Decentralized Waste Management Targeted at the Urban Poor

May 20th, 201312:00 pm @



Increase in consumerism, rapid urbanization and greater population densities have resulted in high proportions of waste being generated in Asian cities. Dhaka alone generates about 5800 tons per day of waste. Bangalore, which generates 3500 tons of waste per day, hosts close to 10 million citizens – more than double the population that it had about eight years back. While population and therefore, waste generation, has increased, there has been no change in the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, or the Bangalore Municipal Corporation’s (BBMP) strategy for waste management.

The city follows a centralized waste management model, which essentially involves a single agency collecting and transporting waste to a designated landfill. “There is neither institutional arrangement nor legal provisions to enforce segregation across all waste generators. And the tenders for waste, which have not been renewed for five years, purely focus on collection and transportation and do not incentivize segregation. There needs to be a concerted effort across the value chain to ensure segregation. Otherwise, all the waste will continue to be dumped in landfills at Mandur and Mavelipura” says Rathish Balakrishnan, Director of Sattva. In the centralized model of waste management, slum and other low income areas invariably get ignored.

Most waste in urban India moves to landfills, and when one location is filled to capacity, a new landfill site is identified to repeat the process. Experts, however, feel that the ‘landfill’ based approach is not sustainable in the long run, particularly since soaring land prices in cities ensure that new landfills are further away from the older ones.

Bangalore had its own share of problem with landfills. During August 2012, the city’s landfill at Mandur stopped receiving 3500 tons per day of waste due to public interest litigation (PIL) in court against it by Environment Support Group (ESG) and other residents. As a result, the city spilled over with waste. There was no dumping area available and vehicles carrying waste were grounded. Bangalore was re-christened as India’s “garbage” city – a definite drop from its position as the country’s “garden” city. The court eventually came up with clear directions for managing waste in the city. It has made segregation of waste mandatory at source and directed setting up of a minimum of three Segregation and Wet Waste Processing Stations in each of its 198 wards (division within city). The court also emphasized the importance of decentralized waste management and announced, “We think that decentralization in the system of solid waste management would lend efficacy and prevent bottlenecks impacting the entire city at a given point of time.”

Decentralized Solutions for Waste Management

The zero waste generation model is being seen by experts as a sustainable long term solution. This model will remove the need for landfills, which are at best seen as temporary solution and also save on transportation cost. Post the Bangalore crisis, a citizen’s initiative called Wake up Clean up (WUCU) was set up, led by a citizen, Kalpana Kar. “Designed as a 7-day event, WUCU brought various stakeholders together demonstrating the willingness of civil society in partnership with Government and industry to collaborate to put together systems and processes that will deliver a clean city”, says Kalpana Kar. It is seen as a step towards finding a sustainable and scalable solution for the waste situation, not only for Bangalore but also other cities in India. Decentralized infrastructure for waste management at a ward level – having facilities for segregation of waste and composting facility for treating organic waste, is one of the solutions suggested by WUCU.

Decentralized waste management systems help in providing focused waste collection and recycling services to low income areas, particularly slum communities. They also employ people from same community like informal recyclers and waste pickers, many of them being migrants from rural areas, thus helping in improving their livelihoods. Although this community plays an important role in the waste management chain, their efforts are seldom recognized by the other stakeholders. Importantly, the decentralized approach could help in changing the mindset of people towards waste management, and engender a move away from the “Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) mindset to embrace a more responsible and sustainable solution of waste management.

Although there is in-theory acceptance of the efficacy of the decentralized model, most households in India still hesitate to treat waste in their backyards.  In the urban poor communities, the situation is worse, as slums are illegal and given the density of population, difficult to navigate for waste collection agents. Further, these communities are not perceived as being able or willing to pay for the services. Despite these challenges to their adoption, various organizations have not only come up with innovative solutions to waste management but also helped communities to earn incomes, get recognition for the role they play in managing the city’s waste and obtain basic rights and entitlements.  Interestingly, several of these programs seek to create value from the waste, adding to the model’s sustainability.

“Trash to Treasure” in Bangalore, India

CHF International, a not-for-profit organization partnered with Centre for Social Action (CSA) of Christ University, Bangalore and the Caterpillar Foundation to launch the “Trash to Treasure” program in 2008. It established a recycling center run by women to provide waste collection service to 1,300 slum households and 1,500 low income non-slum households in Rajendra Nagar and Ambedkar Nagar, Bangalore. This initiative not only introduced a valuable service that the slum community did not previously have, but also offered a livelihood program for some community members.

Ms K. Latha, Program officer, CHF says, “we faced initial challenges – to begin with, all houses had to be mapped in the area as there was no data given that the local municipal body (BBMP) had not included this area under its regular waste management program.” Another challenge pertained to the collection of a monthly fee for the service INR 10 – 15 (US$ 0.18 – 0.27) per household. The popular belief was that the local government should collect garbage free of cost. Despite this, CHF managed a conversion of 70% of residents who agreed to pay the monthly fee. The others chose to simply throw the garbage in a nearby drain.

