Garbage to gold - An insight into the organic waste landscape in Chennai

Managing organic waste has always been one of the biggest obstacles to reducing the frightening mountains of waste going into landfills every day.

With the staggering quantities of food consumed daily by Chennai’s 8.6 million,  organic waste is by far the largest contributor - over 45%. When compared with recyclable waste, the percentage of organic waste that is being kept out of landfills is sadly, negligible. Slowly, people are waking up to the illuminating fact that managing recyclable waste is relatively easy! All it involves is segregation and storage and it can easily be sold to kabadiwallas. Taking a step back, most householders already know that recyclables can be sold to kabadiwallas . But that itself hasn’t reached anywhere near its full potential, and is the motive behind our work. With regard to organic waste, it is the lack of knowledge about how exactly it can be managed that poses a big challenge.

Deciding to first educate ourselves, we started in-depth research into the organic waste landscape in Chennai a few months ago. What has emerged is a clear picture of all the methods, materials and product manufacturers involved in managing wet waste. During the several community meetings we have had till date, this has been people’s biggest concern, and the one question we found most difficult to answer. How best do we manage organic waste? There is no single solution. Or rather, there are several, and to arrive at the optimal method involves considering not just which system to employ, but also the capability of the targeted group of people to manage that system.

In this blog post we hope to remove many of the misconceptions about organic waste management. We will look at the ways in which organic waste can be managed, the products and services available to help you do so, and the challenges you may face with each method.  We will also look at the landscape in Chennai, describing the various interventions we have come across during our field visits.

What constitutes organic waste?

Organic waste is mostly comprised of kitchen waste i.e, food scraps. This includes vegetable and fruit peels, leftover cooked and spoiled food, as well as tea bags and coffee grounds. Even soiled napkins and small shreds of paper (non-glossy) can be collected along with other wet waste. It may also include garden waste if you have a garden. This will consist of twigs, dry leaves, dead flowers etc.

How can we manage organic waste?

There are two commonly accepted ways in which organic waste can be converted into a useful resource - composting and biogas. Let me add a small note on a third and very simple option which is commonly overlooked, and that is to feed animals! Bones and meat scraps can be used to feed dogs, and vegetable waste can be used to feed cows, something already being done by animal lovers, street dwellers and vendors, and some community based organisations. 

We already spoke about composting in our blog post on segregation but we will go into more detail in this post. To refresh your memory, composting is a biological process by which microorganisms feed on organic matter, breaking it down into a nutrient rich substance which can be added to soil to make it more fertile and resistant. It is dark, crumbly and has an earthy smell. HIgh in nutrients, it increases soil stability and resistance. This is how organic waste breaks down in nature. When it is landfilled however, it rots and releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times stronger than CO2. Rotting food waste also attracts pests and disease vectors posing a serious threat to communities living around landfills.

Biogas is a gas generated by specially designed units which break down organic waste anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen). This is the same thing that happens in landfills, except that in a biogas unit, the gas is harnessed and used as fuel instead of being allowed to escape into the atmosphere. It can replace LPG as a cooking source, or it can be converted into electricity to power various appliances depending on the capacity of the plant. There are a number of different manufacturers and technologies available, with new ones constantly entering the market.

Considering that compost is like gold to organic farmers, and what we perceive as putrid garbage from our kitchens can actually be used as a source of renewable energy, it is not hard to see how allowing organic waste to end up in landfills is a criminal waste of a valuable resource.

Composting:

What is the composting landscape in Chennai?

The composting landscape has grown considerably in the last ten years due to an increased awareness, largely among affluent households. The home composting market especially, has largely been targeted at this demographic. The composting landscape in Chennai is divided between home composting, institutional composting, and community based composting interventions.

While we don’t have a clear picture of the number of households doing composting, it is certainly a lot more than it was ten years ago. We can also assume that it is still a tiny percentage of the total population of Chennai. If this were not the case, we would have much less organic waste going into landfills every day.  

Home composting is being done either completely DIY  (people compost in old cement bins, buckets, old plastic tubs, terra cotta pots and pits dug in the ground), or using home composting products created to help those who are new to the idea (we describe the products in the next paragraph). The home composting market has seen the most growth when compared to other organic waste management interventions, due to a gradual increase in awareness among middle class households.

Institutional level composting is practiced by a handful of institutions such as KFI school, also known as ‘The School’, IIT Madras and a few others. The methods followed are usually very simple, either a pit in the ground or a concrete/cement bin. The greatest untapped potential lies with institutions, both from them starting their own composting, as well as the use of their space to allow for community composting.

