Revolutionising India’s waste management space

Nations with the top recycling rates in the world are developing creative strategies to enhance their sustainability game. According to United Nations data from 2018, Earth produces 11.2 billion tonnes of solid garbage annually, which accounts for nearly 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Due to these facts, major governments worldwide are working harder to create recycling systems. Developed nations like Germany have had the highest recycling rate in the world, with 56.1% of all waste produced being recycled. India’s waste management and treatment industry, too, is growing rapidly, thanks to innovative start-ups and policy interventions.

Dr. Vanita Prasad, Chief Technology Officer, REVY Environmental Solutions, spoke with India Business and Trade, on the need for change in perception towards waste segregation, discarding, management and treatment. The entrepreneur who has been a part of the waste management industry for 30 years, says that it is high time for businesses at large to recognise waste as a business opportunity in the form of the Compressed Biogas Sector. 

Dr. Vanita Prasad_WTE

Photo Source: Dr. Vanita Prasad

IBT: Do you think waste segregation is just an urban problem or is it a pan-India issue that needs to be addressed in different tiers?

Dr. Vanita Prasad: As per my field knowledge, waste segregation is more of an urban problem. Rural people face infrastructural issues because there isn’t proper drainage, among other civic and sanitation challenges. If we come to the segregation part, in urban areas people sometimes forget it is a necessity to separate different kinds of waste. That should not be the attitude. It’s not only the organic waste, the challenge is with all kinds of waste. Even towards e-waste, there is little care over proper disposal. This is what I’ve observed because in urban life, we are really occupied and pay little heed to it. If I look internationally, various other countries are doing their best in waste management because every citizen is contributing. Their mindset is very different. I have tried and studied the Israeli ecosystem and how they are managing water because they are scarce on natural resources, and they are really valuing it. We take our natural resources for granted and don’t value our trash.

IBT: What prompted you to float REVY environmental solutions?

Dr. Vanita Prasad: In 1993, I switched to this particular sector that is waste management as my Ph.D. topic. I was able to figure out that whatever skills I had, I could contribute by making a technology that could convert certain waste materials into hydrogen. Right now, we are talking about hydrogen which can decarbonize and solve a lot of issues that we are facing as a planet. We feel that hydrogen will be one of the fuels which can help us. So that’s what I have figured out 30 years ago. Biohydrogen production is a carbon negative route.

I started working on that side and then later I worked as an R&D head of Environment Consultancies wherein I was able to do a lot of water or wastewater treatment plants, STPs, and ETPs. With this experience, I understood that there are a lot of challenges associated with the designing of these plants and local data is not available. I wanted to fill in this gap and decided to launch my own organisation where we can repurpose different types of waste.

IBT: How are you addressing this challenge through your organization?

Dr. Vanita Prasad: In the past five to six years a lot of digitalization has happened and we are actually getting some data on waste which were previously not available. This data are very important when we are designing recycling plans or waste treatment plants. Let me bust a myth, We are not just treating waste but also in a way developing the industry itself. Fermentation industry, if we talk about organic waste is another kind of gasification. It is another technology, so in itself an industry that has to be treated in the same way. Waste management cannot be treated as “one solution fits all”. There are other challenges. All that has to be mapped.

The waste-to-energy (WtE) plants are based on our calorific value. They segregate waste which can produce high calorific value. Unfortunately, most of the trash ends up with kabadiwalas or ragpickers who come under the unorganised sector. The ragpickers who are segregating your paper waste and plastic and other dry waste do not provide the right input for technology used at the WtE plants, as that needs high moisture content. If we come to the organic waste like bio-methanation plants or the composting plants, we are getting a lot of plastics there which inhibits the bacterial activity. These are the challenges that we need to think of addressing while designing service plans to repurpose trash.

IBT: What kind of technological solutions have you brought in to ensure that the simplest of organic waste can be treated properly?

Dr. Vanita Prasad: I was carrying a lot of knowledge on the bacterial side or biological side as an environment biotechnologist which inspired me to start REVY. In principle, scientific solutions exist in the lab. It is not translated into application in the environment. And the same way when I talk about hydrogen production, we are thinking of electrolyzers, and not the biological route because this science is actually not commercialized. My main motive for starting this company was to take this science from the lab to the field.

And as a technologist, we do a lot of patents. When we started the company, we focused on working towards biogas production. I created a product, a kind of consortium, which can break down bacteria in the trash quickly. I tried and isolated a lot of bacteria. In some cases, the waste has a carbohydrate mode; in others, it has a protein mode. So, I had to give them those microorganisms that can efficiently degrade proteins rather than carbohydrates. I developed a patent product, a health tonic for all these bacteria to break down effectively and produce biogas.

I have also created an app now which can be used by waste management companies to estimate the size of the waste they want to treat. We map out the type of trash, quantity and the type of intervention it will require. We provide software solutions and improvise on these consortia. Because the consortia will be efficient, the right kind of microbes will be there, and the disposal or the conversion will be faster. I want to change this disposal mindset also. My main focus with the company vision is that we can provide these plants with lesser downtime, the CBG plants when it comes to biological hydrogen production so that they can run 24×7 to convert and process our waste.

IBT: In conclusion, I would want to know your take on waste management and the WtE industry in India. How do you see the industry evolving and becoming at par with the developed nations?

Dr. Vanita Prasad: It will be very soon. There have to be policies and laws to bring in dramatic change. In 1993, the laws around waste treatment and WtE were weak. But now with the implementation of wastewater as the zero discharge policy and the solid waste management rules, one can see allied industries also thriving. In my opinion, the younger generation is more aware of the opportunities that lie with the WtE industry.

I  envision sources like biofuel to be one of the main GDP sectors in the coming future because we are depleting fossil fuels quickly. We have a large population in India. You can correlate that we will not be falling short of the raw material that we need to process under WtE. The NITI Ayog has predicted that our segregation rate will go up from 25% to 50% by 2025. So, after that, there will be no turning back. So this industry will be established as an industry that will not be just waste management. It will birth the Compressed Bio Gas or CBG industry.

We have entrepreneurs and startups who have come up with solutions to keep the WtE plants running. Apart from the microbial health, raw material is also very important. So if the raw material is changed, then so do the microorganisms to help the waste breakdown. Via REVY services we are trying to get the field data and make SOPs or processes that can be locally devised. I believe, that 5 years down the line, we will be able to produce and supply sufficient biogas to be able to export it. In the future, we can be dominating the international market on supplying CBG or hydrogen from India.

At the close, I wanted to say please consider your sea water and organic waste as black gold. It’s really a resource. If everybody imbibes waste as a thing of resource, the perception of its disposal will also change.

Dr. Vanita Prasad is an Environmental Biotechnologist with three decades of experience in related field. Having graduated in Science from the University of Delhi, she completed her Master’s and Ph.D. in Biotechnology under Department of Biotechnology and Central Scientific Industrial Research, Govt. of India fellowships. Dr. Prasad has a long association with the industry as Consultant Scientist while heading R&D functions of various waste management companies. She hold patents for specific innovation in the field of Waste management and Renewable energy.

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