At ‘Municipalika', an expo held recently in the city, many local body representatives and interested citizens inspected off-the-shelf solutions aimed at solving an intractable urban problem. They wanted to know what they could do to manage the growing mountains of municipal solid waste. At present, it is simply compacted and taken away from the streets, out of residents' view, but in effect only relocated to distant corners of the metro.

One option on show seemed unbelievably simple. It was a waste-to-energy project scaled down to a compact format and used to produce methane as cooking gas.

Companies that are famous for moulded water tanks are now producing these quick-install biogas plants. Vegetable waste goes into a fermented segment in these units and, with the help of microbes, starts producing methane that can be piped to a stove in the kitchen. The sludge that remains at the end of the process is applied to plants as fertiliser. A version of this technology that uses waste vegetables and sugar (instead of cow dung that puts some people off) won an Ashden award for the NGO ARTI in Pune a few years ago. And early in March, large mechanical composters will be presented to decision makers at the India Sustainability Conclave 2012 in New Delhi.

Certainly, home-based biogas plants may not suit every setting. Yet, at the level of cities, those making policy should be open to such options. But are they?

Some clues are available in the agreement between the Corporation of Chennai and Ramky Enviro Engineers to handle waste in three zones. The contract compels the private operator to segregate waste into recyclable and non-recyclable materials under law, and allows monetisation of whatever is commercially valuable. Many residents will quickly point out that the ‘wet' component of garbage can be similarly handled to produce useful compost with plain old methods, as well as some new ones noted above. That can reduce transfer of waste to landfills.

Residents will not miss the window of opportunity this opens up. They can decide to themselves segregate their recyclable waste - and more paper, plastic, glass and metal is thrown out now with rising consumption - to beef up the receipts of their residents' welfare association. Ramky Enviro could buy it from them. It means a cleaner street and some money in the kitty. The Corporation and Ramky Enviro could think of composting too, and make Chennai a green model.

It was the spirit of enlightened self-interest that forged community links in Chennai over two decades ago, over the issue of waste. Middle class patience with the management of garbage had run out, and EXNORA the “excellent, novel and radical” idea as it was called, was born. It addressed the problem by appointing ‘street beautifiers', who removed waste to transfer points; some units got into true waste reduction and management. People started talking as communities. They persevered even when the Corporation could not hand over sites to set up composting units at the ward level. Finally, the cohesion waned a decade later, in the nineties, as large-scale conservancy operations under contract took over in some areas.

Today, Ramky Enviro operates on the basis of a “tipping fee” paid for specified municipal solid waste disposed of at dumping sites in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. The agreed fee is multiplied by the tonnes of waste per day, and half of the amount is the gross payment. Penalties are leviable for non-fulfilment of contract conditions, and for public complaints, and net payment is then arrived at.

We must face up to the fact that urban waste is a crisis that is deluging many international cities. It is not someone else's problem. Moving waste out of sight is no solution. It is a resource lost.

G. Ananthakrishnan is Internet Editor, The Hindu, with a keen interest in sustainability, welfare and ethical living.