Community composting is still in its fledgling stage and probably the most challenging, given that it needs all members of the community to be on board for the initiative to take off. We know of only two such initiatives at the moment. One community in MRC Nagar has a community pit which they pay a solid waste management company to manage. Another initiative spearheaded by a group of residents on Harrington Road has just come into fruition. They have secured some space at a burial ground near Loyola College to start composting all the organic waste from several households on Harrington Road, presumably households which have shown an interest when approached.

Composting Products:

We’ve spent a few months researching the different composting related products available on the market. There are now a much larger number of products and services than there were ten years ago. Products are essentially designed based on the size of the user group, ranging from small and medium to bulk generators. The most publicized vendors are the ones specifically targeting the small generator market, households in particular. Several industrial scale vendors exist as well but limit their publicity as they only target bulk generators. We contacted some of them to ask about their products. Earthurn concepts for example makes composters for bulk units but on request will provide for small units as well. They also distribute a high-tech rapid composter made by Urban Solutions India (Pune) which composts in 24 hrs.This seems to be another trend picking up with several of these products hitting the market. Some of the other vendors that we mention, provide products for small generators but also customize units for bulk generators. The options are unlimited and ultimately, you should choose a product best suited to your needs, and its ease of use.

Set of two 20 Ltr Smart Bins with 'Bio Bloom' microbial culture, by Greentechlife

Set of two 20 Ltr Smart Bins with 'Bio Bloom' microbial culture, by Greentechlife

  Rapid 24 Hr composter, by Urban Solutions India

 

Rapid 24 Hr composter, by Urban Solutions India

  Simple DIY composter made using pallet wood. image source: http://www.farmnwt.com/sites/default/files/compost.jpg

 

Simple DIY composter made using pallet wood. image source: http://www.farmnwt.com/sites/default/files/compost.jpg

The most popular and ideal products for individual households are small composters, often modified bins or terra cotta pots. Green Tech Life and  Daily Dump, both Bangalore based companies which now deliver to Chennai, offer small bin/pot type composters which are relatively easy to use. Green Rich Grow Labs, a Chennai based eco retailer and turnkey solution provider across the organic waste spectrum, also makes small and large sized composters. Apartments can opt for larger units going right up to 650 Litres, or even opt for customized units depending on their needs. Institutions can get units customized as well and are better served doing so, due to the much larger quantities generated. Customized units are offered by Green Rich Grow Labs, V5 organic, or Earth Recycler, all turnkey solution providers and eco-retailers.

Biogas:

Harnessing  gas from manure has been practiced for centuries in some form or the other. In rural India, anaerobic digesters that convert cattle manure into gas for cooking, are still heavily relied upon as a source of fuel. Now, several vendors have entered the market with more compact units that can fit on rooftops, more convenient for urban settlements.

Biogas Landscape in Chennai:

As is the case with composting, biogas users are divided into households, institutions and industries. Household user may jointly invest in a bigger ‘community unit’ which provides gas or power to several of them.

Where biogas is concerned, it seems to be the smaller units that are being used more successfully, at least from our field visits. Several households have invested in 0.5 to 1 cu m units and use them successfully on a daily basis for cooking. We visited one user in Vadapalani, who uses a 0.5 cu m unit. She collects waste from all the other flats in her apartment complex and feeds it into her digester. She says that she has no problems whatsoever and even claims that the food tastes better! Management is minimal, and there is a slurry output which when diluted is extremely nutrient rich for plants.

Locating institutional biogas users was a bit more difficult. We visited one unit used by one of the canteens in IIT madras. Here though, the reliance on biogas as a primary source of fuel was much less. The staff member interviewed said that the heat generated was only enough to boil water or cook rice, unlike in households, where the majority of cooking is done using biogas. We also visited another unit being used by one of the Amma canteens. Here as well, the reliance was less. The staff did not seem to know much about the specifications but claimed that the unit gave a total output of only half an hour of gas.

We weren’t able to find visit any industrial scale plants but we heard that success has eluded the users at this level, probably due to sourcing constraints, or problems with the quality of waste sourced. Still, we are unsure at this juncture and there may be several plants operating successfully.

