Chryselle D’Silva Dias

Published: May 1, 2023

This story was supported by Climate Tracker and Break Free From Plastic.

A regimented and dedicated system of segregating, recycling garbage has helped the state capital achieve the unthinkable – eliminating landfills.

Goa’s capital Panaji is a zero-landfill city. This means that all kinds of waste generated in the city is segregated and recycled, leaving nothing to be sent to landfills – unthinkable given that towering mounds of garbage are a symbol of the waste management crisis that most Indian cities are grappling with.

Key to Panaji’s success is its efficient recycling and sorting process. Apart from composting all wet waste, the city sorts and recycles solid waste into an impressive 28 “fractions”, or categories, an increase from the original 16 categories introduced in 2021. Among these fractions are different kinds of paper, hard and soft plastics, cloth, electronic waste, tetra packs and non-recyclables. Even coconut shells and ceramics are segregated.

India generates 65 million metric tonnes of waste annually, according to a 2020 report by the Centre for Science and Environment. An estimated 94% of this waste is recyclable. Recycling helps cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by reducing energy consumption. Diverting waste away from landfill also prevents air and water contamination.

Is there a lesson for other Indian cities in Panaji’s approach?

Panaji’s waste sorting centre

Key to Panaji’s waste revolution is its Material Recovery Facility or Swachhta Kendra (cleanliness centre) set up in 2014. Located on a busy arterial road in the suburb of St Inez in the state capital, the material recovery facility is an inconspicuous building. But inside, there is a constant buzz of activity, day and night.

Around 30 men and women – known as Safai Sathis, or cleanliness helpers – are hard at work, wearing aprons and gloves, cocooned from the wind and sun by the large shed that is their workplace. Conversation fills the air as workers tease each other about who will be the “Star Performer” of the day. Throughout the day, trucks of all sizes bring in garbage to the sorting centre.

The Corporation of the City of Panaji employs sanitation workers who collect segregated wet and dry waste from all houses in the city precincts. Other workers gather garbage from public dustbins or litter from the streets. All this waste is collected at mini sorting stations or transported directly to the material recovery facility for segregation and recycling.

Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

This process is not peculiar to Panaji’s civic body, of course. Manual segregation of waste is the most common method of separating high and low value recyclables. At the material recovery facility, a mountain of waste piles up, its size ebbing and falling as it is put onto three moving conveyor belts for segregation.

A row of Safai Sathis stand on both sides of the conveyor belts, quickly sorting different items into large bags. They divide the waste into recyclables and non-recyclables. Plastic and paper are further segregated into different fractions based on quality and colour.

After sorting, bales of paper, plastic, tetra packs and cloth are made. Recyclable waste, including plastic, is sold to registered local vendors, generating revenue that is fed back into the facility.

The remaining non-recyclable waste is sent to authorised cement factories as refuse-derived fuel, a controversial option because it involves burning the waste to generate energy.

“The alternative to RFD [refuse-derived fuel] is dumping waste in landfill which is not ideal,” said Clinton Vaz, a waste management pioneer and environmental advocate based in South Goa. Vaz collects and recycles waste from over 45,000 homes and commercial establishments in the state through his firm VRecycle. His facility handles around five tonnes of solid waste every day.

“If waste cannot be recycled, at least you can recover the energy out of it by incineration,” said Vaz. “When waste is burned, it reduces the demand for coal that is used to make cement. The ashes also get amalgamated into the cement so there’s no by-product.”

A constant flow of trucks brings waste to the Panaji material recovery facility through the day. Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

At the Panaji material recovery facility, almost everything is recycled, except large sheets of glass and the occasional vintage television tube.

Panaji has had an efficient system of segregation of garbage at source since door-to-door collection was introduced in 2003. Segregated wet and dry waste is collected from individual homes while large housing colonies are encouraged to establish waste sorting stations on their premises.

Around 40% of the housing colonies in Panaji are currently a part of the project. An average of 14 tonnes of dry waste is collected daily from homes, commercial establishments and public bins.

“Segregation is the key for recycling and scientific treatment of waste,” said Dylan Fernandes, executive manager of the Corporation of the City of Panaji.

