Photo: Azad Reese

Trash to Treasure: An Untapped Business Opportunity in Kodai

In 1995, engineer and waste management expert Ajit Mathai drove up the hills with a bag of worms. This was on the heels of an earlier trip to Kodaikanal when he stopped at the Dindigul collector’s house and told him that he wanted to work on waste management. ‘I was hoping to convert waste into compost and vermicompost,’ said Mathai, who had trained in vermicomposting while working for a biotechnology company, Pharmacia, in Bengaluru. He moved to Kodai and lived here for the next ten years. 

This urge to compost waste stemmed from Mathai’s love of the Palani Hills. As a school kid in the late ’60s, he visited the hills regularly. Growing up, he would often trek down to the plains through different routes, one of which passes the current garbage dump in Prakasapuram. Of course, the dumping was not so apparent then. But the damage to the environment had already begun, with the clearing of the Shola grasslands and planting of wattle.

Waste management expert Ajit Mathai (Photo courtesy Mathai)

‘You have to first of all address the issue of segregation. Then, if it becomes a people’s movement and you start segregating, you can get it done,’ says Mathai, who joined hands with about 400 farmers in the Palani Hills to market their produce in Kodaikanal and other towns and cities extending to Goa. After working on waste management solutions and biodynamic farming, among other initiatives, he left Kodai to reach out to more farmers. His proposal to the Kodaikanal Municipality—to segregate waste and involve the public in doing so—was never implemented, as the collector was transferred. 

When we spoke to him in June, Mathai was hopeful that the movement in Kodaikanal is perhaps stronger, and a solution could be in place soon because of heightened environmental awareness. Today he manages the consulting service mByom, which deals with sustainable transformational consulting. Currently he lives in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where he manages an ongoing project with the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. Through it, each household is provided with a composting bin ‘with a coir pit inoculated with microbes to aid in composting the waste’. Non-biodegradable waste is collected by the corporation through a community network called Kudumbashree, and biodegradable waste is disposed of at the household level.

Twenty-six years after Mathai first came to Kodai, the hill station has made some progress, but it is far from solving the problem—a lack of collective action as well as ever-increasing amounts of waste due to high tourist footfall have overwhelmed a town of 42,000. 

Mrs Padmini Mani at a clean-up with the students of My School Satya Surabhi, the school she founded

A short history of community efforts

‘When I came to Kodaikanal in 1994 from New Delhi, I realised that a beautiful environment can work wonders [for] the human mind,’ says Padmini Mani, the founder of My School Satya Surabhi (MYSS). But she found the idyllic scenery surrounding Observatory Road, where she lived at the time, degraded by plastic and even human waste. ‘This set me thinking, and when I joined Kodaikanal Christian College in 1995, I organised a group of students to start cleaning [our surroundings].’ 

She joined the students in going from shop to shop, telling owners and customers about the advantages of keeping their surroundings clean. Later, in 1999, when Mani started MYSS, a school for the underprivileged, students would arrive half an hour before classes started, put on gloves and pick up garbage strewn in the school compound and the surrounding area. Students from grades six to 12 were even involved in cleaning water bodies in Pambarpuram, and segregating the waste generated at school. The school was among the top 80 winning entries of the Design for Change school contest in 2010, held at a global level, and participated in the Swachh Bharat Short Film Festival in 2016. 

During the recent lull in tourist footfall, Kodai had the chance to witness a relatively cleaner town. A recent study conducted by Kodaikanal International School (KIS) found that 70–80% of the municipality waste is contributed by tourism and tourism-related industries (data gathered from working with hotels, restaurants, guesthouses, gated communities, schools and other institutions in town that are largely dependent upon tourism). However, whether tourists visit or not, the larger issue is the lack of an organised system, many believe.

‘My main challenge is to segregate the waste… I buy the rest of the waste.’

– B Gunasekaran, 40, recycler, Kodai Metals, has been buying hard plastic, metals such as tin and iron, water cans and all types of paper for the past 15 years in Perumalmalai, to sell to recyclers in Dindigul and Madurai

While several individuals in Kodai might collect waste for informal recycling, B Gunasekaran is one of a few known to run an organised recycling business—there are a few like him in Munjikal and Perumalmalai. He has been buying hard plastic, metals such as tin and iron, water cans and all types of paper for the past 15 years from construction sites, houses and estates to sell to recyclers in Dindigul and Madurai. Based in Perumalmalai, Guna, as he is called by locals, runs a store called Kodai Metals, and acquired his knowledge of composting during his childhood. He drives his mini truck to Pethuparai, Adukkam, Ganeshapuram and the surrounding villages, and, occasionally to Kodaikanal town. 

‘My main challenge is to segregate the waste. While some people segregate, some do not,’ he says. ‘At times food waste will be mixed with the metal waste. In certain places, I have requested people to segregate and have even suggested that they create compost from the organic waste and use it as manure for plants. I buy the rest of the waste.’ Forty-year-old Gunasekaran even disposes of other waste for his regular customers at Periyakulam’s garbage yard. As a protective measure against infection, he takes the TT injection every six months and wears gloves while handling the waste.