Biogas Units:

We have spoken to several vendors and users alike. B-sustain and Eco Care technologies are two biogas plant manufacturers we spoke to. They make biogas units of capacities ranging from 0.5 cu m (cubic metres) to 6 cu m for households and apartments. They also make much larger units for bulk generators. The 0.5 cu m unit is 3 x 4 feet in dimension and can take up to 2 kgs of waste per day. The 6 cu m unit is 9 x 9 feet and take up to 40kgs of waste per day. 0.5 cu m of gas can be used to power a stove for approximately 1 hour, while the 6 cu m unit can power a stove for 12 hrs. They come with options to connect a stove/s or a biogas lamp/s. A 0.5 cu m biogas plant will cost you about Rs 18,000 while a 6 cu m unit will cost you about Rs 1.2 Lakhs.

 

0.5 cu m Unit with single stove

0.5 cu m Unit with single stove

Problems with biogas:

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before investing in a biogas plant. Firstly ensure that you are able to source enough waste for the capacity of the unit you are investing in. One household we visited had gotten all their neighbours to give them their waste to put in the plant, but the gas generated is enough only for that one household. It is best to consult the vendor to audit your waste generation and suggest an appropriate capacity.

The other thing is that biogas plants operate well only with ‘wet’ organic waste, i.e. food waste which has a high moisture content. ‘Dry’ organic waste such as garden trimmings (dry leaves and twigs) are not useful for generation of biogas. It is for this reason that composting may be a more viable option in many cases.

Urban Gardening:

As an area allied with organic waste management, we thought it prudent to talk about this a little. Indeed, to many, it is the most exciting part of home waste management. Urban gardening has picked up in a huge way in the last decade, due to a combination of people’s awareness with the need to connect with nature in an urban landscape. Several dedicated individuals have successfully created mini ecosystems at home, where their organic waste is used to create compost that is fed into an urban garden where vegetables are grown - effectively a closed loop system. The increasing enthusiasm has fostered the growth of the market and there are now a number of retailers in products that can help you set up an urban garden from scratch.

  Basic Grow kit from SK organic - Includes grow bags, Coco peat and seeds.

 

Basic Grow kit from SK organic - Includes grow bags, Coco peat and seeds.

  Plant Nutrients by V5 Organic

 

Plant Nutrients by V5 Organic

  Grow bags with shade netting - Terrace garden kit by SK Organic

 

Grow bags with shade netting - Terrace garden kit by SK Organic

In Chennai, the level of investment in products varies depending on the individual. Some people improvise a lot and source products minimally. For others, purchasing specialized products either helps feed their enthusiasm, or just simply makes gardening easier. Local nurseries are the oldest and still one of the best options for you to source organic products like fertilizer, seeds, vermicompost, plant nutrients, as well as a number of other tools and kits. There are more specialized retailers with e-commerce facilities as well, such as SK Organic, and v5 organic (whom we have already mentioned before) who make their own range of organic products, terrace garden kits, grow kits etc. You can also check out Trust Basket and Big Basket, e-commerce sites where organic products and gardening kits can be sourced.

Get Started:

With the sheer number of products and services on the market now, you don’t need to be daunted by the task of organic waste management any more. You can invest in a simple home composter and start composting right away. If you have a penchant for it, you can try your hand at vermicomposting and experiment with various sized setups. If you and your neighbours are willing to invest a little more, you can buy a biogas plant and save on LPG and even electricity costs in the long run. Finally, you can make use of your compost by setting up a fantastic home garden. You can start really small - even a single tomato plant in a pot. I guarantee you, you will find it hard not to get addicted once you have your first harvest. Possibly even way before that, when you see the seed germinate in as little as a day. After extensive research, interviews and field work, we have a list of resources where you can source virtually any product you need to start managing your organic waste. We have provided you with the list below. Start today to find out just how easy and addictive it is. Let’s all do our bit to send less waste into our landfills and lead richer lives as a result.

GreenTechLife - 'Smart Bin' Home composters and terrace garden units

Eco Pot - A simple grow pot cum composter

v5 organic - Vegetal interiors and gardening products

Daily Dump - Terra cotta home composters

Green Rich Grow Labs - Home composters, bulk composters, organic products, gardening kits, bio gas units, turnkey solutions (Website under development)

B-sustain - Small and large Biogas units

Earthurn concepts - Small and large composters (Rapid composter)

Eco Care technologies - Biogas units and waste shredding units ( We don’t recommend the shredders unless coupled with a biogas unit! )

SK Organic - Gardening kits, organic products for gardening

Trust Basket - Gardening kits, organic products for gardening

Banner image source: http://www.serendipityfood.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/ORGANIC-COMPOST.gif

-Written by Farhaad Khazvini