Workers at the Resource Recycling Waste Centre isolate recyclable materials from dry waste moving on a conveyor belt. Photo: Ajai Shukla
- Coonoor is in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, and is perched at the state’s junction with Kerala and Karnataka.
- It has shown how civil society and government, working together in a public-private-partnership, can dispose of dry and wet waste in an environmentally friendly way.
- Also evident is how a proactive administration can move the dial just by encouraging civil society participation.
The disposal of garbage, a.k.a. trash or refuse, is one of urban India’s greatest challenges. National schemes like Swachh Bharat have shone a much-needed light on the issue – but the lack of capacity in small towns and the complexities of the subject, especially with new hybrid materials leading the consumer wave, make the picturesque town of Coonoor an important test-bed.
Coonoor is in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, and is perched at the state’s junction with Kerala and Karnataka. It has shown how civil society and government, working together in a public-private-partnership, can dispose of dry and wet waste in an environmentally friendly way. Also evident is how a proactive administration can move the dial just by encouraging civil society participation.
The Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 estimated that India generates about 62 million tonnes of waste each year, including 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste, 0.17 million tonnes of biomedical waste, 7.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste and 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste. Per capita waste generation in Indian cities is around 200-600 grams per day.
Further, the composition of Indian waste is distinctly different from that in the West, reflecting broadly the lifestyle and GDP gaps.
Coonoor’s share is about 16 tonnes of waste daily, of which 13 tonnes – eight tonnes of wet waste and five tonnes of dry waste – is segregated and processed. This is the daily detritus of some 45,000 local residents.
Coonoor has neither the money nor the real estate for a scientific landfill to dispose of its waste. Instead, it has created the opportunity to process the degradable wet waste, collected from the butcher’s and vegetable markets, households and garden waste, into compost; and recycles 85% of its non-degradable dry waste.
Coonoor’s wet waste
It is early morning in Coonoor’s recently inaugurated Wet Waste Management Centre (WWMC), built where a municipal dump had stood since the 1930s. Vasanthan and his colleagues at the ‘Clean Coonoor’ NGO are awaiting the arrival of the day’s first truckloads of organic waste collected by the workers employed by the Coonoor Municipality.
The NGO is led by Samantha Aiyanna, a local resident who has also spearheaded other environmental projects like cleaning up the Coonoor river.
Offal from the butcher shops, spoiled fruits and vegetables and withered flowers from the municipal market, and the kitchen waste collected from individual households arrive in four or five trucks. All this goes into a new mechanised pulveriser, bought from Rs 60 lakh donated by Microland Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of Microland, Ltd., a Bengaluru-based technology company. Another generous contribution came from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, a long-standing supporter of the Clean Coonoor.
The pulverised matter is piled up into heaps and allowed to compost through a process called wind row composting. According to Vasanthan, who supervises this process: “Each day, we check the rows of fermenting waste for temperature, moisture and odour. Composting will only take place if the temperature of the heaps is maintained at 50-60º C.”
After about 30 days, the organic waste turns into compost, which is then quality-tested for fertility and levels of heavy metals. If certified as grade A compost by an accredited lab, the compost is sold to farmers, public parks and private citizens for their gardens.
Clean Coonoor has appealed to the district administration to buy back all the compost generated. At Rs 10 per kg, the 50-60 tonnes of compost generated by the WWMC each month would fetch Rs 5-6 lakh – enough to make the operation self-sustaining.
Kalpana Kar, who runs the Microland Foundation, spells out the difficulties this process has overcome: “Despite the cold, wet, rainy conditions that prevail in the Nilgiris, we have managed, through trial and error, to stabilise and convert organic waste into organic manure.“
Inaugurating the WWMC on May 31, Supriya Sahu, the Tamil Nadu government’s point-person for the environment, forests and climate change, promised that the government would buy back the WWMC’s entire compost output.
Kar also points to the behavioural challenges that this initiative must overcome: “We Indians are inclined to regard waste as somebody else’s problem. Our attitude to garbage follows the NIMBY principle – ‘not in my back yard’. As long as I can’t see it or smell it, everything is fine.”
Solid waste management
The Resource Recycling Waste Centre, set up by Clean Coonoor in October 2019 at the municipality’s request, has a relatively simpler job: to extract recyclable components – bottles, cans, Tetrapaks, etc. – from the non-degradable trash. Workers stand at a moving conveyor belt on which the dry waste is placed. From the waste, they extract these components and put them into baskets earmarked for each category.
To optimise the process, Kar has carried out time-and-motion studies to ascertain the time required to collect solid waste from about 750 homes.
The recyclable fractions, such as beer bottles, high-density polyethylene and other materials, are either sent to aggregators or recyclers. The non-recyclable fraction, which chiefly comprises multi-layer plastic, is sent to cement factories to be used as co-fuel in the kilns.
The expenses of transporting the waste is borne by the original generators, bound by the extended producer responsibility rules. However, a few of these are still being converted into programmes that can be managed at the district level.
S.P. Amrith, the collector of Nilgiris district, says he has ordered all outlets of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (TASMAC) – the state-owned liquor retailer – to buy back all the empty liquor bottles that are brought to it at Rs 10 each.
Amrith believes that greater public awareness is the key to managing garbage. “Efficient segregation of garbage at the point of generation is essential.”
The collector has already swung into action, with an awareness campaign called “People’s Movement for Clean Cities”, launched last month under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Under this mission, volunteers go door-to-door, spreading awareness about waste segregation, cleaning and the evils of plastic bags.
“Coonoor has taken the lead, thanks to its cosmopolitan and active civil society, which contributes readily to the public good,” says Amrith. “But we will try our best to replicate this success in the rest of the district.”