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Waste burning and toxic soil formation in urban areas

In recent years, the practice of burning garbage in open spaces has proliferated within neighbourhoods of Bengaluru. However, the practice is not uncommon in other cities of India either. The burning of waste has the potential to change soil compositions in urban areas and affect both environment and human health.

Burning garbage in a vacant lot, located along the Hessarghatta Road, Bengaluru (Author, 9 October 2017)

Residential areas in Bengaluru can be seen scorched with burnt soils. While government officials view this issue to emerge out of sub-contracting, informality and illegality in waste-management practices, residents of Kirloskar Layout along Hessarghatta Road report that garbage collection by the municipal corporation is inadequate and piling up waste at home breeds worms and insects – causing illnesses. They also complain that the neighbourhood does not have adequate number of collection bins installed and as a result, waste gets dumped at convenient spots like vacant lots and roadsides. Litter swept by the municipal sanitary workers adds to the issue.

To help prevent the aforementioned problems, BBMP pourakarmikas (municipal sanitary workers) and residents in the area regularly engage in burning to ‘disinfect’ or ‘clear out’ the garbage. Although, the National Green Tribunal has declared such burning to be illegal they continue to occur across the city due to on-ground practical limitations. This persistent activity of burning of garbage can change the composition of soil both at the local level and across the city.

As opposed to debris in natural areas, urban wastes and litter contain both organic and inorganic matter. A brief inspection of waste revealed that alongside dry leaves and twigs; plastic, foil, paint, metal, rubber and other chemical-cladded items are prominent within the pile of wastes. Upon burning waste, harmful chemicals risk becoming volatile and can cause damage to both humans’ and nature’s health.

Contamination of ground water and changing top soil are two implications at the local level. Burning items like discarded rubber tyres can form liquid decomposition and leach into ground water immediately or affect soil composition over time from the toxic ash residue. Unburnt residues of plastic shreds have been reported to cause gradual pollution of soil and water table; and are suggested to harbour pathogens in the soil. While short term diseases from soil pollution can range from nausea to rashes, long term effects on health include leukaemia (cancer), nervous system damage and kidney and liver failure.

Scorched soil from burning garbage in a vacant lot next to a storm water drain; Bengaluru (Author, 9 October 2017)

Given the high density of bore-wells and their unprecedented growth in the peripheral areas of Bengaluru, ground water contamination is an immediate concern for human health such as in the residential areas along the Hessarghatta Road. Furthermore, constant flooding in the area due to poor drainage reminds one that not only is the soil dangerous for children to play in, erosion and runoff of this toxic soil organic matter into surface water bodies like lakes and ponds can be detrimental for the aquatic flora and fauna.

High eutrophication of a local pond; Bengaluru (Author, 18 July 2016)

To draw from my preliminary enquiry, the situation in Bengaluru requires further research to understand effects of burning debris and waste with respect to soil in urban areas. From my case it seems that appropriate efforts in collection, transportation and disposal (or treatment) of waste is yet to reach several parts of the city which lead to burning of garbage wherever convenient. This suggests a change in soil composition not just in local areas but also at anurban level.

To have a healthy and safe neighbourhood environment, monitoring soil quality appears critical. The case of Bengaluru brings out the potential of even small investments for waste management like garbage bins in regulating soil quality. Careful consideration in design and location of incineration centres can be important so as to reduce impacts on environment and human health. In addition, reducing plastic and awareness of littering can check the entry and propagation of harmful wastes through soil. Opting for alternatives to incineration such as composting and recycling can reduce emissions and leave biological activity of soil less disturbed.

Amartya Deb is a Soil Care Network member, and an Allan and Nesta Ferguson scholar at The University of Sheffield (UK) pursuing MA in Cities and Global Development.

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