Can Decentralized Composting be a Solution to India’s Waste Crisis?

By Fengxing Chen

“The dump killed my son,” Rammurti said.

Rammurti’s son and another person died when a mountain of trash broke away from the mass during the monsoon rains. The trash crashed into a nearby canal, creating a sewage surge that flung motorcyclists into another canal filled with dirty water. Before this tragedy, Rammurti and her neighbors had been suffering from a 17-story-high mountain of trash half a mile from her home.

Ragpickers at the Bhalswa landfill site on April 28, 2022, in New Delhi, India. Photo credit: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Due to lack of policies, infrastructures, technologies, and the common awareness of the residents, there have been many challenges in India for years in waste management. According to a 2014 Planning Commission report, India generates 62 million tonnes of waste annually. Furthermore, about 43 million tonnes (70%) are collected, of which about 31 million tonnes are dumped at landfill sites.

Ways of waste disposal in India have caused a tremendous amount of waste to be unthoroughly and improperly disposed of, leading to further environmental deterioration. Open dumps cause degradation of the environment, such as air pollution, groundwater and surface water pollution, soil pollution, and a decrease in vegetation abundance. “The water we use is pale red in color. My skin burns after bathing,” Jwala Prashad said, who lives in a small hut near the Bhalswa landfill site. The over 62 meters high pile of putrid trash had made his life “a living hell.”

Methods like open dumping and landfill are inefficient, which can aggravate the waste management crisis in India. The key method of solving the garbage problem is to extract values from waste, so the Indian government has proposed a series of policies to improve waste management. One of the most important policies is introducing garbage segregation and decentralized composting.

A ground water sample from the Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi. Photo credit: Vedika Sud/CNN

Garbage segregation & decentralized composting

In 2016, India implemented Solid Waste Management (SWM).

There are some major highlights of SWM. The first is to segregate the waste at the source. Waste generators need to separate their waste following three streams: Biodegradables, Dry (Plastic, Paper, Metal, Wood, etc.) and Domestic Hazardous waste (diapers, napkins, mosquito repellants, cleaning agents, etc.).

Another rule is about waste processing and treatment. After waste segregation, recyclable waste is further distributed into different categories and transported to corresponding manufactories. The remaining dry waste is then disposed of in the proper landfill areas or burnt. The biodegradable waste is advised to be treated through composting or bio-methanation.

Collecting water bottles. Photo credit: Ashim Kumar Mukhopadh/ Action P

The implementation of SWM is crucial because it enables waste to be segregated into different categories, which is the base for the promotion of decentralized composting.

In the last two decades, the Indian government has been optimistic about composting. For instance, in the document of the Waste Management Act 2000, composting was stipulated as an option for organic waste treatment. Besides, in 2016, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers announced the Policy on Promotion of City Compost. Under the policy, the assistance of Rs 15,00 (about $18) per tonne of city compost will be provided to fertilizer companies for marketing and promotion of city compost. The advertisement ‘Compost Banao, Compost Apnao’ (Make compost, use compost) also gained lots of popularity at that time.

Decentralized composting refers to diverting and composting biowaste on a small scale. It typically takes place in communities, schools, villages, districts, etc. In areas that lack centralized composting facilities, decentralized composting can be an alternative choice.

Decentralized composting is recommended because its process is narrowed down to household or community units, which is more efficient and easier to manage. In Gurugram, the local Resident Welfare Association implemented community composting. These composting facilities are small and situated inside the premises of societies. Despite the small scale, the biowaste processed by these composting plants accounts for almost 50% of the total waste arising from all households.

“Decentralized waste management has the same benefits that we get when we choose to cook our food at home or go to a nearby restaurant instead of relying on a single community kitchen in the city,” said Rahul Khera. “If the community kitchen is dysfunctional on any day, the entire city doesn’t have to go hungry!” Rahul Khera and his team have executed over 20 decentralized waste management projects in Gurugram.

Decentralized composting facility in Gurugram. Photo credit: Balancing Bits

Because of the convenience of decentralized composting, it has been widely used throughout the counties and cities of India. 

The current status of the decentralized composting application

Monisha Narke is one of the residents of Fortune Heights in the city of Mahim, India, and she launched decentralized composting in the building.

In fact, she firstly managed the waste produced at home for her family of six, but she found out that family composting could not process all the organic waste her family produced. Therefore, she suggested setting up the community composting facilities for her building, which consisting of 25 apartments.

By collecting the entire building’s biodegradable waste, the building achieves a 90% reduction in their waste going to the landfill. The compost generated by the building is primarily consumed by the garden and by some of the residents who have plants at home. This project initiated by Monisha has worked so well that it not only nurtures plants and seasonal vegetables but also offers kids chances to comprehend the link between nature and their day-to-day lives. 

