Until a few years ago, Coonoor had a landfill in the middle of town, as well as a stream that residents thought was a sewer. Dr Vasanthan, who now leads operations at the Coonoor Resource Recovery Centre, said that the smell would waft for over a distance of 1 km around it. Today the landfill is a flower garden and hosts the Resource Recovery Centre. According to him, the value of the land all around has grown ever since this space was transformed.
The organisation Clean Coonoor was seeded in 2014. After one particular Diwali weekend, a few active citizens got together to clean up the mess of fireworks and food packaging that had been left behind on the streets by the swell of tourists. They went on to do many more clean-ups in several areas, including nallahs, culverts and hillsides, between 2014 and 2019, until they took up a particularly large project in the summer of 2019– the clean-up of the Coonoor stream. While the community clean-ups continue, this particular project would go on to transform the town at a systemic level.
Samantha Iyanna, the managing trustee of the Clean Coonoor Trust, said, ‘We pulled out 18,000 tons of waste that had accumulated over 50–60 years in that stream.’ The team had plenty of volunteers but lacked the funds. Here they got lucky when a single donor stepped up and funded the entire river clean-up.
This initiative served as a platform for other activities, and trust grew amongst government officials and donors. Since then, donors have stepped up to build the Resource Recovery Centre on the 12-acre dump site. As of today, half of the site has been restored with one acre of gardens, two acres of the eco-park and lawns, and two acres of waste management infrastructure and roads. The rest will be restored in the coming years.
A large company donated a burner with its CSR funding, and a well-known philanthropist is paying 50 percent of all salaries. Dr Vasanthan, who leads on-ground work at the Resource Recovery Centre, says that the key is to ensure that waste pays for itself, admitting that they have not yet struck that balance.
‘It costs us Rs 2.5 to handle [ie sort, bale, transport] one kg of trash, and we earn only about 40 paise for each kg of trash,’ he said. ‘The deficit needs to be externally funded. If we had a pyrolysis unit, to turn plastic into fuel, in Coonoor, we could easily make up for that deficit. Right now, we send some of our waste to a pyrolysis unit 800 kilometres away in Hyderabad. The Hyderabad vendor spends Rs 5 per kg. He spends Rs 4 to transport the waste and he pays us Re 1 per kg.’
The Coonoor team believe that they could make anywhere between Rs 4–5 lakh every month if the plant, including a pyrolysis unit, were to run at peak efficiency. During the pandemic, the Resource Recovery Centre has been receiving about 2.2 tons per day. Otherwise, it would have been about four tons. Of this waste, around 20 percent is plastic, 10–15% is paper, 10–15 percent is glass and 5 percent is leather, clothing etc. The rest is soil and organic matter.
Therefore, overall, 50 percent is recyclable and 50 percent has to be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner. The resulting compost is sold at Re 1 per kg to local farmers.
The current collector of the Nilgiris district, Innocent Divya, explained: ‘Composting is a lot easier in Coonoor than in Ooty because of the difference in altitude and temperature. Coonoor is warmer because it is lower [by 390 metres]. The other big factor in Coonoor’s favour is the public-private partnership that helped in the set-up of this infrastructure for waste management, and for the payment of salaries. This partnership has allowed for the employment of workers to ensure that there is no accumulation of waste in Coonoor, unlike Ooty at the moment.’ Additionally, Ooty is almost ten times larger.
Infrastructure and topographical differences aside, the proximity of the collector to the work has helped the solid-waste management challenge in Coonoor. Iyanna said, ‘The challenge that you have in Kodai is that the collector sits in Dindigul, but we are lucky because our collector sits right here and she is very passionate about it.’
Read more about the challenges to read the Common Lessons across all hill stations in our Overview, and the unique lessons from each of the towns by clicking on the links below: