Home / Politics / Policy /  Garbage disposal: Finding a way out of the mess

Bangalore/New Delhi: A desperate Karnataka government has proposed a combination of systems to combat Bangalore’s mounting garbage problem—an approach that could well lay the framework for the rest of the country.

After Bangalore’s two landfills were shut a few months ago following protests by villagers around them, the local administration has been grappling with trying to transition to a more sustainable approach than landfilling.

Initial responses to the problem by the city corporation, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), failed spectacularly. Instead of focusing on the most pressing problem—collection and disposal of weeks of uncollected garbage—BBMP embarked on a drive to segregate waste, a medium- to long-term measure.

Prodded by reports in both the national and the international media and a vigilant Karnataka high court, chief minister Jagadish Shettar finally laid out plans to instil a modern and scientific waste management system in Bangalore.

The long-term thrust of Shettar’s plan is to decentralize waste processing by setting up one processing unit in each of Bangalore’s 28 assembly constituencies. Each unit will be capable of processing close to 300 tonnes of garbage a day. Bangalore, with a population of 8.5 million, generates nearly 3,000 tonnes of waste a day.

“This will ensure creating capability of daily, online processing of incoming waste for the next 10 years and leave no trace of any untreated waste, including leachate, foul smell, etc.," Shettar said at a press briefing on 12 November.

Even if half of these units are set up, they would go a long way in meeting Bangalore’s needs for the next 10 years, a BBMP official said on condition of anonymity. He added that the city corporation was confident that these units will be funded from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, and wherever possible, be public-private partnerships. The mission is an urban modernization programme launched by the Union government.

Shettar said BBMP has identified 112 acres of government land across seven locations, as well as private land, for this purpose. Additionally, new residential layouts will be mandated to provide land to create waste management infrastructure.

Short-term solution

To tackle the immediate problem of garbage piling up in Bangalore, BBMP will continue landfilling, but with significant changes. The landfill at Mandur, one of the city’s two landfills, was reopened earlier this month after assuring the villagers that waste will be processed before landfilling. The chief minister also said the landfill operator will commission a waste-to-energy plant in three months and restart its composting plant in 30 days.

Most importantly, the state will start a bio-mining operation at the landfill. “The only permanent solution for restoring the neglect of the past 10 years is quick bio-mining of the accumulated waste of more than 1 million tonnes, converting waste into compost, methane, gas, biodiesel and power," the chief minister’s office said in a note.

“Basically, the existing landfill will be mined to extract organic waste and create additional space for landfilling," explained an official in BBMP’s solid waste management department. “On the ground, old waste is loosened, usually by a tractor, and sprayed with composting bio-culture and turned into useful compost."

This method has worked well in Mumbai, where the city corporation in 2003-04 reduced a garbage hill of 10m, spread over a hectare (ha), to ground-level in just three months. A similar operation is under way at landfills in Kolkata.

The Karnataka administration has held discussions with three firms to embark on this operation—Hanjer Biotech Energies Pvt. Ltd, Coromandel International Ltd and Waste Organic Pvt. Ltd—and received another 17 proposals. A committee will shortly issue orders on the suitability of these proposals.

Crises and solutions

Waste management experts warn that Bangalore’s woes will be replicated across India as rapid urbanization takes hold unless local administrations begin efforts soon to manage garbage.

Ranjith Annepu, research associate at the Earth Engineering Center in Columbia University, said municipal authorities need to prioritize public health and quality of life when transitioning to modern waste management systems.

Earlier this year, Annepu released a report for Columbia University documenting waste management practices in Indian cities and towns.

“For cities like Bangalore and Thiruvananthapuram which are currently in a crisis, the immediate priority is to collect all wastes from streets to avoid epidemics," Annepu said in reply to a questionnaire emailed to him. “Kolkata recently experienced a dengue fever outbreak due to improper/inadequate waste collection combined with the monsoon. But they do not have a landfill to take the waste there. They do not have landfills because they did a bad job with maintaining them and public do not want such in their neighbourhoods any more." To deal with the increasing waste, Annepu suggests a combination of recycling, composting, small-scale biogas and waste-to-energy combustion to move towards sustainable waste management. “No one technology will be able to get us there," he said.

Composting is the preferred way of handling organic waste, but the problem is in enforcing segregation, he said. Segregation of garbage is important as compost generated from mixed waste will have high concentrations of heavy metals that could enter the food chain.

“In the short or medium term, waste-to-energy combustion technology like the one in Delhi at Okhla seem to be much better owing to their proven record worldwide compared to the other options we have," Annepu said.

Gopal Krishna, convener of ToxicsWatch Alliance, a Delhi-based environmental non-profit, doesn’t agree, saying waste-to-energy projects are unsustainable as municipalities get tempted by the flawed incentives handed out by the ministry of new and renewable energy. “Waste is a management problem and not a technology problem," he said.

The impediments

Across cities, efforts at transitioning to sustainable systems face roadblocks.

The 16 megawatts (MW) waste-to-energy plant at Okhla in Delhi that started trial runs in January has been opposed vehemently by many residents and non-governmental organizations. Non-profits also point to the waste-to-energy plant at Timarpur in the Capital that became defunct as dry segregated waste was not available.

Kolkata, which has a population of 4.4 million, is spewing out nearly 6,000 tonnes of garbage daily, of which 4,500 tonnes is being disposed of. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation, consisting of 141 wards, dumps the solid waste in a 31ha plot on the eastern fringes of the city. Out of the total rubbish dumped, only 250 tonnes is processed and only 30% of that is used as compost or organic fertilizer.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation installed a compost plant more than a decade ago with the capacity to recycle 500 tonnes of solid waste. “In fact, we are not being able to utilize the full capacity of the compost plant," said director general of solid waste management Biplab Ray. “Recycle of solid waste is not happening."

Kolkata has no system in place for segregation of garbage. Only 50 tonnes of garbage is being segregated daily. Without segregation, recycling solid waste is almost impossible, said Ray.

Mumbai, India’s most populous city, generates around 7,000 tonnes of garbage every day, of which 4,000 tonnes is sent to a dumping ground at Deonar, an eastern suburb, and the rest to dumping grounds in Kanjur and Mulund suburbs.

The city planned to set up a manure plant at the Deonar site and two other facilities that would convert waste into methane gas, which would be used to generate around 11MW of power. But none of these projects has taken off for some or other reason.

“We had even awarded contracts for these projects to be executed on public- private partnership basis, but we have not been able to sign final lease agreement with the contractors giving them possession of the sites," said an official in the conservancy department of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

The strategy for handling municipal waste, as laid out by the environment ministry in the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, has been around for more than a decade. But these have largely remained on paper.

The Columbia University study notes that a lack of infrastructural, financial, and human resources impeded the implementation of the rules. “Although some cities have achieved some progress in SWM (solid waste management), many cities and towns have not even initiated measures," it says.

Makarand Gadgil in Mumbai and Romita Datta in Kolkata contributed to this story.

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