Did you know that Alappuzha or Alleppey, a coastal town in Kerala that is known for its backwaters and houseboats, has no landfills? There was just one landfill, and that has been closed.
And naturally, the astounding question to be asked is: “How do they manage their waste?”
“Segregation of waste at source” seems to be encoded in the Alappuzha’s DNA. Residents have bio-composters installed in their backywards, and that takes care of bio-degredable waste. Non-biodegredable is recycled by waste collectors.
The Alappuzha model, in practice for nearly six years now, has received accolades from many environmental groups, and these include heavyweights such as the United Nations Environment Programme.
This decentralised method of waste management seems to be just what cities where dumping grounds are running out of space should adopt without a moment’s hesitation.
This first sign of this unique way of waste management was noticed in 2012, when residents of a particular ward started resisting trucks coming to the dump site near Sarvodayapuram. The resistance was so stiff that the authorities had no choice other than to ask every household to manage their waste on their own.
“We started with one ward where residents were given the choice of using aerobic composting bins or biogas composting to process waste on their own. For those who had no space to compost, the municipality set up aerobic composting facilities at strategic points,” says M. Gopakumar, who co-authored a book with Kerala minister T.M. Thomas Isaac on Alappuzha’s solid waste management journey.
After six months, it was extended to another ward, slowly all the 52 wards with a total population of 1.7 lakh people were covered.
Experts who have been part of this movement say the approach faced many setbacks but it worked over a period of time as people were desperate to find a solution to the garbage problem.
“The push came from the people, they were fed up with the smell emanating from dumping grounds and the pollution it was causing. The biggest success is that the campaigns helped in bringing about a change in the mindset of the people on managing their waste,” says P.V. Joseph, an executive committee member of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a group that campaigned and helped set up biogas plants.
The campaigns ran for nearly two years to bring about a change in people’s mindset. Clubs were set up in schools to ensure the message was taken home. Incentives were given to school students who collected dry waste from their localities.
From households, the programme was extended to commercial complexes and markets. They were penalised if they did not dispose of waste in a scientific manner.
Gopakumar says by being economical and efficient, the decentralised approach contrasted sharply with centralised approach.
“Community biogas plants were set up for five to 10 household to use, but it failed as nobody wanted to take the responsibility of managing it. People found it better to invest in a bio-composter in their backyard,” says Gopakumar. Initially, the government did not offer any subsidy. Later, subsidies were offered to encourage every household to have one.
Today, the municipality has set up 30 aerobic composting units (also known as composting sheds) in various parts of the city. These are used by families who do not have the space to compost bio-degradeable waste in their backyard. More than 1500 household use biogas plants and 10,000 use bio composters. A bio bin unit costs about ₹ 1,800 and after subsidy it comes at a price of ₹180, says a health inspector.
“There are 38 collection points in the municipality for dry waste collection,” says Joseph.