The debates around technological choices became prominent when capital-intensive technologies from industrialised countries were exported to developing countries overlooking the context, especially socio-economic conditions. It was Ernst Friedrich Schumacher who first articulated the concept of ‘intermediate technology’ in his book Small is Beautiful in 1973. It advocated technological choices that are small-scale, decentralised, locally affordable and autonomous, labour-intensive, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable. Later, the concept became a movement named ‘appropriate technology’.
Appropriate technology has utmost relevance in the solid waste management (SWM) sector in India considering the high rate of failure of high-end technologies (e.g. incineration and landfilling) adopted from the western world. Incinerating as a measure to ‘manage’ solid waste is in effect an inappropriate solution with the low calorific value and high moisture content of waste produced in India. In addition, around half of the waste from energy plants in the country is non-operational. The essentially spontaneous character of landfills in India (without proper scientific planning) has resulted in the violation of existing SWM rules and regulations. The inappropriateness of such systems, notwithstanding environmental concerns, results in considerable negative social implications. For instance, people living in the vicinity of waste to energy plants and landfills face multiple negative externalities including loss of land value, social discrimination, and health hazards due to pollution. The informal waste pickers remain alienated from these technologies leading to a neglect of their appalling living and working conditions. Still, these technologies remain the foremost choice among policymakers and government bodies due to their ‘quick-fix’ nature. Deviating from this dominant approach, some towns and cities have been found adopting innovative small-scale technologies for managing waste.
Alappuzha is one such town in the South Indian state of Kerala that showed the possibilities of alternative small-scale technologies to tackle the crisis of solid waste. With a large network of canals, backwaters, lagoons, and beaches, the city was called ‘Venice of the East’. Waste management was one of the crucial concerns facing the town since the 2000s, due to high population density and accelerating consumption. Being a low-lying area, clogged canals and drainages increases its vulnerability to floods and groundwater pollution. The dump yard situated in Sarvodaya Puram (outskirts of the town), which absorbed waste from the town, became a major public health and environmental concern for the people living in its vicinity. As public protest erupted in the area, the municipality established a large-scale centralised windrow composting plant in a public-private partnership with a company in Andhra Pradesh. The plant claimed to have a capacity of around 50 tonnes per day. The project ended up costing around INR 37.7 million but failed miserably. The reasons for failure include lack of segregation at the source, the inability of local self-governments to deliver the required quantity of waste to efficiently operate the plant, and the lack of a leachate treatment system. The waste continued clogging the canals, leading to the spread of mosquitoes and deadly diseases like Chikungunya and Dengue Fever. Dysfunctional drainages induced urban floods affecting the lives and livelihoods of urban dwellers.
In 2012, after consistent efforts from civil society and political representatives, Alappuzha town moved towards decentralised solid waste management under the project called Nirmala Nagaram Nirmala Bhavanam (roughly translated as Clean City Clean Home). A major change in the new approach was the treatment of wet waste at the household or neighbourhood level. The door-to-door collection service was restricted to dry waste, segregated at the source. This shift demanded innovative technological interventions at the household and community level for managing wet waste. To this end, bio bins and small-scale biogas plants were disseminated at the household level, and aerobic bin units were introduced at the community level.
The aerobic composting technique used in Alappuzha is the Thumburmuzhi model. It was developed by Dr Francis Xavier of Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, located at Thumburmuzhi (hence the name). Thumburmuzhi model aerobic bins are rectangular structures built with spaced ferrocement bars and wire mesh, covered with a roof. This technique was developed specifically for Kerala’s agro-eco-zone and it is cost-effective, eco-friendly and consumes limited space.
The organic waste can be converted into compost in 90-120 days. If constructed and maintained properly, these bins do not create any pollution as the leachate is effectively drained to the leachate collecting tank. The processed waste is devoid of any foul odour. Moreover, composting and creating a value chain out of waste facilitates a circular economy approach. It also aids in uplifting the status of sanitation workers to technicians. This small-scale technology was thus adopted as appropriate for tackling the solid waste crisis in the town. However, there are various challenges making them ineffective in the long run. Major challenges include lack of maintenance, lack of acceptance among people and poor working conditions for sanitation workers.
Only 54% of the aerobic bins in the town are operational and others remain dysfunctional. Additionally, the capacity utilization of the operational bins is only 34%. The lack of maintenance has led to the weakening of the foundation of the bins which is consequently causing leakage of leachates attracting stray animals and rodents. Poorly maintained roofs have also led to the entry of rainwater during monsoons.
The waste in the aerobic bin units in Alappuzha is not converted into compost due to a lack of supply of inoculum and dry leaves. People also dump off stale waste, unsegregated waste, and waste with high moisture content making composting difficult. Many units have become places where waste is inadvertently dumped, making people nearby sceptical about municipalities’ waste management interventions.
Further, people are reluctant to use the aerobic bins due to their distance from households. They also feel that it requires extra time and effort. The bins are used widely by people living in more densely populated wards. The lack of space to manage waste in their courtyard has made people rely on aerobic bins. However, usage is minimal in the outskirts of the city where population density is comparatively less and people have enough space in their courtyards.
The intent of creating better livelihoods for sanitation workers can be attained only if their working conditions are improved. There are no basic amenities at the units like drinking water, sanitation, electricity, or even the availability of cleaning equipment. Moreover, the taboo related to working with waste brings them humiliation and harassment from society.
It is true that these decentralised aerobic bins are economically, environmentally, and socially desirable compared to incinerators and landfills. With the failure of high-end technologies and comparatively better outcomes of adopting decentralised SWM, Alappuzha has a favourable political will towards these small-scale technologies. But to achieve the desired outcomes, many challenges still remain. Despite having the required financial resources to afford these technologies, Alappuzha municipality seems to have to lack the technical and managerial capacities to effectively utilize and maintain them. Along with the capacity building of local self-governments, it requires building the skills and competencies of people on effective utilization of technologies. Say, for example, acquainting them on the type of waste and with in-time disposal. However, bins remain distant, making them less user-friendly for many households. Such households can be encouraged to use alternative scientific waste management practices like pit composting or pot composting within their premises. Perhaps it is time to discuss on “appropriate practices” that make these technologies appropriate rather than bringing in other more high-end technologies.
1 Appropriate Technology for Socioeconomic Development in Third World Countries. (2000). University Libraries. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JOTS/Winter-Spring-2000/akabue.html
2 Appropriate Technology for Socioeconomic Development in Third World Countries. (2000). University Libraries. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JOTS/Winter-Spring-2000/akabue.html.
Story by: S Rakendu – PhD Student, Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay, Maharashtra, India
Pictures by: Team Canalpy