India’s Trash to Cash Opportunity

India is sitting on a major crisis…and a mega opportunity.

India’s cities are among the largest garbage generators in the world. With rapid urbanisation, the country is facing massive waste management challenge. Over 377 million urban people live in 7,935 towns and cities and generate 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum. Only 43 million tonnes (MT) of the waste is collected, 11.9 MT is treated and 31 MT is dumped in landfill sites. Solid Waste Management (SWM) is one among the basic essential services provided by municipal authorities in the country to keep urban centres clean. However, almost all municipal authorities deposit solid waste at a dumpyard within or outside the city haphazardly. It is widely believed that India is following a flawed system of waste disposal and management.

A report by Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (2006) found the potential of recovering at least 15 per cent or 15,000 MT of waste generated every day in the country. This, the report said, could also provide employment opportunities to about 500,000 rag-pickers. The report added that despite immense potential in big cities in this area, participation from non-profits or community is limited.

In some urban centres, people working in the informal sector collect solid waste for each doorstep to get a collection fee and derive additional income from sale of recyclables. The informal recycling industry plays a major role in waste management. It also ensures that less waste reaches landfills.

There has been technological advancement for processing, treatment and disposal of solid waste. Energy-from-waste is a crucial element of SWM as it reduces the volume of waste from disposal & also helps in converting the waste into renewable energy and organic manure. But many waste to energy plants in India are not operating to their full potential.

Installation of waste-to-compost and bio-methanation plants would reduce the load of landfill sites. The biodegradable component of India’s solid waste is currently estimated at a little over 50 per cent. Bio-methanation is a solution for processing biodegradable waste which is also remains underexploited. It is believed that if we segregate biodegradable waste from the rest, it could reduce the challenges by half.

Around 100 Indian cities are set to be developed as “smart” cities. Civic bodies have to redraw long term vision in solid waste management and rework their strategies as per changing lifestyles. They should reinvent garbage management in cities so that we can process waste and not landfill it (with adequate provisioning in processing and recycling). To do this, households and institutions must segregate their waste at source so that it could be managed as a resource.

Business opportunities are present in every component of the waste to energy value chain. Some of these are: Collection of reusable plastics and metals etc for sale in local market; Waste Processing and sell RDF pellets to biomass power plants; Mobilizing construction debris to make tiles and bricks; Production and sale compost to bio fertilizer firms; Biogas based power generation from sludge for selling it to the grid; Conversion of processed wastes to industrial commodities; Transporting solid waste from the source to the landfill or to the processing centers for energy recovery; Revenues from automobile manufacturing and sales to corporate bodies and contract holders.

India could emulate the example of Songdo city in South Korea. Songdo is a privately built “smart city” about 40 miles from South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul. The city hopes to conjure images of a science fiction movie in order to attract people and businesses. For example, Songdo’s population of roughly 70,000 will never see garbage trucks on its streets. How? The city’s trash gets sucked into the Third Zone Automated Waste Collection Plant using underground pipes. Once trash reaches the facility, the garbage is automatically recycled, burned for energy, or buried deep underground. Even though the facility is still not fully operational, the city’s futuristic systems present a different model to achieving unprecedented levels of waste reuse.

Or take the case of Singapore which has a population of almost 5.5 million people and sits on roughly 700 square kilometers of land surrounded by water. To extend landfill life, Singapore actually incinerates about 8,200 tons of garbage per day, which reduces waste volume by 90 percent. That’s like turning a twin mattress into a small microwave!


In addition, these incineration plants produce over 2,500 MWh of energy each day, enough power to support roughly 900 homes daily. Burning trash allows Singapore to recover reusable metals, which can then be sold for a modest profit. In addition, the city recently began a pilot program that gives households utility rebates for reducing waste production.

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