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Handling hill station waste needs a much better plan, just a plastic ban will not do

Hill stations like Kodaikanal are faced with massive tourist influx, poor infrastructure, difficult terrain, unpredictable weather conditions and mounting solid waste. Tourism-dependent economies need to look at ways to regulate tourists, segregate waste at source, safely transport and dispose of waste before it pollutes the air and water. A plastic ban, considered a remedy, is not enough. Experts suggest enforcing ‘polluter pays principle’ on consumers and ‘extended producer responsibility’ on manufacturers as ways to regulate plastic trash. This comprehensive report is by Arathi Menon 

The legacy landfill in Kodaikanal, a hill town in the Dindigul District of Tamil Nadu, caught fire some months ago. Attempts were made to douse it but even months later one could see smoke from the partially burnt waste going up in narrow, steady streaks. “Methane gas in the waste is keeping the embers alive,” said Avijit Michael, founder of Bengaluru-based campaigning organisation, and a resident of Seeradumkanal area of Adukkam Village where his farmland abuts the landfill. The landfill is located next to a reserve forest, Tiger Shola, that gets its name from the stunted tropical montane forests amid rolling grasslands found in the higher montane regions of South India, locally known as shola.

The landfill, also called Prakasapuram landfill, in Seeradumkanal, has remained a concern for many environment-conscious residents like Michael primarily because it is located close to an otherwise pristine forest. It violates the guidelines prescribed for hilly regions in the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 by the Central Pollution Control Board which mandates that hilly regions should “avoid landfill, make waste transfer stations, strict action for littering and construct landfill at plain areas”.

Kodaikanal had its landfill in a residential area, Shembaganur, until early 2000s. Following protests from the residents, it was then moved to a piece of revenue land near the forest. This was done without any prior thought or study, alleged artist Meenakshi Subramaniam who filed a PIL seeking a stay order on the move. Subramaniam, who has moved to Kerala since, told Mongabay-India that dumping waste near a shola forest was wrong. “They could have come up with better methods to handle the waste like segregating at source and processing the waste,” she said.

A landslide in 2018 led to the collapse of the landfill’s retaining wall and the waste, a decomposing mix of organic and inorganic waste, fell down the vertical slope, into the forest and in a stream that takes water to Perumal Malai, a town downstream. Since then, Michael has been petitioning the government to find a solution via bio-capping or bio-mining the landfill. He said, in one of his petitions, that he had seen gaurs and wild boars drinking water from the polluted stream. Meanwhile, the town municipality is engaged in hauling the remaining waste that has fallen into the forest back into the landfill using earthmovers and securing the retaining wall.

Bio-mining and bio-capping feature as solutions in the legacy waste management guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board. “Kodaikanal has wet weather that makes waste processing difficult. There is a biogas plant that is taking care of the biodegradable waste now. Biomining of the legacy landfill will be taken up soon,” informed commissioner of Kodaikanal Municipality, Sathyanadan.

Workers at the RDF plant near the landfill in Seeradumkanal in Kodaikanal town.

Kodaikanal-based solid waste management expert Rajamanickam, of Kodaikanal International School’s Centre for Environment and Humanity, who has been studying various ways to handle municipal solid waste, says that the damage has been done to the land where the landfill stands now and it should be left alone. “Bio-mining will burn more non-renewable energy sources. Instead, the landfill should be sealed and made inaccessible to people. We need to think of the future and come up with ways to reduce waste load,” he said.

A Refuse Derived Fuel or RDF plant of 30-tonne capacity has been installed near the landfill to mechanically segregate the waste and compost the organic waste. A bio-methanation plant of two tonne capacity too is functioning to process the biodegradable waste and generate power from the waste. However, these processes can be done effectively only if the waste comes segregated into biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Currently, there are no attempts to segregate waste at source in Kodaikanal.

An earthmover is seen near the burning landfill in Seeradumkanal in Kodaikanal town.

Problem not unique to the hill town
The municipal solid waste management (MSWM) problem that Kodaikanal, a hill town of 21.45 sq km area with a projected population of 44288, (municipality 2022) faces is the story of every hill town in India.  Massive tourist influx, poor infrastructure, difficult terrain and unpredictable weather conditions make the problem harder to resolve. Tourism is an indispensable part of the economy of these hill towns. A 2022 study says that Tamil Nadu leads India’s tourism industry estimated at $240 billion (in 2018), contributing 9.2 per cent to the GDP. Previous studies done to understand the effect of increased tourism and waste management in hill towns such as Pahalgam and Gangtok have shown that multiple challenges like inadequate capacity of the local body, lack of availability of plain land for waste disposal, improper location of waste collection infrastructure due to undulated terrain and inadequate collection capacity, lack of manpower and a lack of willingness from citizens and tourists as some of the challenges in waste management in hill towns. Various environmental impacts, such as depletion of natural resources, destruction of ecosystems and pollution, are projected as a result of increased tourism.

An informal group of Kodaikanal residents, including students, named Sholaikuruvi (named after a bird found in the sholas), has been engaged in the clean-up of tourist spots and forest interiors since 2020. A few volunteers meet every day with garbage bags and gloves to clean the waste littered in pristine forest lands. Founder Joshua Edward told Mongabay-India that they collected 900 kg of waste from Pambar shola, a shola grassland, in July. “There are rivers in Pambar shola and other sholas which are water sources for Kodaikanal and are always trashed by tourists. Used diapers constitute the most amount of trash these days; some are even seen hanging from trees when people throw them into forests,” he said.

