The Future of Resilience

“Wall-E”-like Compactors are Transforming Public Health in Calcutta

By compacting trash rather than letting it fester in bins, many urban diseases can be prevented.

One of the compactors that’s replacing open trash bins in Kolkata.

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Kolkata generates 5,372 tons of municipal solid waste every day, and the city hasn’t exactly been aces in carting all of that junk away. (German writer Gunter Grass once famously described Kolkata as “a pile of shit that God dropped.”) But a recently authorized waste-management modernization initiative could finally change the city’s image and bring sweet-smelling salvation.

The initiative would build on the success of a pilot fleet of solid-waste compactors, both stationary and mobile, that were first introduced in December 2012 by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). Modern and eco-friendly, the trash-shrinking contraptions make for an ideal waste-disposal system for Kolkata, which has serious space issues (at 63,000 people per square mile, it’s one of the densest cities on earth.)

Since the first machines were introduced, the city’s garbage collectors have unloaded their bins into the stationary compactors. Then, through the night, the mobile units use a hook-loading system to lift the entire compactor and drive it down to the Dhapa dumping ground. Water coming out of the compacted garbage is excreted into proper drainage channels.

According to Subhasish Chatterjee, the deputy chief engineer of the KMC, the compactors have increased Kolkata’s waste-management efficiency exponentially. “We are going to buy more of these,” he says.

The purchases will be made possible by a nationwide city-modernization push called Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). According to a report released earlier this year, the JNNURM approved Rs 100-crore ($16 million USD) to aid Kolkata’s waste-management project, a boost necessary to expand the system.

KMC officials say Kolkata will have soon at least 78 garbage-transfer stations, up from the existing five, at key areas around the city. These stations will replace the uncleaned vats that currently litter the streets, spilling over with rotting food and moldy detritus, one of the major causes of health problems in Kolkata.

According to Debashis Sen, principal secretary of the West Bengal Urban Development Department, the “Solid Waste Management with Compactors” project ultimately “envisages 163 stationary compactors and 200 movable compactors. There will be compost plants, transfer stations and modern mechanical transporters. The project will use 20 acres of land in New Town [the new satellite township of Kolkata] that has been recently earmarked for the project.”

The KMC will implement the full project at a total cost of Rs 153-crore [$24 million USD]. But even once completed, there will remain work to be done. According to a study by the South Asia Forum for Environment (SAFE) as reported in the Times of India, only 37 percent of Kolkata’s solid waste is compostable.

“A third of the [municipal solid waste] is organic matter,” SAFE chair Dipayan Dey was quoted as saying. “A further 19 percent, or nearly a fifth of the waste, consists of recyclable materials. Yet only a fraction is either turned into compost or recycled.”

Photos by Sujoy Dhar

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Tags: resilient citiesindiatrashrecyclingkolkata

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