Indian city turns mountain of trash into cash

|     Bibhudatta Pradhan, Bloomberg     |

IT’S 6.30am in the Indian city of Mysuru and the streets are full of the sound of whistles blowing as workers in olive green aprons and rubber gloves begin a door-to-door search. They have come to collect one of India’s biggest untapped resources: garbage.

The about one million citizens in the southern city, also known as Mysore, are in the vanguard of a campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to clean up the country and recycle rubbish into compost and electricity.

The task is gargantuan, but the approach in Mysuru – combining the availability of cheap labour with traditional methods and modern plants – shows how the country might overturn its image of ubiquitous trash.

India’s cities are among the largest garbage generators in the world, producing about 62 million tonnes of waste every year.

Only about 82 per cent of it is collected and only 28 per cent of that is treated and processed. Most goes into landfills, open dump sites or is just left on the ground, often clogging rivers and drains.

A man carries bags of recyclables on a bicycle in Mysuru, India. – PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG
Visitors walks past a public trash can at Mysore Palace in Mysuru
Dry household waste is sorted in a waste management facility

The recent rapid expansion of India’s economy has moved its reputation for poor sanitation and dirty streets into a full-blown crisis.

Rising wealth and consumption, and growing urbanisation could cause the amount of urban solid waste to increase five-fold by 2051, according to a paper published in 2016 by researchers at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Cities that can find an economic way to deal with the issue could reap a windfall in terms of investment and the benefits of a healthier community.

“We don’t want waste to be waste; we want to get wealth out of it,” says DG Nagaraj, health officer of the Mysuru City Corporation. “Zero landfill is our motto.”

As the morning whistle sounds in Mysuru, residents emerge from their homes with two bins – compostable and non-compostable – for the sanitary workers, who load up 400 push carts and 170 auto-tippers to go to nine recycling centres and a compost plant. At the centres, the trash is segregated, with reusable items such as bottles, metal, footwear and plastic cups being sold to scrap dealers. The remainder is composted and sold to farmers.

“Waste is not a problem if it is converted into money,” said D Madegowda, 75, one of the volunteers who set up a recycling plant near a graveyard in Kumbar Koppalu, where scrap items like used rubber gaskets are offered for sale.

So far, the local government has managed to get the system to work by appealing to the public.

The city, famed for its palaces of kings and maharajas, runs regular campaigns including morning radio jingles, WhatsApp messages, street plays and pamphlets. Government employees go door-to-door to create awareness among residents.

The recycling units set up mostly by local residents or non-government organisations cover their costs through the sale of scrap and compost. Of the 402 tonnes of waste Mysuru produces each day, close to a quarter is processed by these centres and about half is treated at the compost plant.

For the waste-to-fertiliser plant, Mysuru charges an annual fee and takes five per cent of the finished compost as payment. It also collects a solid-waste management levy from residents along with the property tax to help subsidise the programme.

“Separation of waste is very important, but it’s only one part of the story,” said Swati Sambyal, a program manager at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “Most of the Indian municipalities don’t have enough manpower, vehicles, infrastructure and revenue to support the segregation.”

Like most nascent recycling systems, Mysuru’s system depends partly on government support.

The federal government last year began offering subsidies both to set up compost plants and to run them.

“Hopefully, we will now be able to break-even,” said Chandra Shekhara, assistant manager of the Mysuru compost plant.

The unit is run by Mumbai-based Infrastructure Leasing ; Financial Services. Before the central government grants, only about 70 per cent of the costs of the plant were covered by the sale of fertiliser.

The incentives have helped boost the nation’s production of compost from waste to 1.31 million tonnes in August from 0.15 million tonnes in March 2016.

Investment in facilities to turn waste into compost or energy could reach $3 billion by 2027, according to estimates by industry body Assocham in a 2015 report.