Alappuzha in Kerala is one among five cities across the globe that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recognised last year for their sustainable waste management practices. Often referred to as the Venice of Kerala, Alappuzha produces around 58 tonnes of solid waste per day. Today, five years after launching the Nirmala Bhavanam Nirmala Nagaram (‘Clean Homes Clean City’) initiative, the city boasts of clean streets, as all the organic waste is processed either in people’s backyards or at the 70 community composting centres spread across 23 municipal wards.
“There was no choice, there was no option. The dumping yard was in my constituency in Sarvodayapuram,” says T.M. Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, who spearheaded the movement. “The waste was being transported to the area and the town had become littered with garbage. The challenge was to remove the dumping yard and also clean up the city. It was difficult to handle centralised waste management, so the only option was to tackle the waste at the source—in the household or the neighbourhood.”
Isaac recalls that it took two years of door-to-door campaigning to impress on people that they could either undertake composting in their backyard or bring it to one of the community centres. “My simple question was: where do you process your latrine waste? If you can do that in your homes why not your kitchen waste? We offered all help for composting at home and also the option of bringing the segregated waste to the community centres,” says Isaac. “Now nothing is going to the landfill. There has been a lifestyle change among the people. We have been using the agency of children to bring about the desired change and support for the green campaign.”
Looking beyond the organic waste, the community composting centres in Alappuzha also accept inorganic waste, which is segregated before being sent off for recycling at authorised centres. The simple mantra is “you create waste, so you manage your waste”. Nobody goes to collect waste from households or establishments. Instead, the waste generator has been given the onus of bringing the waste to the community centres, which produces manure through composting as well as biogas. In fact, through an attractive subsidy, households are being encouraged to invest in plants to generate biogas in their backyard for use as cooking fuel.
To push his goal of sustainable waste management, Isaac has been known to take the help of artists to jazz up composting centres, and he is also promoting wayside restaurants which work on the zero-waste model, with water and waste recycling systems in place, to grow their own vegetables.
Come May, Alappuzha is set to embark on another major project to clean up the grey-and-black polluted water flowing into over 100 small canals that have become virtual drains. For this effort, an army of youngsters studying hydro-technology at premier institutions in India are being invited to come and present solutions. The plan is to use both aerobic and anaerobic systems. The effort will be to map all the canals, spot all hotspots of pollution and have localised treatment to ensure only clean water flows into the main canal after passing through wetland systems; this will involve growing plants and weeds to create elaborate floating gardens. So, besides a solid waste treatment system, Alappuzha hopes to have a robust water treatment system in place before the onset of the monsoon in June.