When we start romanticising a solution that had been engineered under desperate conditions to solve a stubborn problem, there is always the dangerous possibility that may take our eyes off the problem, as also the factors that caused it (the problem) in the first place. This would be a particularly unfortunate situation to have, if the problem was largely avoidable in the first place.
It doesnt matter that the solution had been commendably administered, and can be recommended for similar situations. If this problem could have been avoided, the larger focus should be on how we boxed ourselves into a corner where we had to spend heavily on implementing an elaborate solution. Only then should we allow ourselves to celebrate this solution.
The cost element
There may be a lot in the bio-capping of the Gorai dump site in Mumbai that can be celebrated. It may particularly appeal to residents of Chennai, as the Gorai dump site is situated in a bio-diversity hotspot, which includes the Gorai Creek with its mangroves. In Chennai, there is a landfill parked in a marsh.
Beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal of the exercise a green mop-top of vegetation adorning the capped dump site there are those extremely significant benefits to be counted, which include reduced methane gas generation. It is also said that the mangroves in the Gorai creek have improved following the bio-capping exercise, carried out between 2007 and 2009.
Kurian Joseph, professor, Centre of Environmental Studies, Anna University, points out that there is a huge cost element attached to dealing with legacy waste, waste that has accumulated over decades.
There are two ways to deal with the problem. One, bio-capping. The dump site would be scientifically sealed, and the waste would remain there; but environmental hazard would be minimised. The other one is bio-mining. The waste at the dump site is first stabilised, if it is not already stabilised. And then through an engineering process, the waste is separated. There are three fractions to the waste: A fine fraction of the waste is what is called bio-earth: It will be like compost. A major fraction constitutes refuse-derived fuel (plastics, clothes and rubber tyres) that will be sent to cement factories. And another fraction is made up of coarse soil which can be used for filling low-lying areas, or in the same place. There is a huge cost attached to these processes. Bio-capping is carried out at large dump sites whose size and quantum of waste may pose a challenge to any bio-mining exercise. Bio-capping can appear like an ideal solution, especially because the dump site now resembles a mammoth hill capped with greenery. But bio-capped dump sites have to be monitored for decades. There is usually a huge operational cost involved in it, explains Prof. Joseph.
In the decades to come, the Gorai dump site will have to be monitored and there is no telling how many.
So, the solution offered by those engaged in dump site re-engineering and waste-management planning is this: If you dont want to see land fills stop creating them, deal with waste on an everyday basis when it is just a manageable molehill.
Towards this end, Prof. Joseph recommends promoting the philosophy of micro-composting among residents.
By establishing a micro-composting unit on every street, an opportunity is being provided to residents to be more acquainted with waste management processes. It would also send out a signal to residents that they have to take greater responsibility of the waste they are generating. MCUs divides the waste that may otherwise go to a dump site and turns them into manageable bits. The benefits are many. The cost in transporting the waste is reduced. It creates livelihood for people, if those engaged in the work get to take the compost in addition to a compensation, says Prof. Joseph.
The same logic applies to material recovery facilities, which deal with dry waste and recyclables.
Residents cooperation is required. It begins with the establishment of a micro-composting unit. Residents should not object to a micro-composting unit being set up in their neighbourhood/ road. And they should also be willing to pay for waste management, says Prof. Joseph.
Focussing on the other side of the spectrum, he points out that institutional mechanisms should be in place.
Local bodies are often plagued by manpower shortage and lack of technical expertise. A municipal engineer is usually doing a raft of things, and waste management will be one of them. At least in big corporations and municipalities, there should a dedicated and educated team of personnel who would exclusively focus on waste management, says Prof. Joseph adding that there is scope for capacity building. Composting is as much as a craft as it is a science, and those engaged in it should bring a passion to it, as to any other profession, he adds.
A cyclical process?
Shibu Nair, India coordinator for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, cautions against an inertia that would allow dump sites to grow to monstrous proportions and then waking up to the danger and dealing with it.
The issue of dealing with legacy waste is essentially about facing the reality that resources have been mismanaged. We have to first begin with this realisation. There is no fool-proof way to deal with mixed waste at a dump site. It is a toxic cocktail. Most of the time, measures to deal with legacy waste signify a huge compromise. To give an example, selectively taking care of bio-degradable waste aerobic composting technique in a closed landfill will only be less-than-perfect. The dump will be rearranged to ensure aeration. What is obtained is taken for compost, but it is actually not the kind of compost we would want to use in our garden. It will contain toxic elements, and comes with the risk of bio-magnification. However, as a waste manager, I may even settle for a similar method, and deal with a dump site as a one-off exercise, provided I would know that people would mend their ways and work towards not creating dump sites in the first place. If people are going to repeat the same mistakes, the exercise doesnt serve any purpose. One would be going through it ad infinitum it would be meaningless, explains Shibu. That is certainly something to ponder over.