Waste and the city: What I learnt at the Venkatamangalam composting yard

Bhumi volunteer Santhosh Lakshmi witnesses first hand the waste to energy project initiated for the Pallavapuram and Tambaram Municipalities and comes back with some points for all Chennaiites to ponder upon.

Our first reaction when we see litter on the streets, dump yards along our highway or near our home, street animals eating the bits of rubbish along with the plastic covers:  Uuhgghh….!!

Can anything at all be done to end this? Can’t the government do something to clean up? Can we stop rampant garbage burning? Only about 25% of the waste generated in Chennai is treated, the rest is merrily added to the waste dumps, creating pollution and in-turn affecting our health. Can we do something about this?

Exploring these questions, some of us at Bhumi NGO decided to start by noting the government initiatives to tackle waste management issues in the city. Though there are many innovative approaches being pursued all around the city, we took out some time to see and understand what happens at the waste to energy conversion plant at Venkatamangalam and the implications for waste management in the city at large.

A PPP for waste management

The Pallavaram Municipality awarded Essel Pallavapuram and Tambaram MSW Private Limited (EPTMPL) — fully owned subsidiaries of EIL (Essel Infra Limited) — a contract for setting up an integrated Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Management Project through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) for Pallavapuram and Tambaram Municipalities.

The plant, situated about 10 kms from Tambaram, operates daily from 8 am to 6 pm. It has the capacity to handle 300 MT waste, converts organic garbage to compost and sells the segregated, non-biodegradable waste to cement factories to produce RDF (Refused Derived fuel). In a few months, it also hopes to generate electricity from waste.

Under the larger project, waste generated from homes in a few designated municipalities of South Chennai namely, Pallavaram, Tambaram, Sembakkam, Anangaputhur and Pammal, are collected by the government-appointed waste pickers, taken in their vehicle and dumped at two transfer stations, namely Kannadapalayam and Ganapathipuram (Thoraipakkam). About  150 MT waste generated  from each of Pallavaram and Tambaram is being compressed by the machines of Essel Pallavapuram at the transfer stations and then taken to a compost yard at Venkatamangalam.

From waste to compost

On March 9th, I paid a visit to the Venkatamangalam composting yard to find out more about the process. The waste  from the transfer stations is weighed and dumped inside the processing facility here.

To begin with, all the mixed waste is taken and fed to  the primary shredder and after a series of sorting processes, the metals are recovered separately. There is also a resulting mix of bio-degradable and non-biodegradable matter, now shredded to about 15 m and arranged in small heaps. To this, a chemical accelerator called Innoculum is added, which initiates the process of decomposition.  It takes around 45 days to convert the heap into manure.

The output is a mix of manure and shredded non-biodegradable matter. This mixture is sieved and the manure is packed and sold to potential buyers. Approximately 800-1500 bags of this manure, each weighing 50 kg, is  sold to Madras Fertilizers Ltd. and Southern Petrochemical industries Corporation Limited (SPIC).

A part of the segregated waste (non- biodegradable) recovered before and after decomposition is sold to cement factories where they use it to produce Refuse Derived Fuel or RDF,  a secondary fuel used as an alternative to coal.

The remaining non biodegradable materials like plastic (the residue after decomposition) are then taken to the scientific landfill.  Here the residue is dumped and compressed by a machine. The leachate that is collected from this landfill is collected, treated and taken to water the plants.

The process of generating RDF, however, leads to sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide emissions, which has been opposed by the Pollution Control Board. There is  a technique, called the Flu Gas treatment system, where 90% of the above emissions can be controlled and hence RDF production is permitted only by some cement manufacturers.

Points to ponder

The above is one site in Chennai which tries to convert waste to compost and sell non- biodegradable materials to cement factories for fuel generation. There is another plant run by the Ramky group in Chennai that does the same. However, for a city of the size of Chennai, such initiatives need to be replicated more widely.

While commendable for its efforts, even the process described above leaves certain questions. In particular, the preparation of RDF from non-organic materials and their use is something that needs to be carefully considered for the impact on the environment.

Our responsibility

This leaves us with the question on what we, as citizens, can do to promote a landfill-free future. First things first, every citizen has the responsibility to segregate waste at source.

Even when the waste is segregated, there are legitimate concerns about subsequent utilisation and processing of the segregated waste. So, every citizen has the responsibility to compost their own waste either individually or by forming communities. This will drastically reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

The usage of plastic/non biodegradable materials has to be banned or brought to a minimum with effective regulation and control.  Before we cover our noses and turn away our faces at the next garbage dump on the streets, let us see how many of these steps we can follow and implement.

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