Monica Narke. Photo credit: The Better India

Another city that also benefits from the application of decentralized composting is Mysuru. The city generates around 450 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, of which 40–60 percent is organic. To ensure kitchen waste can be converted into compost for farming, Mysuru encourages decentralized waste management systems and composting at the household level.

The Mysuru government also cooperates with local NGOs to promote composting. Stree Shakti, a women’s organization, has helped introduce the idea of waste segregation and decentralized composting to local residents by distributing brochures door to door.

Because of the localized approach and cooperation from various forces, Mysuru can manage its city waste successfully and minimize the pollution brought by landfills and open dumps.

Decentralized composting has been widely used because it is cost-efficient and provides opportunities for environmental education and jobs.

First of all, decentralized composting is relatively cheap. The Defence Colony (one of the poshest residential areas) in Delhi uses pit composting to process and compost kitchen waste. This procedure only needs a 30 m2 area and costs 7,0000 Rupees (about $857.82). Moreover, in contrast to central composting, transportation costs for decentralized composting are relatively low because the participants simply gather all the organic waste after the waste segregation and place them in the compost bins, which are usually not far away from the participants.

Secondly, decentralized composting also encourages environmental education. Sulochnadevi Singhania High School students have been segregating wet and dry waste and composting the waste in composting bins. “We already have a system of wet and dry waste bins in our school. I believe that students will understand the concept and its functioning only if they are completely involved in it,” said Revathi Srinivasan, the principal of Sulochnadevi Singhania High School.

Children are having a composting workshop. Photo credit: The Better India

Furthermore, decentralized composting creates employment in the neighborhood. For instance, in Karnataka, it is estimated that solid waste practices (such as dry waste collection for secondary segregation of waste and decentralized micro composting) can generate more than 300 jobs per year in a city municipal corporation.

Challenges in decentralized composting

Decentralized composting is facing some obstacles in propagating, and it is important to understand and address these barriers.

Firstly, attracting the public to participate in waste segregation and composting is challenging.

“A few people are still not cooperative,” said Aliva Das, treasurer of SRM Apartments in Delhi.

Delhi is one of the cities that has implemented decentralized composting. Although the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has declared 56 residential neighborhoods as “zero waste colonies,” City News revealed that many listed societies were still struggling with managing and segregating household and park waste.

Dumping kitchen waste. Photo credit:

Composting is tightly bonded to waste segregation at the source. Without properly segregating solid waste, it would be difficult to collect the organic waste that can be used for composting. However, there are still people who are unaware of waste segregation and are not cooperating with segregating waste at the source. According to data from a survey of 400 households about their attitudes toward solid waste management in Karnataka, about 85% of respondents were unaware of solid waste generation and 85.5% had no information about waste management. Only 3.0% of respondents knew that waste could be reused as a resource. It has been proven that participation in composting is positively correlated with participation in segregation at the source. This is because separating biodegradables from the remaining solid waste makes it easier to decompose biodegradable waste.

Packaged city compost at IL&FS plant, Mysuru. Photo credit: Swati Singh Sambyal/CSE

Another challenge is that the composting product’s market has obstructed the propagation of decentralized composting. According to the Indian government’s policy on Promotion of City Compost, fertilizer companies can be assisted with Market Development Assistance (MDA) funds to create a market for farmers to use city compost. A subsidy of Rs 1,500 per tonne of city compost is planned to be provided to fertilizer companies, which can make it cheaper for farmers to buy composting products.

However, this scheme seems to have failed with little progress. The money allocated for the MDA subsidy is relatively small, so it could not meet the policy requirements. Also, the process of claiming MDA is so tedious that most manufacturers and fertilizer companies have not received any payment under it.

Additionally, city compost did not become a popular option for consumers since there are no direct incentives to them, and a lack of related education programs among them.

In spite of the challenges, there are many individuals and organizations are trying to engage more people in decentralized composting. Poonam Bir Kasturi is an industrial designer, social entrepreneur, and the founder of an eco-friendly online store “Daily Dump,” and she has designed an easy and versatile home composter called “Terrabite”. It is made of HDPE recyclable UV-resistant plastic, which makes it lightweight. It also has room for a lot of aeration for composting.

Poonam with Terrabite, a home composter. Photo credits: Poonam Bir Kasturi

With the cooperation of all forces, more and more people can realize the value of composting in the future.

“While many are often under the impression that it is the authorities’ job to see to the cleaning, Daily Dump offers citizens a chance to be self-driven composters and make composting a cool activity rather than a chore,” Poonam says. “The younger generation is getting more aware, and composting will only fuel this awareness in the right direction.”



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