Is a ban on plastic enough?
Concerned about the mounting plastic waste problem, the Kodaikanal Municipality imposed a ban on non-biodegradable plastic carry bags in the early 2000s and followed it up with a ban on plastic bottles in 2020. Plastic comes in various forms and banning carry bags or bottles does not address the problem comprehensively as is evident at the Prakasapuram landfill where the compost that the RDF (refuse-derived fuel) plant creates from the biodegradable waste has traces of plastic, broken bottles, etc. in it. In a status report filed by the commissioner of municipality, before the Tamil Nadu high court, in response to Michael’s petition, it is mentioned that the compost is purchased by Kodaikanal farmers for agriculture and used in the famous Rose Garden in town. “This will go back to the soil and contaminate it further,” Michael said while inspecting the compost stacked in large sacks at the godown near the landfill. Segregated plastic waste is also seen bundled in sacks at the landfill.

Despite the ban, Sholaikuruvi continues to gather plastic waste from the forests. “Plastic ban is a good initiative but not enough,” said Shrawan Kumar Acharya, a Darjeeling resident and professor of urban planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “In most hill stations, plastic bottles are banned but five-litre bottles are available. Then there is plastic packaging of biscuits, chips and other snacks. It is not a sustainable solution to the plastic waste problem,” he said.

According to the National Action Plan on municipal solid waste management, local bodies are expected to formulate their own bylaws, waste management systems and technical landfill facilities as mandated in the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Based on the guidelines for hill towns, Rajamanickam has developed a waste management system for the schools in Kodaikanal. “We are concerned about what goes into our food but do not care about what constitutes our waste. Each one’s waste is their own responsibility. We expect the government to take care of it. That attitude must go,” he said.

A signage by the forest department instructs tourists against littering.

Polluters pay for the trash they create
According to the experts that Mongabay India spoke to, the ‘polluter pays principle’ should be applied in hill stations; since a lot of trash comes from plastic packaging, manufacturers too should be held responsible for it. Rajamanickam said that the extended producer responsibility should be applied to strengthen the circular economy of plastic packaging and to make manufacturers more responsible for waste generated from their products. Sathyanadan said that the town collects 19 to 25 metric tonnes of waste every day. Unregistered hospitality units in Kodaikanal where about 1.5 lakh tourists visit annually is an impediment in waste segregation and collection. An analysis done by Rajamanickam in 2017 showed that almost 70 per cent of waste in the municipality comes from over 4000 hospitality units in town, of which only 170 are registered. “The municipality has put 19 waste collection bins in town based on the data they have. These bins are always overflowing due to clandestine dumping of waste by unregistered units,” he said, adding that unless the municipality has the right data, they won’t be able to strategise and plan waste management properly.

Retired professor of ecology and environmental science at University of Pondicherry, Poyyamoli believes in the cradle to cradle methodology of waste management as a solution, where garbage is seen as a resource and used in a cyclical way. “We need to find ways to make wealth from waste,” he said. Best waste management performers should be incentivised to encourage participation. Some residents cite TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited) incentivising the customers bringing back empty alcohol bottles by paying Rs 10 per bottle as an example. This has encouraged the buyers to not trash the bottles.

Priyank Pradeep, who is the co-owner of a popular hospitality unit Holiday Homes in Pambarpuram, has implemented a waste management system proposed by Rajamanickam at the resort. The resort segregates waste into 13 categories including three categories of paper and two categories of plastic. “We have realised that almost 70 per cent of the waste can be recovered if we segregate properly,” he said. The reusable and recyclable waste is sold and the profit is shared among the staff. Segregating waste at source is an important aspect of municipal solid waste management. This is not happening in Kodaikanal where mixed waste is seen overflowing the municipal garbage dumps at various locations in town.

The National Action Plan on solid waste management also suggests clustering as an option for small municipalities to treat their waste together. In this case, two or three municipalities can come together to identify a common disposal site and share cost and resources on waste management facilities. “Small hill towns often send waste to bigger cities to recycle which gets expensive,” said Acharya. “Having a common facility for waste-to-wealth projects is an economical way of doing it. These projects also need substantial waste which one municipality alone may not produce,” he added.

Sholaikuruvi volunteers with the trash they collected from Lower Shola, a reserve forest in Kodaikanal in January 2023. Photo by Joshua Edward.

Tourism not the only cause for waste
Pollution in hill towns goes beyond plastic waste or the waste that tourism generates. Edward of Sholaikuruvi said that he frequently comes across construction waste like cement being dumped inside the forest and by the streams. Construction waste, biomedical and electronic wastes that are often generated by societies are blindspots that need addressing. Tourism is an economic necessity for hill towns which will do better with regulations. Some Kodaikanal residents believe that the e-pass system introduced during COVID was an effective way to control the traffic and to identify unregistered hospitality units. During summer months and holidays, hill stations are choc-a-bloc with traffic adding to air pollution. Taking a leaf out of other hill towns, particularly the ones in the Himalayas that are assessing carrying capacities to better manage challenges posed by climate and tourism, residents are requesting authorities to conduct a similar exercise in Kodaikanal, too.

(Courtesy: Mongabay-India/