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Oct 27, 2010

Source Separation - Case Study of a town Suryapet

Solid waste which is source separated can be easily handled as the separated waste streams can be directed to their respective treatment facilities like composting, recycling or waste to energy. However, source separation is not natural in the present day urban lifestyles; it requires effort. Success of source separation depends on education and environmental awareness among public, but these are not the sufficient conditions. Requirements for source separation and the probable causes for its failure in most cases can be understood with case studies, one such is the study of a town called Suryapet. I visited this town in South India as part of research for sustainable solutions to wastes in India; I selected this town because it was cited in numerous government and individual research reports for its successful composting practices. 

Suryapet generates 40 TPD of MSW, which is handled at a composting facility outside the town, employing 11 people (including waste collection workers) and operating year long with one or two employees short at times. Majority of the MSW is collected separately as recyclables and organics from individual households but, a minor fraction is also picked up from dumps as mixed waste. The MSW collected is dumped near the facility and leveled by a JCB machine and employs one employee for this job. Material recovery is carried by four employees who search the leveled MSW for paper and plastics (from the mixed waste). A separate room is allocated to classify the recyclables and bale them manually based on the classification. The baled material is sold to a nearby recycling company at a cost of INR 3500 ($ 74) per ton of plastics and INR 2500 ($ 53) per ton of paper. The remaining material is majorly organic, which is then spread out in rows under shade and regularly watered to keep the rows wet and suitable for vermi-composting. Vermi-composting is carried out by preparing a fresh row of organic matter every week, which until then is spread out in the Sun to avoid odors. In contrast to my experiences with wastes in India and elsewhere, this composting facility was absolutely devoid of odors because of everyday processing of MSW.

Observations related to source separation were made later while speaking to the town’s Municipal Commissioner and waste collection workers. It was interesting to know the household collection of separated waste was happening only in the lower income communities and all the dumps with mixed wastes existed only along higher income communities. This situation did not change even after repeated requests to these communities by the town’s Municipal Office. Separation of wastes did happen in these communities but in single digit instances where that work was carried out by maids/workers in those houses who hand over refuse to the waste collection truck implying a natural aversion to waste related matters in these high income communities.

From this case study, I could understand the need for extensive public awareness and a model of incentive to encourage source separation. Such models are readily available in India and have been at work for decades in Indian cities. The kabariwalas pay the home owner for giving him/her the waste. In a business perspective, he/she buys waste from the waste generator and thus it is in the interest of the waste generator to separate what could be sold (maintain quality of product). This model can be applied to waste collection as a whole as is applied by RecycleBank in US. Such self sustainable models will be very effective in the lower middle class and lower class communities. In order to make source separation a responsibility rather than only a business, public needs to be made aware of the direct/indirect benefits of source separation to the nation, to the world and in turn to themselves. However, since building such models and public awareness take time, waste management technologies like large scale biomethanation which require high quality source separated organic fraction should not be opted for in the near future. Until source separation becomes a habit rather than an anomaly, technologies which can handle mixed wastes or high impurity wastes should be opted. Examples include mechanical biological treatment, composting, RDF fluff/pelletization, gasification, pyrolysis and WTE incineration. Since the only criterion discussed in this post is source separation, before opting these technologies, they should be compared based on other important criteria like public health impact, environmental impact and economical assessment too.


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CH4 Methane
Carbon Dioxide
Government of India
INR Indian Rupee
JnNURM Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission
LFG Landfill Gas
Mechanical Biological Treatment
MSW Municipal Solid Waste
NEERI National Environmental Engineering Research Institute
Refuse Derived Fuel
SLF Sanitary Landfill
SWM Solid Waste Management
USD United States Dollar
WPs Waste Pickers
WTE Waste-to-Energy
WTERT Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council