The challenge of waste enrichment

Tanya Thomas | Updated on September 29, 2014

Mohammed Dawood at the vermicompost yard in MRC Nagar.

For start-ups, there’s money in the dust bin

Mohammed Dawood S, 27, slaps on his gloves and digs through layers of compost-in-the-making to show me his earthworms. They’re pleasantly plump and feasting on the collected decomposing organic waste of apartments and hotels in MRC Nagar, an affluent locality in south Chennai. Of course, he’s proud of the earthworms – he battled nearly every resident in the neighbourhood to put them there.

Dawood is Director – Business Development of two-year-old start-up Earth Recycler. One of his most interesting projects is a decentralised waste management experiment in MRC Nagar. Residents and business owners in the locality hand over their solid waste – segregated at source as organic, inorganic, sanitary and electronic – for which they are paid by the kilo.

The organic waste is taken to the recently finished vermicomposting yard. The yard is a miracle in itself. The waste is rested with dry leaves, sprinkled with bacterial culture and transferred to cemented tubs lined with soil and earthworms to start the composting process. The compost is ready in about a fortnight, and is sold to organic farmers. The yard is fenced in, to keep stray animals out, and the odour is barely discernible, a nice change from the landfills that surround the city. That last is a bit of relief, says Latha Suresh, secretary of the locality’s resident association. The people in MRC Nagar were afraid they would be creating a garbage monster when they agreed to Dawood’s proposal.Start-ups involved in waste management do anything, from collecting trash and organising ragpickers to treating sewage water and disposing old computers. Greenvironment, founded by Varun Sridharan, was incubated by IIT-Madras’ innovation fund.

Sridharan is a consultant on wastewater and solid waste management for large buyers – builders, commercial establishments, residential complexes. He also sells portable biogas units, which he piloted in Vadakara, north Kerala. A unit for a three-member family costs ₹13,500.

Buyer not on board

For both Dawood and Sridharan, convincing people to buy their waste management ideas is the toughest part. Even the most affluent would rather truck the waste to a landfill than pay for a biogas unit. What about a centralised biogas unit in each apartment complex? “Piping gas back into each flat is complicated. Besides, residents will argue about who contributes the most waste and who earns the right to more gas,” says Sridharan.

His plan is to “get inside each kitchen” and customise a unit for the urban family. Dawood anticipates that even this would be difficult to sell. “People spend crores buying each apartment, so the value of each square foot is in lakhs. Not many are willing to use this space for a biogas unit.”

To perhaps avoid these problems, R Balaji, Managing Director of four-year-old Swayambhu Biologics, works with industries which are legally obliged to dispose of their waste responsibly.

Balaji, who has a lifetime of biochemical research and industry experience behind him, has patented technology to organically treat press mud and spent wash, residues from sugar mills and distilleries. Both contain dangerously high levels of carbon, and are nowadays combined with urea and sold to farmers as compost. Balaji’s team uses bacterial culture to naturally right the carbon-nitrogen ratio of the waste to create organic compost in just 14 days.

The company swears by the power of bacteria. Rekha Rajesh, the R&D Controller, got the microbes to treat the sewage water at her apartment complex, when she realised that their conventional treatment plant was a cash sinkhole.

Balaji believes in ‘research and delivery’ – creating solutions that can immediately be scaled to commercial sizes. “It’s no longer about waste disposal,” he says. “The challenge instead should be waste enrichment.”

Published on September 29, 2014

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