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Garbage in, garbage out

Preethi Sukumaran
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Walking around cities often means navigating ever mounds of garbage that keep growing, despite hard-working collectors hauling it away every day. Urban Indians generate 600 grams of garbage per person per day. While lower than in countries such as the U.S. (2 kg per person per day) the trend is still alarming because the number has doubled in the last decade. Today, we collectively throw out 68 million tonnes of garbage a year.

The composition of what we throw out differs sharply from other countries, and here’s where we can no longer pat ourselves on the back. Half our garbage is organic waste that, if composted, can produce rich, fertile top soil. Unfortunately, we don’t segregate or compost, thus wasting potential black gold. Also, by mixing our food waste (high in moisture) with everything else, we make useful material like paper and plastic less recyclable.

Composting does take place in India at the municipal corporation level, but only 3 per cent of the organic matter is composted formally. Of this, most is not separated from debris and recyclable material, bringing down the effectiveness of compost. Since we don’t do source segregation, of the 3 per cent that is composted, only 7 per cent is actually converted to compost, a shockingly low 0.21 per cent of all waste generated. And this measly amount ends up being high in heavy metals, making it unusable for agriculture.

Thus, instead of generating nearly 40 million tonnes of compost that could go back to our farms and help feed us, we waste almost all of it. And by using up land to store this waste, we also use up scarce urban spaces. In landfills, waste either seeps into and contaminates the soil and groundwater; or gets burned and releases lethal toxins into the atmosphere. In Chennai alone, we have used up 550 acres of land to store garbage. The city corporation estimates that we will run out of space in just two years if something isn't done.

Preethi Sukumaran

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