Complexities Associated with Urban Waste Reuse and Access

Kartik Chugh


There are numerous benefits associated with the use of biodegradable urban waste as an input into agricultural production. As I’ve revealed in my earlier blog, the practice of reusing urban waste supports the livelihoods of many periurban farmers since it provides them with a reliable source of fertilizer and irrigation. Moreover, these practices are also economically and ecologically beneficial as they contribute to the management of urban waste by reducing treatment costs and carbon emissions. Having said that, the reuse of urban waste is not a win-win situation but is rather fraught with complexities. Despite all the benefits, there are a number of health problems associated with the use of urban waste. Additionally, there is a multitude of challenges which make it difficult for farmers to access urban waste. This article aims to explore the complexities related to access, and the detriments of using urban waste. 

Problems Related to Urban Waste Reuse

The use of urban waste in agricultural plots can be detrimental to the health of farmers, consumers and people living in the vicinity of those plots. Many peri-urban farmers pump raw sewage from manholes and wastewater streams to irrigate their fields. This untreated wastewater used for irrigation is frequently polluted with industrial effluents and faecal matter, exposure to which increases the risk of contracting cholera and helminth infections. Moreover, industrial effluent is rich in heavy metal content. As a result, the fields irrigated with wastewater often get contaminated with heavy metal. Various studies around peri-urban Delhi have confirmed the presence of heavy metal content (e.g., Pb, Ni, Cd, Cr) beyond safety limits in the vegetable produce irrigated from wastewater (see Singh and Kumar, 2006). Heavy metals and other pollutants not only put farmers at risk but also the consumers.

A wastewater stream flowing through peri-urban Ghaziabad. Many farmers draw water from streams such as this to irrigate their fields. Photo Credits: Aditi Bhande (Still from: Did You Do It?)


Similarly, the use of solid waste can also pose health problems. In most of the cases, poor farmers cannot afford to get the waste sorted. The unsorted waste applied to the field consists of plastic bags, metal scraps, and needles which can create a number of problems. During a field visit to Majnu ka Tila (MKT) in Delhi, for instance, it was observed that there was a large volume of plastic bags in and around the field. These plastic bags aided to the stagnation of polluted wastewater which was used for irrigation, thus creating a perfect breeding ground for vector-borne diseases such as Malaria, and Dengue. 

The application of sewage can also enhance the growth of weeds, and decrease the porosity of soil (Hoffman, 2013). An increase in pest infestation has also been observed in some cases. As a result, farmers tend to increase the use of pesticides which can result in pesticide poisoning and groundwater pollution (Hoffman, 2013). 

Challenges Associated with Access to Urban Waste

Before we start exploring the issues faced by farmers to access urban waste, it is important to acknowledge that there is no formal mechanism that allows farmers to access urban waste. To put it differently, the use of urban waste and the process of procuring it is fraught with informality. While traditionally the farmers were able to collect urban waste from disposal sites, now the waste is transported to landfills. This means that informal arrangements have to be made to get the waste transported to an individual plot. Such arrangements involve paying for transporting and sorting waste, which ultimately incurs a higher price. And while better-off farmers might still be able to incur these expenses, the poor farmers whose livelihoods depend on cheap access to urban waste might lose out due to a lack of sufficient resources. 

Absence of formal strategies also means an increase in competition over urban waste. The class dynamics manifest again as lower-income farmers have to compete with multiple stakeholders involving private contractors for a regular supply. The commercialization of waste poses a threat to the subsistence of small farmers (Hoffman, 2013). Ambiguous accessibility coupled with the dynamic nature of land-use change in PUI means that many small farmers, especially those with insecure land tenures are forced to look elsewhere for employment. Many of them start practising unskilled labour in the urban which again pays them poorly.

Other problems related to the access of urban waste for agricultural produce can be summarised as follows: 

  • A greater fraction of non-biodegradable matter in urban waste leads to an increase in cost as a lower quantity of usable input is obtained by paying the same amount for transportation and sorting. 
  • In the absence of any formal schemes, the farmers whose plots lie distant to the sewage streams find it difficult to access it for irrigation.
  • Institutions overlook peri-urban farmers and favour commercial farming and composting schemes. 
  • An increase in competition over waste and the involvement of public and private players in waste management reduces the matter available for peri-urban farmers. 

The practice of urban waste reuse is not recognized by formal institutions and policies, and the contribution of peri-urban farmers in the management of urban waste remains largely invisible.  The failure to acknowledge and incorporate these peri-urban realities in the processes of urbanisation hinder proper and formal waste management strategies that involve peri-urban reuse. As demonstrated in this article, the consequences of such ignorance are faced particularly by the poorer peri-urban farmers whose livelihoods become subjected to risk. 

References 

Hofmann, P. (2013). Wasted waste-Disappearing reuse at the peri-urban interface. Environmental Science & Policy. 31. 13–22. 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.03.011. 

Singh, S., Kumar, M. (2006). Heavy Metal Load Of Soil, Water And Vegetables In Peri-Urban Delhi. Environ Monit Assess 120, 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-005-9050-3

Kartik Chugh
Kartik Chugh

Kartik is a research intern at CUES-NIPGR under project TIGR2ESS. He is interested in the political ecology, and geography of human-animal interactions. When not absorbed in the research work, Kartik enjoys cooking, and loves playing football.

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