Human-Scaled Innovation in the Growing “Waste” lands of India

Tiffany Lau (MArch I)

Project Overview

Waste composes a considerable portion of the urban landscape in developing countries. This primarily stems from the lack of human and economic resources that restrict the management of a combination of solid waste (such as food, glass, plastics, etc.) and recycled-waste (mostly electronic) imported from other countries. With the growing mass of garbage collecting in the developing environment from both local and international sources, the concern of living in a waste-filled landscape is twofold. On a global level, it affects their ability to urbanize alongside the modernized world, reflecting in its international image and capabilities, and on a more local level, it also affects the health and living standards of its citizens. The build up of solid-waste, especially of composting food waste, provides for unsanitary living conditions and health hazards to individuals, degrading the air quality, attracting rodents and insects, and affecting the quality of space of the urban environment.

In this sense, the term “waste-land” is used to describe landscapes that are comprised of waste, influencing the basic comfort and standard of living in the urban community, as well as the health of those who inhabit it.

This research explores a human-scaled solution to the growing waste-filled landscape in India: the compact biogas plant.

India is a particularly important case to study as a developing nation because of the sheer scale of solid waste produced by its own population relative to its land mass. India is the second most populated country, with 1.1 billion citizens; however, it only holds 2.4% of the world’s land mass, signifying a very dense urban waste-land. Therefore, the boundary between waste-land and residential space is often unclear, where waste-lands become inhabited and used by children and workers for income. This has drastically affected the air quality, health, and living standards of many low-income districts of India.

Installed in urban and rural communities, these compact biogas plants are able to convert food-waste into useable and clean energy for the home through the natural process of anaerobic decomposition. Its simple design, assembly, and community-oriented instruction has led to the reduction of waste and the improvement of living comfort in the residential communities of Pune, India, the location of study, and a growing number of rural and urban communities all across the country.

Project Information

Food waste comprises 40% of India’s solid waste consumption (refer to Table 1). The innovation behind these individualized biogas plants is to use the efforts of its own community members, converting their food waste towards their own personal benefit in the result of energy for cooking and electricity.

Designed by the non-government organization, ARTI (Appropriate Rural Technology Institute)  based in Pune, India, the biogas plant consists of a simple installation process. The main body of each plant is composed of two plastic water containers – one to contain the digesting materials (food waste), and the other to capture the biogas product – connected by a series of PVC pipes. With every 2kg of food waste fed into the plant, mixed with 20 liters of water, the plant produces 500g of methane per day in approximately 24 hours. This is enough to cook two full meals for a family of five people. If fed into an electric generator, this biogas is enough to produce about 2 KWh of electricity. Therefore, there is a dual benefit to this natural technology – the disposal of waste, with the gain of clean energy.

Table 1: India’s Solid Waste Composition
1. Food Waste 40%
2. Grass 3.8%
3. Paper 0.8%
4. Plastic 0.6%
5. Glass/Ceramics 0.4%
6. Metal 0.6%
7. Stone/Ashes 42%
8. Misc 11.8%

In fact, biogas is a source of energy with amongst the lowest carbon footprints. Through anaerobic decomposition, the biogas product of methane can be burnt cleanly on stoves (producing mainly carbon dioxide and water), making it an environmentally friendly fuel. Compared to more traditional cooking methods from “chulha” stoves – using a pile of stones with wood or dung – the amount of indoor air pollution caused by smoke and soot are drastically reduced, improving the air quality and living environments of each household. If used for one year, each urban home could save 100kg of kerosene per year (preventing up to 600kg of CO2 emissions as a kerosene byproduct). If used in a rural area, it could save 3 tones of wood every year (preventing up to 5 tones of CO2 emissions).

The biogas plants not only provide a solution to the disposal of organic waste for the household, but also for the community as a whole. In the case of Pune, India where the biogas plant was developed, landfills had been a previous solution to the disposal of food waste for urban areas. Recently however, with the minimal space available for waste, dumping food waste in landfills has been prevented by local authorities. Instead, the recent success of the biogas plants has inspired local councils to turn to these plants as a useful means to dispose of food waste to prevent any further growth of solid-waste in the urban environment. Local council offices have also begun to organize demonstrations of these plants to promote its use in the community.

Since its development in 2003, 2000 of these individualized biogas plants have been installed in both rural and urban households in the region of Pune, India through both serviced installation and DIY instructions offered by the organization. 30-50 biogas plants are also currently being installed around the region per month. The technology has been recognized with two international awards in sustainable energy (the Ashden awards), for converting agricultural waste into energy, and for its production of clean domestic fuel. Therefore, these compact biogas plants are a growing trend in its attempt to reduce the solid-waste dispersed through India’s urban environment, and to improve the living conditions of its community.


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Appropriate Rural Technology Institute:

Ashden Awards: (Image 1 and 2)

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