How to reduce the waste crisis at the Boragaon Dumpsite in Guwahati, India

Author: Dinesh Bandela

The Boragaon Dumpsite neighbours the Deepor Beel, an area for endangered species

Rapid urbanisation and unplanned infrastructure is increasing the pressure on many cities across the world. Guwahati, the capital city of Assam and the gateway to North-East India, is home to almost one million people – many of whom chose the city for a better life. Despite the population increasing, however, little improvement has been made to the city’s infrastructure. As a result, one problem Guwahati faces is its disposal of solid waste.

In fact, the Boragaon Dumpsite holds more than 70% of the total waste generated, while only a small fraction is sent for recycling. Due to improper waste management, there are serious environmental and social risks impacting the residents of Guwahati. Education around waste segregation for a healthier and more circular city is essential.

That’s why we teamed up with Huhtamaki, an environmental lawyer and local press to document the dumpsite and its challenges. Below, you’ll also learn about the essential work  of the informal waste sector and how residents can become part of the solution. 

“Boragaon Dumpsite feels like mountains of waste”

Similar to other large cities across India, Guwahati residents rely on just one dumpsite to take care of their mixed waste. But the decade-old Boragaon Dumpsite has always been under dispute. It is neighboured with Deepor Beel, which is home to many endangered species – and the only wetland site of international importance in Assam. Despite this, around 700 tonnes of mixed waste is dumped at the site every single day.

As the Boragaon Dumpsite is not an engineered landfill, there are no strategies or tactics in place to ensure the proper and safe disposal of waste. As you can imagine, this impacts the health of the city and its residents in numerous ways. One key difference between landfills and dumpsites is that the latter do not have any liners to collect leachate – a black, strong-smelling liquid that is a direct consequence of waste disposal sites. In contrast, properly built landfills have a low permeable barrier that collect the leachate and reduce the polluting effects. Each time it rains at the Boaragon Dumpsite, the black liquid flows directly into the freshwater lake of Deepor. As there are no landfill liners, it seeps into the ground and pollutes the water and soil below the dumpsite. 

A further consequence is the contamination of the groundwater table (an underground surface where soil and rocks are saturated with water) and the water around it. When the groundwater is contaminated, it negatively impacts the water supply for the residents of Guwahati. In other words, the water that residents consume is unsafe.

But even with proper landfill areas in place, leachate can still prevail. Stopping the leachate at source requires the city to adopt the mindset of sending zero waste to landfill – a key proponent to create a more circular economy.

The current situation, however, means that the responsibility of reducing at least some of the waste falls onto the shoulders of the informal waste pickers, many of whom live at the dump. In fact, around 100 to 150 informal waste picking families can be found at the Boragaon Dumpsite, along with many endangered species and animals that feed off the waste. The experience shows first-hand how mixed household waste is dumped by truck – and how the informal sector acts as a backbone for rerouting plastic waste into the recycling stream. That’s despite often being ignored and encountering hazardous working conditions regularly.

Life at the Boragaon Dumpsite

Every thirty minutes, a Guwahati Municipal Corporation truck pulls into the Boragaon Dumpsite to dispose of tonnes of mixed waste, totalling 700 tonnes on a daily basis.

“Each time the GMC truck arrives, all of the informal waste pickers run excitedly to get the garbage. People latch onto it because they are able to sell the waste. But they make just 200-250 rupees (£2.40) a day,” reports journalist, Nibir Deka, from Guwahati Plus.

Home to many families from the informal waste sector, the conditions that people face as they collect waste are not regulated and far from sanitary. Without any protective gear, the workers regularly expose themselves to toxic waste and chemicals.

“The waste here contains everything from glass, metal and sometimes used needles, syringes and sanitary pads. Even though working here is dangerous to our health, we cannot complain as this is the profession we chose due to not having much money,” says waste picker Haseena Didi.

Waste pickers at the dumpsite shifting through the mixed waste
People and animals at the Boragaon Dumpsite – a sad reality for many
Project Manager Dinesh Bandela and Huhtamaki employees discussing solution

Once collected, the plastic, metal and glass is taken to the recycling facility operator, where it can be sold on. The operator purchases the recyclables from the informal sector and stores it until it reaches three tonnes for glass/metal or a truck full for plastics.

“We work for nearly 10-12 hours a day. With the whole family involved, we can collect around five big bags of plastic, metal and glass (around 15 kilograms per bag). The mixed plastic fetches us around 9-10 rupees per kilo since it is contaminated,” Haseena continues.

Although the days can be long and in exchange for little value, informal waste workers just like Haseena play a vital role in addressing Guwahati’s growing waste problem. With the local municipality having so many competing priorities, substantially improving its waste management often falls to the bottom of the list. Yet, an inability to address the waste crisis only serves to exacerbate other key issues, such as health and poverty.

“The entire economy here is a waste economy. People depend on the waste for their livelihoods and without it they can’t survive. So, some collect it, some aggregate it and others recycle it. Everyone is dependent on the waste,” reports journalist Nibir Deka. Neelayan Dass, Huhtamaki, adds: “The dumpsite receives organic, plastic and biomedical waste. The visit has helped in the understanding of the crisis of waste that the city is facing. The size of it has been growing for the past decade, now competing with other large Indian cities.”

“If it was not for the informal sector, collecting plastic waste and enabling recycling, the height of the Boragaon Dumpsite would be much more.”

The solution? It starts at home.

Segregating waste to save Guwahati

Reducing the size of the Boragaon Dumpsite can happen. But only if residents start taking responsibility for their waste, doing their bit for society. Segregating waste at home is the only way to prevent more household waste from ending up at the dumpsite. By separating their organic waste, plastic waste and other dry recyclables, residents can become part of the solution. Closing the loop on as much waste as possible will enable Guwahati to reverse some of the harmful environmental and social consequences caused by improper waste management.

The first step towards a more circular economy is to start respecting the resources. When plastic waste is separated from organic waste it becomes a resource – and a proper close of loop solution becomes attainable,” agrees Topi Bomjen, a local environmental lawyer.

But won’t reducing the mixed recyclable waste impact those who depend on it?

The short answer is no. Rather, waste segregation can create economic opportunity.

Segregating waste at home helps to formalise the whole system. Once waste segregation is in place across households, the Municipal Corporation can think about supporting the informal waste sector by making the workers the owners of the waste.mIn turn, the waste pickers will see their standards of living improve. By separating the waste, residents can provide the workers with waste that is of a higher quality as it has not been contaminated, unlike the mixed waste dumped at the Boragaon site. In other words, better quality waste means a better income for the waste workers. By separating the waste at source, the cleaner and higher value waste (e.g. plastics) can be sold to recycling organisations before it gets anywhere near to the dumpsite.

While the biomining and bioremediation process – a branch of biotechnology that uses living organisms like bacteria to remove the contaminants, pollutants and toxins from the dumpsite – is underway, more efficient solutions are needed. “It is inhumane and criminal to see the waste pickers fending through the mixed waste. I am glad to know about the interventions and plans under WasteAid’s Circular Economy Network. Technology-based innovations that would provide a decent work environment for the informal workers are needed, especially due to the pandemic,” says Topi Benjamin.