CHENNAI : Twenty three-year-old Amarnath carefully takes out wet waste in a black garbage bag every morning except on Wednesdays. “Wednesdays are for the non-biodegradable waste,” he says. He is one of the few residents in Tambaram who have changed the way they dispose solid waste from their homes since the new source segregation system was rolled out a few months back. “It is a good system and this is the least I can do. Hopefully, it will ensure better solid waste management,” he says. But little does he know that his ‘civic drop’ will not inspire an ‘ocean of change’. At least not if the current system of solid waste management system continues in the municipalities of the southern suburbs. Amarnath’s segregated waste is mixed with the unsegregated waste of his neighbours during door-to-door collections and further mixed at the transfer stations.
The waste from five municipalities—Tambaram, Pallavaram, Sembakkam, Anakaputhur and Pammal—finally end up in the Vengadamangalam waste-to-energy plant, where it is segregated, treated and then sent to the landfill in the 50-acre compound. After door-to-door collections, solid waste from the Tambaram and Sembakkam municipalities are sent to the Kannadapalayam transfer station while the waste from Pallavaram, Pammal and Anakaputhur municipalities are sent to the Ganapathipuram transfer station.
Every day, around 280 metric tonnes of unsegregated solid waste is compacted in these transfer stations before being sent to the Vengadamangalam waste-to-energy plant operated by the Essel group.
“There has been no change at all after the source segregation campaign was launched,” says a conservancy worker at the Kannadapalayam transfer station. While this is seemingly undebatable, he also says that though the practice of segregating waste at source is burgeoning in some places, it won’t result in a big change if the present system of waste management continues.
Why are the municipalities so complacent about source segregation? Because the waste management machines in the Vengadamangalam plant can process mixed waste. Since the plant was established before the new solid waste management rules came out in 2016, it is designed to handle mixed domestic waste. This, however, does not mean the plant cannot handle segregated waste and in fact the plant manager, Manikandan, claims segregated waste can pave way for “a more efficient management of solid waste” and reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste which goes to the landfill by 15-20 per cent.
Currently, the Vengadamangalam waste-to-energy plant, which became operational in 2013, has a daily capacity of 300 metric tonnes and the daily waste output of the five municipalities has already reached 280 metric tonnes. When this newspaper visited the Vengadamangalam plant, a worker said “it is a good time to start decentralising compost operations to reduce the amount of waste which reaches the plant”.
But that will be possible only if the waste is source-segregated and kept segregated by the municipalities before it reaches the Vengadamangalam plant, which is expected to start generating power from waste by early 2019.
“The unsegregated waste is ground at the plant and is filtered using a hopper. It is then segregated into biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. The biodegradable waste is taken for composting, while the non-biodegradable part is treated to produce refuse derived fuel (RDF), which will fuel power generators once the mechanisms are in place,” said Balaji, a supervisor at the Vengadamangalam plant.
He says that segregation after grinding is not comprehensive and leaves traces of non-biodegradable waste in the compost while also increasing non-recyclable waste that reaches the landfill.
Academics also believe the two-dustbin system can work wonders. Kurien Joseph, a professor at the Centre For Environmental Studies, Anna University, deems the two-dustbin system essential. “Around 80 per cent of the waste generated can be either composted or recycled,” he says. “With public cooperation, waste which reaches landfills every day can be brought down by one-fifth.”
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, when it released the new rules for solid waste management in 2016, estimated that the solid waste production in the country will increase from 62 million tonnes annually to 162 million tonnes by 2031 and that if the cities continue disposing the waste like they have, 1240 hectares of land will be have to be converted into landfills to accommodate the waste generated.
The source segregation system introduced by the Chennai Corporation in October yet to pick up but decentralised compost pits in each zone will ensure that only waste which can’t be recycled will reach the landfills in Perungudi and Kodungaiyur, thereby drastically reducing the influx in the long run.
Town panchayats included
The town panchayats in the outskirts of the city are also planning to emulate the corporation’s model at the Keerapakkam solid waste management facility.“Eight town panchayats have been allocated land for disposal of solid waste in Keerapakkam. As the facility is being readied, we are scouting for compost pits in each panchayat to ensure only the waste which can’t be recycled or composted will come to Keerapakkam,” said Malaiaman Thirumudikari, joint director (schemes), Directorate of Town Panchayats.
The sanitary officer of the Pallavaram Municipality, Selvaraj, said he greatly advocates the two dustbin system. “Segregation of solid waste is a key concern the municipality is addressing with our door-to-door campaigns,” he said. He, however, remained silent when the futility of the exercise was pointed out as the municipality mixes even the segregated waste at the transfer stations.Albert, the sanitary inspector at the Tambaram Municipality, gave a similar response.The nodal officer of the Vengadamangalam plant, Shivakumar and the commissioner of the Pallavaram Municipality were unavailable for comment.
While the corporation and the town panchayats surrounding Chennai have restructured their solid waste management methods to comply with the 2016 rules for solid waste management, the municipalities are continuing with a system that sends 15-20 per cent of total volume of solid waste generated to landfills.
The concession period of 20 years for Essel at the Vengadamangalam plant continues upto 2033. If the municipalities keep discouraging its citizens to adopt the two-dustbin system, by indiscriminately mixing the waste collected, the landfill in Vengadamangalam will soon not be enough to contain the solid waste generated in the suburbs.
Recycle, reduce, reuse
There is no doubt that reducing waste is vital for environmental conservation. Experts say countries like India with several large cities should get their act together fast.
Source-segregation is the only long-term solution to reduce amount of waste that reaches landfills
Landfills release leachate, which contaminate groundwater. It can also release dangerous gases, and are a breeding ground for vectors such as rats and flies
A report estimated that the solid waste production in the country will increase from 62 million tonnes annually to 162 million tonnes by 2031
Daily capacity (in metric tonnes) of the Vengadamangalam waste-to-energy plant, which became operational in 2013. Daily waste output of just five municipalities in Chennai has already reached 280 metric tonnes