Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Politics, Economy and Culture of Waste and Waste Management

A FEW days ago I had occasion to discuss the issue of municipal waste with some friends in a discussion group. The discussion started when Sajan Gopalan of Doordarshan commented that the municipal waste which he dutifully puts in two separate baskets provided by the municipality is simply mixed up by the Kudumbasree people when they take it away.

Then I said, I was surprised. Why should people send out the bio-degradable garbage to the municipal people? Why can't they burn it in their own compound and put the ashes to some vegetables in the compound or if there is no space, grown in pots or old buckets?

In fact we try to do this at our home and do get some good results in the form of a nice cheera thoran or fine green chilly and coconut sauce (this one is great: just try with cooked tapioca...) once in a while.

Then why can't we just put a bin somewhere in the corner of the terrace, in case one has only a flat, and keep the green waste there? I am sorry, but I feel there is a culture in it, a culture which has an ethical aspect to it.

At this point I had to enter into a series of exchanges with RVG Menon who is a senior social activist who runs the Integrated Rural Technology Centre at Mundur in Palakkad. Since they are of some public interest, here is an edited version:

RVG Menon:

There is a law against burning Municipal Solid Waste. Much of our household waste, consisting of food wastes, is not easily combustible also.

However, bio-gas, and vermi composting, are good solutions, provided the household has the necessary infrastructure and the people are willing to spare the time and effort.

Still, many households, located in flats or two or three cent land, will need to put out their garbage, in cities. This cannot be avoided. Moreover, public facilities like markets also generate a lot of waste, which needs to be centrally handled and processed.

Under our wet climatic conditions, and given the nature of our wastes, composting is possibly the best processing solution. If properly managed, this can be done without causing undue problems in the neighbourhood. When IRTC suggested this solution to the Chalakkudy Municipality, they came over to IRTC to see how we were doing it. They found that we had our composting yard within a few meters of our living quarters. They went back and one ward councillor willingly offered to vouch for a composting site next to his own house. They also formed a society to operate this plant. IRTC built this plant and operated it for one year to provide a model. In fact, when the minister, Paloli Muhammad Kutty came to inaugurate the plant, he was surprised to find that he was being given a rousing reception by the local people. He said he had expected brickbats! After one year, the society took over the running of the plant, and they ran it satisfactorily for quite some time. Later, I came to know that the particular councillor has been replaced and the plant is having some problems.

But this proves that composting plants can be run properly, given the will and support.

This holds for the Vilappilsala plant of Trivandrum City Corporation also. The problems in the neighbourhood (and they are very real and serious, no doubt) have arisen from some ignorance and carelessness on the part of the authorities, in the initial stages. The undigested wastes were being dumped, unscientifically, in the open valley, beside the plant. This should have been buried in a Sanitary Land Fill, as per regulations. This lapse was responsible for all the leach-ate problems. Now the Corporation is trying to correct it, and a solution is being worked out. This could have been done one year ago, but the lethargy of our bureaucracy and the limitations of our red tape system were responsible for the delay.

N P Chekkutty:

I still think there are some ethical issues in this. And also I do feel as an adviser to the authorities, you are taking a technical view of the problem.

Look at Vilappilsala. What the authorities are talking about is a huge plant, a plant that would need more and more waste for its consumption. The bigger the plant, the greater the profits for all those concerned, including politicians. This has become an accepted fact.

Sunita Narain, sometime ago, was writing about similar plants that processes human excreta that pollute Yamuna in Delhi. After visits to the plants she came to conclude that the plants were adding to the problem and not being a part of the solution.

Now let us take your argument that household solid-wastes like food leftover are not combustible. Agreed. But let me try to point out some solutions I see in my neighbourhood in a small by-lane where most of the houses are five to ten cent plots, all of them individual houses with small compounds.

The wastes we see are as follows: First, the plastic waste mainly in the form of carry bags, packed items, etc. Here we do not have any option. The authorities should help dispose them off or recycle them. They do so, these days.

Second, the combustible waste like paper, dry leafs and twigs, branches of trees, coconut waste, etc. These are highly combustible and as a matter of fact I do help my wife cook rice once in a week or when we have time on the normal traditional hearth using these items. The rice cooked this way is much tastier than the one done in pressure cooker.

Then the third variety is vegetable waste and food waste. We do have plants and most of the vegetable wastes directly go to the plants. As for food waste, if you keep vegetarian separate, it is fine. We used to give it to a neighbour who owns a cow. Now another neighbour who has dogs takes them. The non-veg waste is taken care of by a dozen or so cats ready always at the door.

