As the capital of arguably the most urbanised State in the country, Chennai is in a race to contain garbage

In the era of unbridled consumption, and mountains of waste generated every day, the quest for a Clean Chennai demands a multi-faceted response. The ‘city’ now extends to distant suburbs, and the Chennai Corporation’s official record puts the volume of garbage collected at over 4,500 tonnes a day, with each resident generating about 700 grams on average.

As the capital of arguably the most urbanised State in the country, Chennai is in a race to contain garbage. For most residents, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is the operative principle, and the sight of the trash compactor lorry carrying away the waste overflowing from street bins is a big relief.

Aesthetically, it is wet, putrefying waste from kitchens, hotels, vegetable markets and even offal from meat shops thrown on the street, around overflowing bins, that is giving the metro a ‘dirty’ reputation. It is also a public health hazard, as Kurian Joseph and colleagues of Anna University’s Centre for Environment Studies point out in a 2012 study of Chennai’s waste published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. Breeding of rats and flies, both vectors for diseases, gets a boost from a poor solid waste management cycle.

The problem of 'inerts'

There is another major component that jeopardises the Clean Chennai aspiration. Construction and demolition work contributes a staggering 35 per cent of trash classified as ‘inerts’ - rubble and debris. Inerts are commercially valuable to fill up road surfaces in newly-formed housing layouts, suburban land developments and so on. Yet, it is seen as a problem with no demand-supply match. The legendary earth-friendly architect, Laurie Baker promoted the reuse of such material to make fresh bricks, using just a mould, debris and lime mortar and a small quantity of cement for quick setting. A fair amount of debris, dirt and muck is generated along road margins by the Corporation and its contractors.

A Clean Chennai would have to find ways to handle waste batteries, fluorescent bulbs, discarded detergents, paints, solvents, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and insecticides, which are classified as ‘household hazardous waste’ – and the odd dangerous object kept in the attic.

Spare the suburbs

If new uses can be found for about 75 per cent of Chennai’s waste — nothing less than 3,300 tonnes — it need not be carted off to dumps in a never-ending stream of expensive lorry trips. This can spare the 400 acres of suburbs in Perungudi and Kodungaiyur now in use as dumps, with an officially estimated life until 2015. The hostile bid to take land from suburban villagers in Kuthambakkam (near the vulnerable Chembarambakkam drinking water lake) to create new dump sites can also be ended.

Is the citizen doing enough to reduce the 700 grams that he is contributing per capita? Consider that waste that biodegrades easily (is broken down biologically by natural microbial action), forms about 40 per cent of the garbage. It should be possible, therefore, to reduce this quantum substantially with community initiatives such as composting. The idea is not new, and organisations such as Exnora and many others were actively pursuing this activity before mechanised waste transport, corporatised waste management and out-of-sight landfilling became the norm.

Wake up and act

A ‘Clean Chennai’ would therefore have to be led by a middle class renaissance in the way waste is handled right at the source, sorted in a manner that leaves little for the dump. It would replicate the rainwater harvesting success, where enlightened citizens led and the government followed, making it compulsory. That would of course involve rekindling the community action agenda, and suppressing the ‘not in my backyard’ instinct. Small hotels and traders who dump their waste on the street under cover of darkness would need to reform. Shopping malls would have to make source segregation part of mall-crawling fun activity, using colourful bins for paper, metal, glass, and biodegradables. Informal waste-pickers would have to be mainstreamed into the system.

A massive barrier exists for citizens who wish to work with the Corporation. That is the model of waste management that flows from the ‘out of sight’ goal. The civic body has been following the policy of engaging private contractors whose duty it is to meet the requirements of law, which is the Municipal Solid Waste [Management and Handling] Rules, 2000. These include segregation of different kinds of trash at source, but ultimately, the companies are paid merely to transport the waste to the dumping yards. The heavier the waste is, the better.

Invert the model

A campaign to do things differently would mean inverting the model. The Corporation should encourage less and less waste being transported to landfills at great expense. The intrinsic value of the waste — organic, plastic or inerts — must be recovered by reusing or recycling it.

With a lot of compost available, many arid sites can be turned green, possibly even into edible gardens of vegetables and fruit. Waste plastic can contribute to city infrastructure.

My Chennai My Right, an inititative by The Hindu

Send us pictures of extreme instances of garbage affecting normal life in Chennai.

We would also like to hear about what you are doing to manage waste

Email us at myright@thehindu.co.in

Join us for a discussion on solving the garbage problem at facebook.com/chennaicentral The thread will be open for comments from 5 p.m. today. Dharmesh Shah, researcher and environment activist, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and other experts will join the discussion on Tuesday.

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