With the closure of some guesthouses and hotels in Kodaikanal two years ago and growing competition from other middlemen, his business in Kodai was affected, only further exacerbated by the lockdown. 

Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy presenting about the different kinds of waste at the Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH), SEED

Litter quitters: solutions by stakeholders

‘From my personal experience of working in Auroville, I believe that if the local residents are not aware of keeping their surroundings clean, the business units will never do it. If a tourist visiting your town finds the place strewn with garbage, they will never hesitate to make it more unclean. If it is already clean, they will search for a bin to throw their waste. So it must start with the residents,’ says Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy, Project Coordinator at the environmental centre run by Kodaikanal International School (KIS), the Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH). A well-known proponent of waste management techniques, Dr Ramamoorthy spreads awareness about materials that are recyclable and those that are not.

Every week, KIS generates around 60–70 kilos of compost to sell to the community. This is from segregated organic waste, which largely reduces the amount of waste generated by the school. When The Kodai Chronicle visited CEH last month, Dr Ramamoorthy displayed 87 different materials collected in just a week from the dry waste generated by households belonging to various income groups. These materials included paper, plastic, glass, rubber, leather and metal. While 44 of those materials can be recycled, the other 43 need to be transported; this is economically unviable and ecologically unsustainable. In the case of paper, the situation varies: clean paper can be recycled, whereas soiled paper cannot be recycled, though it can be incinerated. And then there are materials that are non-recyclable. 

Moreover, with the presence of only middlemen and the absence of recycling facilities in Kodaikanal, the materials require transportation to nearby towns such as Dindigul, Theni, Cumbum and Palani. To make the transportation of waste economically feasible, a high volume of plastic and paper waste must be collected. While the waste generated at schools is minimal, it is hotels and restaurants that need to be tapped for waste resources.

Schools are another piece of a potential solution. As part of awareness initiatives around this issue, Dr Ramamoorthy has reached out to 23 schools in Kodaikanal, spoken to around 5000 students and planned to start eco-clubs at these institutions. Through these young people, Dr Ramamoorthy hopes to connect with their parents and neighbours, and the community in general ,starting with segregated waste systems.

A model of a new kind of four-unit dustbin at the Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH) which can be sponsored and distributed around Kodai

KIS has provided four blue barrels to each of the schools to segregate recyclable paper, recyclable plastic, other recyclable materials and non-recyclables. Very soon, they plan to introduce a unit of four bins made of repurposed wood with inserted metal containers, to be placed in school corridors for students to segregate waste (each costs approximately Rs 19,000 at present). This system is a beginning that could be expanded upon if other businesses and institutions are interested in sponsoring these bins. Long-term residents remind us that this is not the first time bins have been organized around the town. Earlier, a group of citizens including Banu Hameed, Lalitha Mani, and Zarreen Babu, who has been involved in community efforts long-term, organized sponsored bins. These were allegedly stolen; one of many stalled citizens’ efforts.

‘If the Kodaikanal Municipality creates a waste drop-off facility or resource recovery unit, 27% of residents are eagerly waiting to drop their waste [off],’

– Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy, CEH, citing a recent survey

‘If the Kodaikanal Municipality creates a waste drop-off facility or resource recovery unit, 27% of residents are eagerly waiting to drop their waste [off],’ says Dr Ramamoorthy, citing a recent survey he carried out. To collect the waste from door to door involves fuel costs and manpower, which are not sustainable. 

‘If all the hotels in Kodaikanal get together, buy a piece of land to set up a composting facility, transport organic waste there and create compost, then 80% of the waste can be avoided,’ says Dr Ramamoorthy. He suggests that this could be a potential business opportunity for young entrepreneurs: getting hotels to collect their waste and create compost, which can be either bought back by the hotels for their gardens or sold to farmers and gardening enthusiasts across Palani Hills. In fact, inspired by Dr Ramamoorthy’s efforts, Priyank Pradeep, Managing General Partner, Holiday Home Resort (one of the oldest hotels in Kodaikanal), has already organised a solid-waste management workshop for local hoteliers. The resort has set best practices on composting and aims to be a green hotel.

‘If all the hotels in Kodaikanal get together, buy a piece of land to set up a composting facility, transport organic waste there and create compost, then 80% of the waste can be avoided,’

– Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy, CEH

Progress is slow, but there have been promising developments of late. Last month, the Kodaikanal Municipality sent 110 tons of non-recyclable plastic waste from the Prakasapuram dump yard to Dalmia Cement in Ariyalur to use as an energy resource, according to V Subbiah, Sanitary Inspector. Additionally, the sanitary workers are encouraged to segregate plastic waste and sell them to two-to-three authorised dealers with whom an MoU has been signed by the municipality. To dispose of the organic waste, the municipality has appointed eight ‘animators’, whose duties include educating the public and encouraging homes with backyards to compost their organic waste in pits.

The key element now is momentum. ‘The town needs to take pride in the inheritance we have,’ says long-term Kodai resident Lathika George. ‘There is a certain apathy and unwillingness to take an active interest in what must be seen as our civic duty.’

If you live in Kodai and want to get in touch with a recycler:

Kannan (Munjikal): 9965445566
Guna (Pethuparai): 9245178994

If you’d like to add to/update our list of resources for Kodai, please write

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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