Turning Waste To Wealth

How 3 citizens have transformed their community waste

By Deepika Khatri

A few months ago, a video by Youtuber Nikole went viral after he pointed to trash strewn across a hill from a viewpoint in Wayanad, Kerala. It was widely applauded for bringing attention to the massive waste management challenge in India. 

With rapid urbanisation, India is being buried under garbage. Turn a corner in any city and its likely you will smell it before you see it—mounds of garbage in dumpsters, strewn across railway tracks, mountain slopes, choking drains, polluting rivers, lakes, wells and finding its way into the ocean. Even in remote parts of the country, odds are that you will be confronted by the sight of waste that has found its way downstream by a river or carried by the wind.

Over 377 million people live in urban cities and towns, generating over 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. This figure is projected to touch 165 million tonnes of waste by 2030 and 436 million tonnes by 2050. The Press Information Bureau report adds, ‘If cities continue to dump the waste at present rate without treatment, it will need 1,240 hectares of land per year.’ To hold the next 20 years worth of waste at the projected increase in waste, that means 66,000 hectares of land. To put that in perspective—a landfill the size of 90 percent of Bangalore’s area.

Of the current waste generated, 75-80 percent is collected by municipal bodies but only 22-28 percent is treated. The rest—31 million metric tonnes—is disposed in landfills and garbage dumping grounds, many of which have reached heights of 10 metres. This unsegregated waste causes a methane buildup which contributes to global warming. By mixing into the soil, it also generates leachate (a mix of heavy metals and toxins) which contaminates ground water and enters the food chain, the impact of which is hazardous to health. In one way or the other, through the food we consume and water we drink, this waste is finding its way back into our body.

A case for decentralised waste management

Despite the sheer quantity of waste being generated, the composition of an average household dustbin offers hope. Of the 1.5 lakh tonnes of solid waste produced every day in India, 50-60 percent is biodegradable or organic waste. Segregated, it presents a huge potential for composting. Through composting, all wet or organic waste (vegetable and fruit waste, cooked food, grain, etc) can be transformed into a hummus-like substance by the biological action of microbes. 

Delhi-based environmental research and action group, Chintan, pegs the annual potential for composting in India at 4.3 million metric tonnes. Under one of the government’s flagship programs, Swachh Bharat Mission, the goal was to have all organic waste produced in cities to be turned to compost by October 2019. To promote this, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertiliser announced a policy to promote city compost with the tagline ‘Compost Banao, Compost Apnao’ (Make compost, Use compost) in 2016. The lack of segregation at source and implementation failures, however, has resulted in poor compost production at scale in cities.  

As Chintan writes in its report, ‘Segregating at source and composting is one of the lowest cost waste management systems […] Decentralised composting at the neighbourhood level can also help dramatically reduce the waste burden on the city. Additionally, in contrast to centralised composting systems, much of the compost produced in a decentralised manner can be used locally in public parks or by households that have gardens in the neighbourhood.’

The power of collective action

In 2016, the Environment Ministry revised the Solid Waste Management Rules, mandating segregation at source. Further, it urged gated communities, resident welfare and market associations to treat and process biodegradable waste on their premises as far as possible. 

Despite the writing on the wall, taking responsibility for waste and making it every individual’s business is a challenge. Savita Hiremath, one of the residents at Shobha Althea Azalea in Yelahanka, Bengaluru, who has led the way in making her society of 202 households segregate and compost, recalls her initial resistance when she began the process in 2009 in another part of the city. “I was really upset when they started the whole thing. I thought it was a lot of extra work.  [and] started rationalising all my excuses—I have a two year old kid, how am I going to do, I am a working woman and all those things. But I must say that just within a week everything started falling in place.’ A few months later, when Hiremath was given her first packet of ‘black gold’ or compost, she became a convert. ‘This was my kitchen waste and this is how it comes back? That was my first impression of such a beautiful looking black compost that they gave,” she says. 

This early experience is what she brought to the Yelahanka community, demonstrating the impact of collective action through a simple calculation of the number of garbage bags going out of each household everyday. “One house not sending out plastic bags into 200 households and then it runs its 1000s of plastic bags per year— almost 84,000 bags. That much you are not bringing into the community from the stores. This is how you reduce waste generation,” she explains. 

By segregating dry waste into 22 categories and composting all their wet waste, her community has been successful not only in reducing what is being sent out to landfills to 5-10 percent, but what was once waste now fetches value because each category has volume that can be recycled and reused. 

In Gurgaon, Keshav Jaini, one of the residents of the 373 household community, Garden Estate, has been working with a team of community volunteers to actualise this process of decentralised waste management. “The major problem I faced was apathy. Everybody just said, ‘Forget it, it’s not important’ and that what I had to get around. The way I did that was I worked a lot with children and got them involved,” he says. With children advocating in their homes to segregate, many parents began complying. 

To tackle resistance around ‘Who will do it?’, a question often posed to him by other residents, he responded by conducting training sessions with household staff on how to segregate. “I got a better response from the maids and the workers in the house than actually the residents because the residents had a feeling that ‘It’s not our job’.” 

Knowing that it would be a challenge to start the process at scale with all 373 households, he initially began with a pilot project of 20 homes. “Whoever I could talk to I would talk to them: kids, adults, workers. The first time we were going to take out the compost, I told everybody to come and have a look. When black gold [compost] came out, people were convinced we were going in the right way,” he says. So began the 2-bin, 1 bag system of segregation. A green bin for wet waste, a red bin for sanitary and hazardous waste and a reusable bag for plastics, cardboard, paper.

After the pilot, when the whole community shifted to segregation and composting at scale, the impact was visible. “On a daily basis we get anything between 220 to 250kg of kitchen waste. Multiply that by a 1000 days because that’s how long we’ve been doing this and you have 250-300 tonnes. 10-15% of that is what you get as compost so you’re looking at 25 tonnes of compost created.” That’s also 300 tonnes of waste that have not been sent into landfills. 

Turning waste to wealth

When waste is segregated, clean and collected at scale, it also has a monetary value. Padma Patil’s housing complex in Yelahanka, Bengaluru, is a striking example of this. With 1,332 flats, Purva Venezia is home to about 4,500 people. Patil mobilised her community from 2012 to segregate and compost, getting ‘green volunteers’ together to talk to residents in each block, and creating ‘Move In, Move Out’ policies to be shared with every new tenant that came in on the community’s waste management. By 2014, they had harvested 40 tonnes of compost. Despite using this in the garden and public areas of the complex, she realised the need to connect to a farmer so that it could be used. 

‘Only when we are hard pressed for space, you will think, what do I do with this? All these things came full circle for us. I put out food waste, make it into compost, give it to a farmer and use it inside for my landscape. This is one full circle for us.’ she says. By identifying vendors to collect dry waste like plastic and e-waste, the community is generating Rs. 25,000 per month through the sale of segregated waste.   

“Our journey which started with waste being looked upon as a problem is actually a boon because it makes us smile that we are not doing anything that is harmful. We are making an effort,” says Patil. 

Put like that, the case for decentralised waste management is clear. 

Deepika Khatri is one of the co-founders of The Curio-City Collective.