then a time will come when you people will have to change. I felt ashamed at my previous thought and apologized. The man took back the batteries with him to dispose them correctly in Germany.
There is a need for social awareness and appreciation of tackling the waste issue.  One thought about waste is also to reduce them by serious consideration in every aspect of our lives. We also need documentation of norms and best practices including health and safety guidelines are necessary as well as monitoring of compliance to the norms.
The people who are handling our waste today lack basic protective garments while sifting through the worst kind of trash.  They probably live hellish lives routinely exposed to contamination, freak cuts due to glass or sharp objects, inhalation of noxious fumes, poisoning or even chemical burns. These wastes harm the bodies through skin interaction (due to bare hands), inhalation or even ingestion in some instances. There is a need for proper garments, protective covering, gloves and masks etc. for the handlers, rightly labeled vehicles and containers for transporting and shipping wastes and primary health instructions to tackle any emergency.
With the growing proportion of waste, the informal sector will not be able to manage it. Effluent treatment, hazardous water and sewage that cities are producing today need extremely efficient handling. There is huge scope of employment in the waste business but the job has to be honorable and humane.
The quest for waste management, handling and treatment has to start from generating awareness and compliance at each stage where waste is produced. If we have lax systems, we will become the world’s dumping ground. It is time to face a challenge and turn it into a lucrative opportunity.

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