Turning Waste Into Prosperity

Water is precious in India, and especially precious for the nation’s farmers. Unpredictable rainfall can damage soil and drain groundwater reserves, making it difficult for farmers without access to irrigation to produce food. And in rural areas, a lack of water infrastructure like sewer pipes can waste or harm water sources. For example, in the Ketti Valley in Tamil Nadu State, household waste collectors would gather blackwater — wastewater containing feces, urine, and water from flush toilets — and then dump it into local rivers. WASTE Stichting is working to solve these problems by building community systems that recycle wastewater. In the process, they’re also creating organic compost to help local female farmers grow their crops.

At the Ketti Resource Recovery Park, a waste treatment plant in the Ketti Valley, WASTE has worked with the local government to update their waste recycling and compost production. “There were a lot of improvements to be made,” explains Priska Prasetya, a sanitation business consultant at WASTE. The park was already bringing in solid waste to make compost, but not blackwater or fecal sludge (a mix of solids and liquids). These ingredients add essential nutrients to soil, including carbon, nitrogen and some potassium. Without them, the park produced poor quality compost that could only be sold at a very low price. Furthermore, the women working at the park didn’t wear the appropriate protective equipment for handling this kind of toxic waste.

WASTE looked at the park’s old methods and combined them with new techniques. They built two kinds of artificial wetlands, horizontal and vertical, which act as a biofilter, removing a range of pollutants from water. Horizontal wetlands treat the water itself and create compost, whereas vertical wetlands use gravity to separate liquids from solids, creating greywater that is usable for irrigation.

Through this project, WASTE worked in partnership with the park’s directors. “We helped them with their infrastructure and helped their workers so they have proper protective gear,” Priska says. “And we equipped them with a shredder and sieving machines to make the process more efficient.”

WASTE installed biofilters that treat the wastewater—making it usable for irrigation—and create compost in the process.

WASTE also worked directly with the community, with support from SWFF. They convinced the local household waste collectors to bring fecal sludge and blackwater to the park to be treated, and to transport compost and water for irrigation back to the local farmers. WASTE also had to persuade the local female farmers to use the compost. “There were some inhibitions among farmers because the compost was fecal,” Priska explains. “But some of the farmers had already used this kind of compost, so they were our spokespeople. They were able to convince the others that this compost was much better than the chemical ones they were using previously.”

The impact has been immediate. Farms using the new, environment-friendly compost see increases in both crop yields and sales. Waste collectors no longer dump their sludge into the ecosystem, which makes the entire area healthier and more sustainable. And the women working in the park itself are not just managing the site safely, they are thriving.

“Before we took over, the park made two tons of compost in six years,” Priska says. “Within a few months of us taking over, we’ve already produced over 20 tons! This is a financially sustainable model that will make an income in two and a half years, well ahead of schedule.”

There are long-term improvements as well. The female farmers are organizing into groups, which together have developed stronger financial standing, allowing them to obtain loans from local banks that they previously could not access. “We build the skills, logistics, and demand within the community,” Priska says. “We build the business model … Now, they have the power to better their agricultural activities.” Once WASTE builds the system, farmers and locals take ownership, growing better food and healthier communities. It’s no wonder the organization’s motto is “turning waste into prosperity.”