Unlike many western countries, Indian consumers waste remarkably little food, as a use is found for nearly all left-overs and food scraps. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no waste, and Pune, a four million person city three hours southeast of Mumbai, is implementing an innovative initiative to change that.
Meet Mr. Santosh Gondhalekar, an engineer, energy expert, and founder of a bio-energy start-up company, Gangotree Eco Technologies. Pune is on its way to being India’s first waste-free city.
Each day, Pune generates about 1,400 tons of waste – 800 tons of organic waste and 600 tons of dry waste (e.g., paper, plastic, glass, and metals). In addition to the city’s municipal waste collection agency, Pune also has a sizable waste-picking community, with over 2,000 individuals who work full time as part of a cooperative to collect and sort the city’s waste. Nearly all of the dry waste has value so it gets sorted out by the waste pickers before being sold to recycling companies. The organic waste remains, and historically has been placed in a municipal dump.
Just a few years ago, the Pune Municipal Corporation engaged in a number of public-private partnerships to extract value from this organic waste. Here’s how it works: the city puts up the required capital to build bio-digestion facilities that can convert organic waste to electricity. Private companies then operate the facilities, selling the electricity back to the city to be used to power street lights. Excluding the upfront capital costs, the operation is profitable for the private firms. And for the time being, the city is willing to invest the capital, essentially subsidizing the projects, as they reduce the city’s waste burden, lowering the cost of maintaining municipal dump sites.
Currently 10 of these bio-digestion plants are operational, each converting five tons of organic waste to electricity every day.
How it works ? The Process:
Each morning, city trucks pick up organic waste, primarily from the city’s hotels, and deliver it to the bio-digestion facilities. The hotels are required by law to pay a fee for this service, which generally covers the transportation costs. Once the waste arrives on site, waste pickers sort it to ensure that it’s 100% organic as other inputs could disrupt the bio-digestion process. The waste, or feed stock, is then chopped up and put into the bio-digester, where bacteria converts it to methane and compost. At the end of the day, the gas is scrubbed to convert it to 99% methane, and then burned in a generator that creates electricity. The compost is given to local farmers.
So far the initiative has been very successful, and there are plans to have 20 additional plants operational by the end of 2012. Pune has 144 city wards, and if each ward had its own bio-digester, the city would be able to extract electricity from all of its organic waste.
Mr. Gondhalekar has been involved with the planning and execution of these projects, and showed his enthusiasm for the initiative’s success. However, his company, Gangotree Eco Technologies, is working a new project he finds even more promising. His plan is to convert municipal organic waste to what he calls green coal.