Their waste management model was simple. CHF employed about 8 women waste pickers to collect waste door-to-door from 2800 households in Rajendra Nagar and Ambedkar Nagar. The waste was segregated at source and brought to the waste management facility. The recyclable waste was sold to various recyclers and the wet waste was taken for composting. CHF says that white paper fetched INR 11/Kg (US$ 0.2), Metal Cans and PET Bottles fetched a higher price – INR 70/Kg (US$ 1.27) and INR 26.50 (US$ 0.48) respectively. Organic waste of about 1000 kg of food waste per month was composted, yielding about 300 kgs of compost (after 3-4 weeks of composting). This earned CHF INR 900 (US$ 16) per month. The waste pickers earned over INR 110 per day (US$ 2), enjoyed better working conditions and a life of dignity.

The model’s simplicity made it successful. BBMP now included Rajendra Nagar and Ambedkar Nagar in their tender for waste collection. CHF then decided to hand over the treatment center to a local entrepreneur from within the community. This center is yet to break even with income of INR 35,000 per month (US$ 630) from sale of recyclables and expenditure of INR 56,500 per month (US$ 1,025). The entrepreneur has now extended the services to nearby apartments and higher income areas as well, in a bid to ensure that the venture becomes self-sustainable. BBMP decided to open four more centres collaborating with NGOs during 2011 and now wants similar centers in all 198 wards.

“Waste to Wealth” – The Vellore temple project, India

Vellore is a small city about 150 kms from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It is home to the Golden Temple, popularly known as ”Narayani Peedam”, located in a 100 acre campus. The temple attracts around 5000 tourists daily, who generate about 2 tons of waste per day. Faced with waste management challenges, the temple authorities adopted a comprehensive decentralized solid waste management plan.

Exnora International is an NGO focusing on environmental services. Dr. MB Nirmal, Founder of Exnora says, “The Golden Temple of Vellore is one of the best models for green and environmentally friendly campuses, and can be followed in other cities as well.”

All recyclable waste is collected daily by women workers called “Temple Beautifiers”, and brought to a Waste Processing Facility (WPF) within the temple campus. This facility employs about 150 workers, most of them women. The recyclable waste is sorted, dried, processed and segregated (upto grade level) into 45 different varieties, before it is packed and sold. The effort of sorting and processing is significant – for instance the milk sachets are cleaned before packaging to eliminate odor, and PET bottles are crushed and shredded before packing. The bio-degradable waste is taken to composting centre to be converted into organic manure through vermin composting process. The temple earns about INR 100,000 (US$ 1,800) per month from the sale of recyclables and manure. The natural manure is used for enhancing the green cover in the campus, while segregated fruit and vegetable peel are also used for making cleaning power. The temple’s zero waste management model has become so popular that communities from neighboring areas have expressed an interest in replicating it in their locality.

“Cash for Trash” – The Dhaka Experience

Waste Concern, an NGO dealing specifically with solid waste management, was started by two young urban planners Iftekhar Enayetullah and Maqsood Sinha during mid-1990s. Dhaka generated 5800 tons per day of solid waste, 80% of which was organic waste suitable for composting – this translated to about 1200 truck-loads.

Waste Concern’s approach was to see waste as a resource rather than a problem. Their strategy was to establish a network of community-based composting plants, which would convert household organic waste into bio-fertilizer, and provide jobs for poor people, especially women.

Waste Concern started a pilot composting plant in Mirpur, Dhaka during 1995, including several slum and squatter settlements including one at Bashantek slum. Utilizing the existing network of waste pickers and simple technology, Waste Concern was able to demonstrate the benefits of a community-based approach. It paid residents about US$ 75 per ton of waste collected. Apart from earning money from waste, incidents of disease drastically reduced and living conditions in the slum improved. Prior to the project, the slum reported high prevalence of diarrhea and cholera, particularly during the summer.

The success of the Mirpur pilot project convinced all stakeholders that the model was workable. In 1998, with support from UNDP, Waste Concern replicated this model in four other poor communities around Dhaka. Today, Waste Concern is treating nearly 200 tons of garbage a day at six different locations in and around Dhaka.


The urban poor including slum dwellers and low income residents, informal recyclers, and waste pickers are a neglected lot, even in government programs. Waste is also not seen as income opportunity. Decentralized waste program brings in several advantages. Slums and low income areas can be covered more efficiently in decentralized programs.

A common theme emerging from the three examples of successful community-led waste management program is that waste should not be seen as a problem, but as a resource with the potential to earn money. This could be the one way to change the NIMBY mindset of people. The earning can also be shared among employees, who are typically people from bottom of pyramid.

Decentralized systems provide better working conditions and an identity to these workers. Some of them could also go on to become social entrepreneurs. This system also helps keep slums/low income areas clean and thereby reducing instance of disease. Replicating the decentralized model and scaling up these units to cover an entire city would go a long way to resolve the endemic waste challenges across various cities.

Sources for Trash.pdf _WC.pdf