Government must identify this line before more instant composters churn out ash
Is it a technical glitch or a fraud in broad daylight? wonder the residents of Salarpuria Symphony apartments in Bengaluru as a swanky machine gathers dust in the corner. The residents’ association, which is committed to keep the housing complex clean and green, had purchased the machine some two years ago.
“We bought it from Aruna Green Ventures in Bengaluru which had assured us that the machine would churn out instant compost,” says Sudhakar Shanmukham, a resident. “But all that the Rs 9 lakh machine produces is ash.”
While selling the machine, Aruna Green Ventures had also promised to buy back the output at Rs 1 per kg. But it stopped procuring after the initial purchase of 2,000 kilogrammes without giving any explanation.
In fact, the officials did not respond to our calls when the machine broke down and started billowing smoke, Shanmukham says. The association has now stopped using the machine. It has instead hired a contractor of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to dispose of the waste. When contacted by Down To Earth, officials with Aruna Green Ventures refused to talk about the machine.
Tens of kilometres away in Ramagondanahalli locality, the residents of DNR Atmosphere narrate a similar experience. The housing society has an instant waste converter, Bioneer, which was installed by the builder.
The machine is manufactured by Mumbai-based Excel Industries Ltd, which claims to be a “pioneer in sustainable waste management” in the country. Nagesh Susarla, a resident of DNR Atmosphere, says they have been using the machine for two years now.
Though it is in working condition, what it produces is not compost. “It is a kind of charred material. We have tried offering it to our landscape gardeners and farmers in nearby areas. But they say it’s of little use to them,” says Susarla.
Small wonder, Vennar Organic Fertilizer, which is Excel’s partner in Bengaluru and had installed the machine at the complex, too has stopped procuring the compost. Just like Aruna Green Ventures, Vennar had an informal agreement with DNR’s residents’ association to buy back the compost at Re 1 per kg.
With mounds of “compost” piling up in the DNR basement, the association plans to sell the machine at scrap price and install a traditional composting unit.
Industry proponents, however, dub the technology a ground-breaking system which helps residential colonies, offices and restaurants manage their organic waste in a decentralised manner and minimises the load on municipal landfills.
For instance, Excel Industries on its website claims that Bioneer is “a revolutionary automatic waste converter machine that has the potential to change how the world treats its organic waste. Just fill it, shut it, forget it and in just 24 hours Bioneer treats your organic waste”.
Reddonatura, another food waste solution provider in Bengaluru, also says its product RNATURE “naturally converts organic waste into compost within 24-36 hours by using its special micro-organisms develped through advanced biotechnology”.
While no consolidated information is available on how many companies in the country offer instant compos ting solutions, at least 15 such products are listed on the website of the Union government’s e-marketplace, gem.gov.in. Information available on the website shows that several government offices have also bought instant composters.
This is bewildering as the technology does not find mention in the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 or in the Advisory on On-Site and Decentralized Composting of Municipal Organic Waste, issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in 2018.
The popularity of instant composters appears to have increased in recent years following the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014. While achieving open defecation-free India is the much-hyped objective of the mission, one of its key objectives is also to ensure that cities convert their organic waste into compost by October 2019.
To meet the ambitious target, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers in February 2016 notified the Policy on Promotion of City Compost which makes it mandatory for all big offices, schools, hotels, housing complexes and municipal corporations to convert their wet waste into compost.
The notification assured that the seller, whether a fertiliser company or a residents’ association, would receive a subsidy of Rs 1,500 per tonne of city compost. The advertisements issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs under SBM, featuring actor Amitabh Bachchan, also appears to be pushing composting machines instead of traditional methods.
In the absence of guidelines, claims by manufac turers have become the standard. Consider this. When Salrapuria Symphony apartments wanted to purchase an instant composter, they approached the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) for advice. That’s when a KSPCB official recommended them to buy the machine by Aruna Green Ventures.
D Randeep, commissioner of solid waste management at BBMP says the municipal corporation is against instant composters. These are quick fixes, generating ash instead of good quality compost, he says.
He further informs that KSPCB has constituted a committee which is examining various instant composting technologies for their suitability and compost quality. An official with KSPCB says the suitable technologies will be notified on their website as soon as the committee gives its verdict.
While karnataka is still trying to evaluate instant composting technology, several authorities and institutes have given it a thumbs down. Late last year, when the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) was trying to identify suitable composting technologies for housing complexes in the city, it was approached by several vendors dealing with instant composters. Before validating the technology, MCG wanted them to run pilot projects in various localities.
Samples collected from the machines were sent to two Delhi-based laboratories, the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) and Shriram Institute for Industrial Research, for analysis. While the latter did not give any conclusive results, IARI results showed that four of the five samples were saline.
No sample met all the standards related to odour, particle size, moisture, electrical conductivity and pH balance, set by the Fertilizer Control Order, 1985 (FCO). “The output was charred, clumpy and had a burnt or foul smell,” says Monika Khanna Gulati, member of the Citizen Monit oring Committee that worked with MCG on the project.
All the machines tested operated bet ween 50°C and 70°C and would consume electricity worth thousands of rupees a month, shows the report. Based on this, then MCG commissioner Yashpal Yadav refused to approve the empanelment of instant compos ters in the city. “The involvement of citizens of Gurugram played a crucial role in MCG’s decision,” says Gulati.
The Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environ ment (CSE), too, expresses dissat isfaction over the performance of the instant composter which it has installed in its campus. “The compost releases foul odour even after it is mixed with soil and cow dung and cured in the sun for three months,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager of waste manage ment division at CSE.
A laboratory test showed carbon-nitrogen ratio of the compost was lower than FCO standards, she says. Optimum ratio is needed for microbes present in the compost to release nutrients for the plant. A lower carbon-nitrogen ratio also suggests more ammonia in compost, which leads to foul smell.
In 2018, the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT), a public interest group in Bengaluru, analysed instant compost. “We compared the samples with compost prepared using traditional methods, such as vermicompost,” says Savita Hiremath of SWMRT.
Unlike traditional compost varieties, which are repositories of microbes, instant compost had zero microbial content, poor carbon-nitrogen ratio and was highly acidic. Acidic compost hinders absorption of nutrients by plants.
Quality is the last thing on one’s mind when waste management is an insurmountable problem. In 2016, the Pune Municipal Corp (PMC) installed several instant composters across the city after residents of Uruli-Devachi and Phursungi villages refused to receive the city waste.
Soon, non-profit Nagrik Chetna Manch filed a public interest petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), alleging that PMC and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board were violating the Solid Waste Management Rules.
They also submitted studies showing that compost produced by these machines does not conform to standards. They requested NGT to shut down all the machines. While the case is still pending with NGT, PMC has accepted in an affidavit submitted to the tribunal that the technology only reduces the volume of waste and the resulting material has to be processed further for 30 days.
SCN Jatar, president of the Manch, says: “People think they are getting rid of garbage. They are actually getting it back as poor compost.”
However, Abhishek Gupta, managing director of Reddo natura, defends the technology. “Our machines accel erate the process of composting which takes five to six months.The problem has been created by fly-by-night companies which copy our technology but fail to do it properly,” he says, adding that there is a fine line between composting and burning.
One only hopes the government would identify this line before more instant composters churn out ash and before more people feel cheated.
HIDDEN COST OF INSTANT FIX
Wet waste is collected and segregated to be fed into instant composting machine. In case, the waste contains bigger and harder chunks, a shredder needs to be installed separately to process those.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated July 16-31, 2019)
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