Changing lives

For many workers, the material recovery facility has also provided a source of steady, much needed employment during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Workers are paid a flat Rs 15,000 a month, higher than the average income for unskilled workers in Goa, which is less than Rs 10,000 a month at approximately Rs 300 a day.

Haru Devi Bhul, 31, has worked at the facility for three years now. Bhul’s husband worked in Goa as a cook for several years and three years ago, she too left her village in Nepal to move to Goa where her youngest child, now six years old, was treated for pneumonia.

She found work at the facility through an acquaintance and was just settling in when the Covid-19 lockdown began. While many of her neighbours returned home, her family stayed, although her husband, like many others, lost his job.

“The CCP [Panaji civic body] helped us a lot during the pandemic,” said Bhul. “They gave us food, oil, and soap.” Bhul said she was able to work throughout the lockdown and support her family as her husband did not have a job.

Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

Workers are also added to a state insurance scheme that provides a safety net for illness, maternity, injury and death while employed. They also get help to open bank accounts and apply for identification documents, said Balaji Nagorao Kendre, project manager at the material recovery facility.

Employees attend regular workshops on various health issues such HIV and Covid-19, mental health and dealing with domestic abuse. Female workers also receive periodic gynaecological check-ups.

Ramachani Chowdhury, 40, lives in Dona Paula, around six kilometres away from the facility. For nine years, she worked at a large hospital as a nurse’s helper but left during the pandemic when she was told she had to stay there for a month at a time to care for patients. “I had children at home. How could I stay for so many days?” she said. “I was lucky to find work here at the MRF.”

Segregated waste such as plastic, cloth, PET bottles, soft plastic are gathered in bales and stacked together to sell to recyclers. Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

Challenge of never-ending waste

Waste from Panaji was earlier dumped at a site in the village of Curca, around 7 km from the state capital. Sachin Ambe, Municipal Engineer and Head of the Waste Management Cell, said the city stopped dumping waste at Curca in 2003-’04 and started implementing measures to segregate waste, including sorting stations at various points. “The MRF [material recovery facility] started in 2006 as a temporary shed and gradually upgraded to what it is today,” said Ambe.

Panaji’s material recovery facility was part of a nationwide project by the United Nations Development Programme aimed at strengthening sustainable waste management practices in India.

There are more recovery facilities in other parts of Goa – including one each in Bicholim and Vasco. In January last year, the Bombay High Court of Bombay at Goa said that construction approval would not be given to 15 panchayats until they set up material recovery facilities for their jurisdictions.

But the contract with the United Nations ended on March 31 and Panaji’s civic corporation is now looking for a partner to continue the project, preferably through a corporate social responsibility arrangement.

Kendre, project manager at the material recovery facility, said the United Nations Development Programme had paid for technology and infrastructure at the facility, such as the conveyor belts and baling machines. “They pay for part-salaries and cover costs of printing, posters, painting of the site etc,” he says. “We need a new partner to keep up this work.”

A thermocole machine compresses large sheets of thermocole into one long tube for easier packing and transportation. Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

At the same time, while the city has made great strides in its decentralised waste management, it faces bigger challenges ahead.

“The floating population as well as tourists visiting the city are often unaware of the solid waste management systems in Panaji,” said Fernandes. Controlling garbage generated at public places is a huge challenge for the civic body, said Fernandes. Panaji is one of India’s major tourist destinations all-year-round.

Small cities like Panaji may be able to manage their waste but it is a problem that shows no sign of reducing. For Vaz, recycling is not the solution to the waste problem as it makes people feel that things are alright so they consume more.

“They don’t realise that it is a long process from collection, transportation, to treatment of waste,” said Vaz. “There are a lot of emissions at all these stages.”

Vaz, speaking of his experience with his waste management company, said that in the last few years, the number of clients has largely stayed the same but the quantity of garbage has increased. “People are generating more waste than they used to,” said Vaz. “To make any impact, we need to reduce our waste in the first place.”

Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias.

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a journalist based in Goa. Her Twitter handle is @chryselled.