Big Ideas in Small Cities: Sustainable Solutions for Waste Management


States in the United States are occasionally called “laboratories of democracy" because they can try innovative policy solutions, especially when action is slow at the federal level. Beyond states, cities and towns also have the potential to evolve context-specific solutions to overcome challenges. The Indian Constitution was amended in 1994 to decentralize power and decision-making to the municipal level and empower local governments. Today, smaller municipal bodies in cities across India are responsible for important functions related to sustainable development, including waste management.

When it comes to waste management, a 2018 report shows that small cities outperform their larger counterparts. The 2019 Swacch Sarvekshan rankings of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs demonstrate that seven of the top ten cities have populations less than 10 lakhs. Big cities can learn from the initiatives of these smaller cities. Three small cities - Ambikapur, an agricultural and mineral-based city in Chattisgarh, the tourist town of Alappuzha in Kerala and Vengurla, a coastal town in Maharashtra - show us that size does not matter when it comes to innovation. 

Exchange Waste for a Meal in Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh

Image Credit: Nagar Nigam, Ambikapur

Image Credit: Nagar Nigam, Ambikapur

 In July, Ambikapur became home to India’s first garbage cafe where people receive meals in exchange for waste. One kilogram of plastic waste can get you a full meal whereas half a kilogram will fetch you breakfast. Additionally, the plastic collected by the Ambikapur Municipal Corporation (AMC) will be used to construct roads. While the garbage cafe is a novel idea to help clean the city, and plastic roads are a great way to use recycled plastic, this alone is not enough to help the city manage its waste. 

Amikapur’s waste management system is an important part of its cleanliness initiative. For instance, for solid waste management, the AMC integrated non-government organisations (NGOs) and self-help groups (SHGs) into door-to-door collection and waste segregation. The city also set up Solid and Liquid Resource Management Centres (SLRM) to segregate waste. While their centralised approach leads to employment opportunities for the community, experts contend that a decentralised approach to waste management with segregation at the source is more effective and environmentally-friendly. The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 reflect this in creating a framework for decentralised waste management and mandating segregation at source 

Alappuzha in Kerala Manages Waste through Decentralisation

In 2012 protests of residents living near a landfill in Alappuzha resulted in the shutting of the landfill  two years later. The town began a pilot project in 2014, providing anaerobic composting bins and biogas plants to every family to segregate and process garbage with a 90% and 75% subsidy. . The scheme expanded over time to cover most of the city. In areas where there are no household bins, residents may use community bins. This system operates at the ward level.  Recognising the town’s successful model, the Kerala State government developed a policy to install aerobic bins in 1000 gram panchayats. The decentralised system is not just finding appreciation in the state; the city of Shillong in Meghalaya also replicated it. Alappuzha’s waste management system was also recognised as a success story by the United Nations Environment Program. Alappuzha was one of three cities given the Clean City Award by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2016 and was the cleanest city in Kerala as per the state rankings in Swachh Survekshan 2019.

A Landfill-turned-Park Becomes a Tourist Attraction in Vengurla, Maharashtra

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Vengurla converted a landfill into a waste management park which has conventional features like fruit trees and an organic farm, but the main attractions include a segregation yard, a biogas plant, a plastic crusher unit and a briquette-making plant. Vegurla separates waste into 23 categories and the park recycles almost every type of waste including plastic, cloth and paper.  In 2017, 7000 people visited the town to see its unique park. This also generates revenue for the municipality. The architect behind the scheme attributed part of its success to public participation. Several other towns in Maharashtra have made significant strides in waste management. 

Though all the three cities faced similar challenges, they used innovative solutions based on their context while also incorporating the common good practices such as enforcement of rules, imposing fines, creating awareness and building capacity of their human resources. Vengurla created a statement by converting its dump yard into a park to show the level of commitment towards cleaning the city. Allappuzha utilised a mix of technological innovation and community mobilisation and produced successful models of low cost household and community composting solutions. Ambikapur nurtured women-led SHGs and made them key to the waste management process. Through their waste management programs, small cities and towns across the country show us how collaboration, innovation, and addressing the context can create lasting change in our communities.