So why can't we insist that the households shall not send out waste except plastic waste? Why do we insist all these bio-degradable being taken to the street to make them sink, and make our lives sink too?

Now people will say flats can't do it. Hope flat builders can set up bio gas plants, as part of the project. And the authorities insist that such plants be made and put penalty for defaults?


Dear Chekkutty, Let me confess that I am not an authority on this subject. I am still learning from experience, and eager to learn from other people's experience. So your comments and experience are quite welcome indeed.

If you can manage without putting out your garbage, it is fine. As a matter of fact, the TVM Corporation encourages this practice. And even provides some incentive. But many are not so lucky - not even a square meter of soil in their back yard. Or, perhaps they are too lazy. It is good that many of the new apartment complexes are providing for waste treatment (bio-gas plants).

The Corporation has to cater to the needs of everybody. Otherwise they will throw their garbage in the streets. And then there are the markets and other public facilities. I do not know of any city which can get along without providing for the collection of disposal of wastes. It is a mandatory obligation also.

I don't believe it is correct to generalize that greater the garbage coming to the processing plant, greater is their profit. This may be so in some cases where the agreement is drawn up like that. But it is not so in Vilappilsala, which is operated by the Corporation, or its designated agent, on a no-profit basis, at present. And I can vouch for the fact that there is absolutely no corruption in the operation, at present, political or otherwise. All decisions are taken strictly on merit, in a transparent manner by a group of committed individuals, under the constant guidance of the Mayor and his team. There has been no interference so far.

As for operating such a huge plant in an environment-friendly manner, our team is confident that it can be done, given a little more time and also engineering support from the Corporation Technical Staff. But the point is, it has to succeed. We have to make it work.

Otherwise what are engineers for?

N P Chekkutty:

Dear RVG, First of all, it is not a question of whether I could manage my own garbage on my own. If my note created such an impression of self advertisement, I am sorry.

But my point is this: Can we just shrug of our responsibility in waste creation and ask the authorities to take it away? And how is this waste dumped? As far as I can see it is dumped on the poorer people's premises, people who have little say in decision-making. It is there in our city at Nallalam, it is there in Kochi, it is there at Laloor in Trissur and also there in Trivandrum at Vilappilsala. If we are ignoring this issue and hope that technology will solve it for us, I think we are making a big mistake.

I am unable to share the optimism of those who have full faith in science and technology to find solutions to all problems of our making. For me, the question of waste, its generation and disposal, are not only a technical or engineering issue but cultural, and social. Hence, they are political too.

Who is responsible for the waste generated? In our modern social life, we seem to have come to accept that those who generate maximum waste are those who are powerful, affluent. Consumption is the key to this idea.

In fact in my original note, I was trying to point this out, this cultural degradation that is an integral part of our waste generating social and cultural practice. We had a tradition of living with nature, by nature and what I see now is the overturning of this great tradition we had nurtured for long. And our insensitivity to this question of waste seems to be the symptom of a malaise much deeper.

I am not a Gandhian, but in this matter I think Gandhi should be a model we should try to emulate.


Dear Chekkutty, When I wrote, "If you can manage without putting out your garbage, it is fine…”etc, I did not mean "you" in a personal sense at all. It was more like "If one can manage one's own waste...." I am really sorry for the ambiguous use of language, which led to a misunderstanding.

Any way, I do agree that the solution cannot be a technology fix. It needs behavioral as well as cultural changes. But my point is this. If we are employing a bad technology or bad management, it has to be corrected, and we cannot hide behind the need for cultural change.

We should definitely encourage households to manage their own waste if possible, insist on big apartment complexes to make their own arrangements wherever feasible, force hospitals to have a collective treatment facility, but at the same time, make arrangements for an efficient collection and disposal of wastes from those households and commercial establishments which are unable to comply with this requirement, owing to genuine reasons. We have to take care of street sweepings, market wastes and also waste from public buildings, etc.

The situation in VIlappilsala is scandalous, there is no doubt about it. A number of things have gone wrong there, including site selection, design of the facility and also callous operating practices. As I mentioned earlier, half digested and undigested wastes have been dumped there for several years, and the only practical solution now is to cap it and prevent any leach-ate from flowing down into the water course. This is being done now. Nobody we have talked to had any better solution to offer.


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