Waste Management: Kerala Way Ahead

Given the general awareness of how huge a problem waste disposal is in Kerala, and the news reports that keep coming out of instances of waste dumping and of floundering waste management programmes, many Keralites would find it surprising that Kerala is far better off than other places.

According to some experts, Kerala is way ahead in terms of waste management compared to other parts of the country and is working towards waste minimisation. ‘This is becoming a slow revolution in Kerala. We are moving towards self-sustainability.’ In this video, experts discuss the success story of Kerala during the Banega Swachh India Cleanathon on NDTV.

Thumbs up from Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, in a recent article in Business Standard, gives thumbs up to the Kerala approach to waste management which looks to turn garbage into wealth and explains why that is the right way to go. Here are some of the main points she raised.

India has a huge waste problem – from untreated sewage that is defiling rivers and waterbodies to growing quantities of chemical waste that is seeping into the ground or polluting the air, to solid waste that is fast piling up in our cities.

The problem of waste is not a problem of management alone. It is a problem of finding solutions – approaches and technologies – that can match our pockets and our regulatory and governance abilities.

The Kerala approach: Not-in-my-backyard

An interesting approach is coming from Kerala. Because of its high population density, high rates of literacy and growing environmental awareness the state has the right conditions for change. In the current situation, people are saying – rightly – that they do not want the waste of someone else in their backyard. This not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is creating challenges for waste management.

Segregation at source and managing locally

The work in Kerala is to look for alternative models of waste management, which require people to segregate waste at the household level and as far as possible manage it locally. They teach us that unless we can learn the art and science of segregation of waste – at source – waste management strategies will be expensive and indeed futile.

This is also the lesson from other parts of the country, where waste-to-energy plants are failing because of the lack of segregation. It is also clear that if segregation is not done, then the waste-to-energy plant will require stringent standards for pollution control – so much so, that this makes the plant financially unviable. In this situation, segregation at source becomes an imperative for successful solid waste management strategies.

The model of waste management, which incentivises segregation at source and then looks at affordable and appropriate technologies for compost and reuse, is the only way ahead for India. We need to look at waste as a resource – not to throw away in landfill sites, but to use to recycle and reuse.

This also means that the role of the informal sector is crucial in the business of waste management. India has a rich tradition of recycling. It also has a vibrant (yet hidden and unrecognised) informal recycling industry. The objective has to be to optimise on the strengths of this industry and not to replace it. The answer, as the Kerala waste management model shows, is to turn the garbage into wealth and not to waste.

(Cover picture: Kudumbasree workers in domestic waste management – Painted by Suparna S Nair)