Residents must be educated about their role in mitigating Kochi’s legacy and the untreatable waste crisis

Kochi’s struggle with waste management is no secret. The city’s sole centralised waste treatment facility is drowning in legacy waste, a clear indicator that change towards decentralisation is essential. 

It is gradually underway, featuring initiatives such as mandatory waste separation, the introduction of bio-bins in one ward (Ravipuram), and the Kochi Municipal Corporation redirecting restaurant waste disposal to private agencies. Yet, the full transition remains incomplete.

Managing the ever-growing urban waste challenge is nearly solely reliant on the corporation, an impractical approach for any city. Kochi currently generates a staggering 326 tonnes of waste daily, yet only 250 tonnes undergo processing.

With the city producing 50-100 tonnes of plastic waste while the corporation can treat only 30 tonnes, a significant portion becomes legacy waste. The situation escalated after the Brahmapuram fire, leading to a halt in waste collection and a colossal accumulation of plastic waste reaching 2,850 tonnes. 

These numbers underscore the urgency for Kochi to overhaul its waste management systems and establish efficient, responsible and sustainable waste disposal solutions.

The cornerstone of a sustainable waste management system, in a time when waste production continually rises, lies in recognising the roles of key stakeholders, particularly private agencies. Several apartment complexes in Kochi have already realised the potential of private agencies in delivering effective waste management and treatment. These agencies offer comprehensive procedures for handling all waste categories, often left untreated in centralised facilities like Brahmapuram. 

Currently, around 20–25 private waste management agencies operate in and around Ernakulam, with 10 being empanelled under the Corporation. Companies like Northamps provide various products such as ring compost bins, biobins, commercial biogas plants and ‘bio pot units’ — innovative terracotta pots for the natural decomposition of biodegradable waste without odour or space concerns.

Some agencies specialise in e-waste, with dismantling facilities selling parts to hardware companies as raw materials. Their well-defined mechanisms efficiently recover waste, turning it into resources and profits, allowing for regular and effective collection. 

Other agencies go a step further by conducting awareness workshops to enhance residents’ knowledge and encourage active participation in decentralisation. The advantages of privatising waste collection are undeniable.

The study done as part of the CPPR Youth Leadership Fellowship among residents of Kadavanthra and Vaduthala areas revealed that apartment residents who engaged private agencies for waste management were more satisfied with the services compared to individual household residents relying on the corporation. This was mainly attributed to differences in the frequency and efficiency of waste collection. 

However, in both cases, a majority of the respondents expressed a willingness to pay a higher fee for an improved waste management system. It requires an increase in user fees (averaging Rs 100 higher than the corporation’s fees, which are Rs 150 per month), but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

In exchange for higher fees, citizens can play a crucial role in preventing incidents like the one at Brahmapuram by ensuring waste is correctly segregated, collected and disposed of with the assistance of private agencies working in conjunction with the corporation. 

Additionally, private agencies offer composting options for individual households, empowering those who prefer to manage their wet waste treatment independently. 

Together, the three major stakeholders in the city’s waste management — the private sector, the corporation and the people — possess the potential to transform waste disposal into a sustainable system.

However, these mechanisms are only as reliable as the residents’ adherence to the necessary guidelines at the source. Source segregation is often overlooked for its vital role in ensuring waste recyclability. Simple yet effective, it substantially reduces resource and manual labour expenditures on secondary segregation when practised correctly at the primary stage. 

In what is acclaimed as India’s cleanest city, Indore, robust implementation of source segregation through awareness campaigns and fines has enabled the treatment of 95 per cent of the city’s waste, including a thorough six-way source segregation system.

In Goa’s capital city, Panjim, the implementation of 16-way source segregation has significantly increased revenue from the sale of recovered products, benefiting value chain participants.

Residents must be educated about their role in mitigating Kochi’s legacy and the untreatable waste crisis. The study also showed that there is a lack of information regarding the intricacies of waste segregation and management, encompassing detailed practices, post-collection processes, and the rationale behind segregation. This knowledge gap can hinder effective waste segregation, as residents may compromise on their practices without understanding the benefits or necessity. 

In addition to the knowledge gap, privatisation in Kochi faces another challenge: A lack of structured and uniform implementation. The government is yet to establish an official public-private partnership that supersedes the current system. 

Many apartments and most independent households still rely on the corporation for waste collection. Moreover, private agencies often cater to specific populations, such as apartments, or focus on collecting particular waste categories, such as plastic or sanitary waste. This fragmented marketplace can be daunting for the average citizen, lacking a systematic supply to meet their demands.

Kochi can draw inspiration from neighbouring municipalities like Aluva and Angamaly, where the public-private partnership model has successfully improved waste management. Government intervention is necessary to establish an official public-private partnership that covers waste collection from all types of households in Kochi, ensuring accessible and organised waste management and significantly enhancing the city’s waste management efforts.

In conclusion, Kochi finds itself at a pivotal juncture, where action is not merely an option but an imperative. Embracing decentralisation, fostering collaboration with the private sector, and actively involving citizens are essential steps in creating a cleaner, more sustainable future for the city. It is time for all stakeholders to unite in a collective commitment to transform Kochi’s waste management landscape.

(This article was first featured in Down to Earth )

The author is a youth leadership fellows at CPPR

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Nikita Mohan
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