Sourabh Manuja was returning from work on the National Highway 24 on the evening of August 31, when he noticed gas emanating from the Ghazipur landfill. It was the result of anaerobic degradation of waste in the landfill, which was taller than many skyscrapers in Noida.

“It appeared like a volcanic eruption,” said the associate fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute’s Center for Waste Management. “Due to the rains in the early hours that morning, the plume was behaving like a fumigant. The volume of visible smoke nearly covered the electric substation on the northern side.”

That same evening, part of the landfill collapsed due to the gas build-up and killed two people.

In the light of accidents like this one and the fire at Ghazipur two months later, segregating household waste has become more urgent than ever, to reduce the load on the landfills in and around cities. To put it in some perspective – according to a survey conducted by Consumer Research on Used-Goods and Selling Trends for OLX India, there has been a 39% increase of used goods stacked in Indian homes – from Rs 56,200 crore in 2015 to Rs 78,300 crore in 2016.

Kabadiwallahs or scrap dealers who buy household waste for a few rupees, are often the only way for most urban homes to get rid of steadily accumulated dry waste like newspapers, old notebooks and glass bottles. A recycling organisation operating in South Delhi called Pom Pom has brought the kabadiwallah to an app on your phone.

“Pom Pom is a trash-to-cash service that pays you for your unwanted recyclable trash,” said Bhumika Puri, the company’s Marketing and Publicity Relations Executive. “We convert recyclables back into a raw form, which can then be used to create new different products. We aim to provide a one-stop recycle solution for industries and households.”

Segregation incentivised

Founded by 37-year-old Deepak Sethi and 57-year-old Kishore Thakur, Pom Pom gets its name from the traditional honking sound of the old-school kabadiwallah’s cycle. The app accepts nearly all kinds of recyclables from households and industries.

The founders have a combined administrative experience of 45 years, as they were also the brains behind Delhi Waste Management Company, a subsidiary of SPML Infra – an infrastructure development company.

“Pom Pom is incentivising households to segregate, which is wonderful,” said Ananya Govind, a resident of Delhi who uses the app to sell off glass bottles after house parties. “The more you segregate, the more they pay you.”

Like kabadiwallahs, Pom Pom’s workers weigh recyclables (albeit on an electronic weighing scale) and pay the subscriber either on Paytm or via a NEFT transfer on the spot. They also offer daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly pickup services, depending on the amount of waste the household or industry generates. The waste is then sold to recycling partners the company has tied up with.

Pom Pom is currently functional only in Delhi and NCR region, with a strength of 26 employees and 12 vehicles. Another 12 employees manage the administration from their office based in Okhla.

Image credit: Varun Shiv Kapur/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Outside the metros

“Waste will continue to waste without segregation,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager (Waste Management), Centre for Science and Environment. “That is why it is imperative. Once you segregate at source, wet waste can be composted, recyclable dry waste can be eventually reused.”

According to the book Not In My Backyard – Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities, authored by environmentalist Sunita Narain and Sambyal, waste segregation has been mastered at the source level in various Indian cities.

“In Alappuzha, the main dump yard was closed due to protests by people living in surrounding areas,” said Thomas Isaac, a member of the legislative assembly from Alappuzha, a city in Kerala. “We managed to achieve decentralised waste management with 100% segregation in 12 out of the city’s 23 wards. Under our project, Nirmala Bhavanam Nirmala Nagaram (Clean Homes Clean City), we segregate and treat wet waste at the source. The city generates 58 tonnes of solid waste a day – of which 75% is biodegradable and about 30% of that comes from households.”

In Panaji, weak infrastructure and unhygienic civic conditions were causing the city to rot under stench. Since the local economy depends on tourism, this was particularly bad news. With an initiative of the City Corporation of Panaji that manages the solid waste, the capital of Goa is now bin-free – the implementation of its outstanding colour-coded five category waste segregation system has been successful. Waste management is carried out at three levels in Panaji – collection and segregation, transportation and intermediate storage, and treatment and processing.

Urban India generates 151,831 metric tonnes of waste per day. Photo credit: Arun Sharma/HT File Photo

Similarly in Mysore, 95% of the waste is collected door-to-door and 30% of it is segregated at source by the Mysore City Corporation. Cities like Pune, Aizwal, Surat, Suryapet (Telangana) and Gangtok are among the cities which have successfully managed to segregate their waste

So why not Delhi?

Delhi has consistently been ranked among the poorest in terms of waste segregation in the country. “Even when I was working with the Delhi government 30 years ago, this was a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Ajay Shankar, former Secretary to the lieutenant governor of Delhi and the former principal adviser of the Planning Commission who was looking after environment and forests, water and sanitation. He is now a Distinguished Fellow at TERI.

“Delhi needs to wake up from its sleep,” explained Sambyal. “Till date, the entire emphasis of the city has been on disposal. Of the 10,599 tonnes per day of garbage that the MCD collects, about 4,100 TPD is disposed in three dumping sites – Okhla, Bhalaswa and Ghazipur and one engineered landfill site in Bawana. The city processes about 4,500 TPD of garbage, about 80% of which is done by the three waste to energy plants. As per the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules of 2016, only non-recyclable high calorific value waste can be fed into these plants. However, we are burning mixed waste which does not have the prescribed calorific value of 1,500 kcal/kg.”

The city must move to decentralised processes where waste is segregated and processed closer to source. “There are over 2100 dhalaos or land fills in the city that have become plots of filth, can’t they be converted to processing centres?” Sambyal added. “More land is not the solution, upgrading the city’s processing capacity to about 9,000 TPD is. The city has had no concrete plan to ensure segregation at source. Corporations should incentivise by charging less user fees from households that segregate and maybe more to households that do not like Sweden and Norway.”