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The fire in Perungudi dumping yard that started on April 27 and raged for five days literally brought to light the state of garbage collection and disposal in the city. The waterbody in the dumping yard that turned pink due to the leeching of toxic pollutants has remained pink nearly three weeks later. While the flames were extinguished in five days, fire and rescue personnel say that fires are not uncommon in the dumping yard since methane accumulates in pockets and when released can catch fire at the slightest of spark. Decades of indiscriminate dumping has made the dumping yard a methane production facility.

As per Chennai Corporation, some 3,600 tonnes of garbage are collected every day. Garbage is collected by corporation workers, NGOs and private firms from the bins on streets. The garbage collected goes to two large dumping yards – the 269-acre Kodungaiyur and 200-acre Perungudi facilities. This has been the situation for nearly 30 years.

The Perungudi dumping yard is situated on marshland, which is not an appropriate landscape for a garbage yard, experts say. Environmentalist Jayshree Vencatesan says indiscriminate dumping for 25 years without source segregation has piled up lakhs of tonnes of garbage there. Methane concentrations around the area are high. Methane is a highly combustible gas. Even a small spark led to a large fire that raged for many days. The black smoke that accompanied the fire indicates high amounts of plastic and polythene bags in the area, she says.

Vencatesan says that to prevent garbage heaps concentrating and reduce methane clusters she suggests making it geometrically defined. The land should be separated into parcels with each parcel square or round shaped. Then the garbage can sorted, mined and reduced. Even then the land cannot be reclaimed and go back to being marshland, she says. But trees can be grown in that land helping to cleanse the air, she adds.

The Perungudi dumping yard is situated on marshland, which is not an appropriate landscape for a garbage yard, experts say. Environmentalist Jayshree Vencatesan says indiscriminate dumping for 25 years without source segregation has piled up lakhs of tonnes of garbage there

Sumana Narayanan, senior researcher at the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), says the leaching of effluents from the dumping yard has contaminated groundwater in neighbourhoods. She points out that much the waste in India is biodegradable and can be recycled as compost if separated out. Plastic, rubber, glass and metal can also be recycled. The best way to achieve this is to segregate the garbage at the very source, possibly in households itself. But this is not happening properly in Chennai.

For instance, at Zone 13, those who come to collect garbage don’t insist that the garbage should be separated out. The Corporation says that it has set up micro composting facilities in each ward. But not all of them work properly.

The government has announced that garbage will be clearly separated as bio and non-biodegradable at the micro composting facilities and biodegradable garbage will produce compost there itself. If this system works properly, says Sumana Narayanan, garbage can be reduced by 60%.

Biomining that is happening at the dumping yards to reduce the garbage that has collected there should be intensified. Narayanan says if these are done, it will be possible to reduce the methane collection at the yard so fires can be avoided.

In bio-mining, the bio-degradable part of the garbage is turned into manure while the recyclable metallic components are extracted through a mechanical process involving large machines. When the machines dig into the yard to churn the garbage, methane pockets may get released, raising a stink and endangering the safety of workers there. A bio-culture of micro-organisms is sprinkled over the garbage prior to processing. This would help to break down the biodegradable garbage, facilitating the mining of metals and other useful parts of the garbage. She says the government has called for tenders for this. This would help to ensure no methane is released.

After bio-mining, the landscape can be turned green. Sumana Narayanan points out garbage dumped near the Thames River in London that had destroyed the environment was cleared out and appropriate species of trees planted there. This helped to clean up the river water, too. She says the Perungudi facility can be reclaimed similarly but will take time. The environmental impact of the garbage dump at Perungudi has affected the health of the people living nearby. Sumana Narayanan adds that CAG research has showed that the Kodungaiyur garbage can cause diseases among people.

Urbaser S/A and Sumeet Facilities have been tasked with keeping streets clean, take segregated garbage to facilities, and the remaining to dumping yards. Urbaser is an international firm that does this work in other countries including France, Italy, UK, Oman and so on. In Chennai, Urbaser has been tasked with garbage collection and disposal in 92 wards in Teynampet, Kodambakkam, Valasarawakkam, Alandur, Adyar and Perungudi divisions. An Urbaser worker in Velachery says garbage is taken to one location in each ward where the biodegradable waste is separated along with plastic, glass, polythene and so on.

A bio-culture of micro-organisms is sprinkled over the garbage prior to processing. This would help to break down the biodegradable garbage, facilitating the mining of metals and other useful parts of the garbage

At the burial ground near Guru Nanak college in Velachery, where the segregated garbage is taken, plastic and metal pieces are sold to recyclers. Plastic will go to make tar for roads and compost from organic waste is stored. The rest goes to Perungudi dumping yard. Burial grounds have been requisitioned for this work since they are secluded without much human movement. At the dumping yard too organic waste comes in because source segregation doesn’t happen through and through. It is shifted to various facilities in the city.

A fire and rescue personnel at Perungudi who didn’t wish to be identified said that fires are not rare there. The methane that accumulates in pockets can get released. If there is a faint source of ignition anywhere, then fires happen. He said that even late last week there was a fire. While the flames can be extinguished, inside the garbage there is methane and slow burn. When air rushes in for any reason, a fire catches, he said.

The government has said that in a couple of years, the entire Perungudi dumping yard will be biomined, organic waste removed, and the total garbage collected there reduced. By then, the system of source segregation will need to be fixed, too.


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