Stepping into the compost yard of the Kodaikanal municipality in Adukkam last year, I saw a few men standing over large mounds of garbage by a moving conveyor belt that was carrying scraps of waste. When I got closer, the stench of tonnes of waste hit my nostrils, the jarring noise of the machinery only adding to the discomfort. How could anyone possibly work here? Certainly, segregating mixed waste is a tough job. I was relieved to think that the garbage from my house was not adding to the stench.
I have been segregating waste at home since September 2016. Thanks to the foresight of my landlady, Padmini Mani, who has been advocating segregation and the avoidance of plastic for decades, the vegetable and fruit peels from my kitchen go into a compost pit in the garden. One of the simple pleasures of my life is watching the organic matter gradually turn into a rich, dark, nutrient-dense compost. And I collect any plastic and paper waste in bags, to be recycled later. These practices can help reduce the strain we place on the municipality’s waste management policies, which have not been able to keep up with the tremendous amount of waste generated by the growing population of residents and floating population of tourists.
Besides the town residents, hotels here are bulk waste generators due to the high number of tourists Kodaikanal sees. Currently, wet waste from 110 hotels registered with the Hotel and Resort Owners’ Association and numerous other small restaurants and cottages is collected by mini trucks and taken to the 2MT (metric tonne) biomethanation plant in Shenbaganur, Kodaikanal, set up last May at a cost of Rs 76 lakh. All hotels will need to start complying with established processes.
‘If they do not, we will be fining them,’ T Narayanan, the municipal commissioner, told The Kodai Chronicle during a recent interview. When I visited the plant last year, it was at an experimental phase.
Dr A Aravind Krishnan, Kodai’s former Municipal Health Officer (MHO), informed us that an average of around 5MT of organic waste is collected per day, of which 2MT are processed at the plant. The rest is taken to the compost yard, where it is converted into manure. From 7am to 1pm, two workers manually segregate the food waste and remove leaves, seeds and non-biodegradable waste. For instance, banana leaves and other fibrous content cannot be fed into the plant as they will get stuck in the digester and fail the equipment. Organic matter and wet waste—think vegetable and fruit peels— is turned into biogas and slurry. The biogas can be converted into electricity or biofuel, while the slurry can be used as liquid manure by home gardeners and farmers.
Collecting Our Waste
Currently, there are no special rules regarding garbage collection in hilly areas. Based on where the houses are located, garbage collection has been divided into three categories: areas where both vehicular movement and garbage collection are possible; where vehicular movement is not possible but collection is possible once a week (at the household level); and, where neither vehicular movement nor garbage collection are possible. The houses in this third category are encouraged to compost the wet waste that they generate in pits, which convert the waste into organic manure.
Pudukadu is one such area with only a handful of residents and no vehicular access. Municipal workers walk up to collect the garbage and back down, a journey that takes half an hour from the main road. And Thantimedu has no road but steps on a slope, with a few houses. Again, the municipal workers walk up the steps every day to collect garbage.
When Avijit Michael, executive director, Jhatkaa.org, filed a public interest litigation against the Kodaikanal municipality in 2021, a retaining wall of the dump yard had broken, letting loose waste into the nearby Tiger Shola forest and polluting the stream that runs close by. In July last year, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court directed the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Tamil Nadu’s Environment and Forests Department; the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board; and the Kodaikanal municipality to file a report on the issue. The municipality submitted a report in January this year.
‘Since then, residents have managed to get the commissioner, T Narayanan, to speak with Dr R Rajamanikam, project coordinator for the Center for Environment and Humanity (CEH), Kodaikanal International School, and commit to training for workers as well as Kodai’s population regarding education on solid waste management,’ said Michael.
Narayanan has also engaged Chennai’s Anna University to put a plan together regarding the clearing of legacy waste through biomining, while a detailed project report was still pending at the time of publication. As per the Central Pollution Control Board guidelines, ‘Biomining is the scientific process of excavation, treatment, segregation and gainful utilisation of aged municipal solid waste lying in dumpsites typically referred to as legacy waste.’ The municipality is analysing the possibility of biomining with various groups. While they tell us that the experts they have consulted say bio-capping—covering legacy waste with soil—is not possible in the hills, the mixed waste that has piled up over the years needs to be removed as early as possible to prevent hazards.
Recently, a fire at the dumpsite resulted in the burning of some of the legacy waste; the pollution caused by burning waste is a concern, says Marimuthu Ravichandran, Kodai’s sanitary inspector.
Residents with relevant waste management expertise who spoke to TKC on the condition of anonymity expressed concern that tonnes of waste are segregated manually by a handful of staff at the processing plant. Often, inorganic matter, including glass, plastic and metals, tends to get mixed in with organic matter. ‘If waste is critically mixed, crushed and composted, it is virtually impossible to recover the nonorganic matter from the soil,’ one commented. ‘Over several months and years, the farmers and households using this compost will notice a decline in their soil health, as microplastics have a negative effect on microorganism and insect activities. This leads to weaker nutrient absorption in plants and less healthy produce.’
When mixed waste is being turned into compost, this raises alarms among citizens and environmentalists who organize clean-up drives and work towards waste management solutions, through Kodai’s citizens’ groups and more informal forums. Segregation at source into three categories—trash, recyclables and biodegradables—is the only solution to ensure that waste is not critically mixed when it reaches the processing site in Prakashapuram.
Additionally, while tackling organic waste concerns, the municipality has to manage saleable waste, such as glass bottles, newspapers, cardboard, cans, clothes and e-waste. ‘The contract workers can sell them and make money as an incentive. The plastic that cannot be sold is compressed and sent to a cement factory to be converted into refuse-derived fuel (RDF). As of August 2022, the municipality had sent more than 563MT of waste towards RDF. This oil from plastic waste can be used to run small generators,’ says the former MHO, Dr Krishnan.
He further added that a lack of consensus on decisions on payment for waste disposal among hoteliers has posed challenges to the municipality in the past years. He explains that the Pollution Control Board’s effluent treatment plant was erected in 1992 to process the effluents from the hotels. It had to be shut down later, as more than Rs 52 lakhs is pending as user charges from the hotels that failed to pay. Currently, more than 700 small hotels and homestays are not even part of the Hotel and Resort Owners’ Association. While it is the duty of the municipality to collect the non-biodegradable waste from these bulk waste generators, each organisation will have to take responsibility to process the wet waste they produce, as per the solid waste management rules laid out by the municipality in 2016.
How Can the Private Sector Help?
Since its inception in 1999, My School Satya Surabhi, a school based in Attuvampatti, has been teaching its students to collect garbage and segregate it into compostable, recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Students have participated in numerous clean-up drives in and around the towns and villages of the Palani Hills. More recently, Kodaikanal International School’s CEH has been working with several other schools in the town and training staff and students to segregate waste at source. It runs two drop-off facilities, one at the CEH in Pambarpuram and the other at KIS’s Ganga gate for the public and the schools that it is working with. Information about the facility is mostly spread through word of mouth.
‘The reception has been good so far,’ says Dr Rajamanikam, referring to the users of the facility who have made it part of their routine to drop off their segregated waste. Some members of the public feel that there could be collection points nearer to their houses. ‘If the town mimics the same facility in each ward, then more people will use them,’ he suggests. Ultimately, of course, it is only when segregation becomes a feasible part of our routine, that we will be more likely to see the rewards.
Ultimately, of course, it is only when segregation becomes a feasible part of our routine, that we will be more likely to see the rewards.