Waste treatment: What’s stopping cities from catching up with Indore?

Efficient waste collection and treatment are the main reasons for Indore’s continued success in the Swachh Survekshan ranking. Photo: Municipal Corporation of Indore

The city of Indore has been declared the cleanest city in India for the 6e once again in the recently announced Swachh Survekshan 2022 results. Indore has consistently performed well in the Swachh Survekshan survey since 2017 due to its integrated approach to solid waste management and efficient waste treatment. The city, which has nearly 2 million inhabitants, generates around 1,900 tonnes of solid waste per day. The Indore Municipal Corporation has successfully integrated the collection, transport, treatment and disposal of solid waste generated in the city.

What made this feat possible was the rigorous waste management system followed by Indore, where sorted waste from households is tracked live to ensure waste is collected in separate bins. The sorted waste is transported to the respective wet and dry waste treatment facilities in separate containers. Wet waste is turned into organic compost and biogas, while dry waste is then sorted, cleaned, baled and sent for recycling. This integrated system, backed by strong awareness and people’s participation, has helped Indore stay on top as the cleanest city in the country.

An official litter collection with live tracking in Indore at the command center
Live tracking of waste collection at a command center in Indore. Photo: Pushkara SV

While a few cities like Surat and Navi Mumbai, which are second and third in the ranking, have a decent solid waste management system in place, other major cities are still lagging behind. Of the 4,320 cities that participated in Swachh Survekshan 2022, 48 cities have a population of over 1 million and 382 cities have a population of over 1 lakh, with the latter generating over 85% of the 1, 5 lakh tons of solid waste generated every day in Indian cities.

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The Swachh Survekshan 2022 toolkit allocated 40% weighting to solid waste treatment, 30% to separate waste collection and 30% to sustainable sanitation initiatives. Solid waste treatment is the most complex and difficult process in waste management. States like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been focusing on this process since the launch of the Swachh Bharat mission which has improved the ranking of their cities. On the contrary, states like Bihar, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are at the bottom of the state table with more than 100 ULBsand have not shown much improvement despite almost 90% litter collection.

Complexity of solid waste treatment

The treatment of solid waste generated in Indian cities is supposed to be a simple process, but it is not. The mixed nature of solid waste with varying moisture, quantity and character poses serious challenges to waste treatment.

In addition, the lack of technical and financial resources necessary for the operation of solid waste treatment plants prevents effective treatment of solid waste.

The waste generated in Indian cities consists of roughly 60% biodegradable materials, 25% non-biodegradable dry waste and the remaining 15% consists of silt, soil and other particles. The input/output ratio in waste treatment could be 20% if the waste is well sorted. Based on experiences in various waste treatment facilities, the same can be around 12% if mixed with dry waste. The remaining part of the waste is lost in the form of process and moisture loss.

About 5% of non-biodegradable dry waste could be sold to recycling units, and the remaining 20% ​​could be used as waste-derived fuel. The 15% of inert material consisting of silt and soil must be scientifically landfilled.

Municipal solid waste treatment requires efficient systems to manage all types of solid waste. Although most Indian cities have set up waste treatment facilities and invested in civil works and electro-mechanical equipment, the waste treatment itself is not carried out efficiently, resulting in the accumulation of untreated waste in landfills, which poses serious environmental and health problems.

Read more: Are Chennai’s Microcompost Centers Doing Their Job?

The local business challenge

ULBs struggle with a lack of financial resources and technical know-how to set up efficient and sustainable solid waste treatment facilities. Moreover, the company itself is not self-sufficient since most recyclable materials such as hard plastics, metals, etc. are picked up by formal and informal workers and only non-saleable dry and wet waste ends up in the landfill.

The process of converting wet waste into organic compost takes around 40 days and requires screening machines, backhoe loaders, dump trucks to turn, screen, bag, etc. compost.

The ULBs must then compensate for the operating deficit of around 75% by a discharge fee per ton of waste treated, which is a fee paid by the ULB to the operators of waste treatment plants to make up for the deficit of operation. Many ULBs fail to make up for this operational deficit, preventing the entry of private players.

A large portion of stakeholders assume that solid waste is just a matter of sieving waste to recover organic compost. However, composting is a technical process that requires adequate temperature, air and humidity to ensure biodegradation, followed by sieving, recovery and marketing of the organic fertilizer. The ULB do not accept that the easily explainable process is indeed a complex scientific process.

Composting plant set up by Indore Corporation
Composting plant in Indore where wet waste is turned into organic compost. Photo: Municipal Corporation of Indore

Way forward for low performing states

States like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been able to do better thanks to their sustained focus on waste treatment. Prioritizing solid waste treatment creates an ultimate requirement for a separate waste collection and transportation system, transforming the way solid waste is managed in cities. States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu should prioritize the treatment of municipal solid waste by budgeting the necessary funds, which are marginal compared to their financial capacity.

All ULBs with more than one million inhabitants should be mandated to process the waste generated daily and produce good quality organic compost. Smaller ULBs with lower financial capacities could try to collaborate with NGOs and self-help groups to manage solid waste, although the amount of waste generated by these small towns is around 10 to 15 tons per day compared to the 500 tons per day and more in cities with more than one million inhabitants.

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