Anyone who lives in a large Indian city is accustomed to driving past mountains of rubbish which often exceed the height of a 50-storey building. The earthmovers and trucks working on these mountains of rubbish – commonly called ‘landfills’ – look like ants trying to move colossal lumps of garbage. Many of us who have stared at these landfills have asked ourselves “How long will it take for India’s cities to run out of space for these colossal landfills?”. Thankfully for us, the good folks from Panaji have now found an answer. As Chryselle D’Silva Dias writes, “A regimented and dedicated system of segregating, recycling garbage has helped the state capital achieve the unthinkable – eliminating landfills… Goa’s capital Panaji is a zero-landfill city. This means that all kinds of waste generated in the city is segregated and recycled, leaving nothing to be sent to landfills – unthinkable given that towering mounds of garbage are a symbol of the waste management crisis that most Indian cities are grappling with.”

So how have the good folks at Panaji pulled off this miracle? Central to Panaji’s success says Ms Dias is one insight from the Centre for Science & Environment: “India generates 65 million metric tonnes of waste annually, according to a 2020 report by the Centre for Science and Environment. An estimated 94% of this waste is recyclable…”

What the local government in Panaji has done is focused on getting the % of rubbish recycled as high as possible: “Key to Panaji’s success is its efficient recycling and sorting process. Apart from composting all wet waste, the city sorts and recycles solid waste into an impressive 28 “fractions”, or categories, an increase from the original 16 categories introduced in 2021. Among these fractions are different kinds of paper, hard and soft plastics, cloth, electronic waste, tetra packs and non-recyclables. Even coconut shells and ceramics are segregated…

Key to Panaji’s waste revolution is its Material Recovery Facility or Swachhta Kendra (cleanliness centre) set up in 2014. Located on a busy arterial road in the suburb of St Inez in the state capital, the material recovery facility is an inconspicuous building. But inside, there is a constant buzz of activity, day and night.

Around 30 men and women – known as Safai Sathis, or cleanliness helpers – are hard at work, wearing aprons and gloves, cocooned from the wind and sun by the large shed that is their workplace. Conversation fills the air as workers tease each other about who will be the “Star Performer” of the day. Throughout the day, trucks of all sizes bring in garbage to the sorting centre.
The Corporation of the City of Panaji employs sanitation workers who collect segregated wet and dry waste from all houses in the city precincts. Other workers gather garbage from public dustbins or litter from the streets. All this waste is collected at mini sorting stations or transported directly to the material recovery facility for segregation and recycling…

At the material recovery facility, a mountain of waste piles up, its size ebbing and falling as it is put onto three moving conveyor belts for segregation.
A row of Safai Sathis stand on both sides of the conveyor belts, quickly sorting different items into large bags. They divide the waste into recyclables and non-recyclables. Plastic and paper are further segregated into different fractions based on quality and colour.

After sorting, bales of paper, plastic, tetra packs and cloth are made. Recyclable waste, including plastic, is sold to registered local vendors, generating revenue that is fed back into the facility…

At the Panaji material recovery facility, almost everything is recycled, except large sheets of glass and the occasional vintage television tube.”

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