Bigger restaurants have resources to treat their wastewater but small eateries struggle to come up with solutions to prevent groundwater contamination. Photo courtesy: Free Images/@a_kartha
Ramesh Iyer runs a small eatery in the bustling area of Karamana, in Trivandrum. Despite the limited size of his establishment which sells vegetarian food, Iyer spends around 30,000-40,000 rupees every month to dispose of waste – in the form of wastewater.
He has built storage tanks to collect the wastewater and regularly pays the Trivandrum Corporation around 7,000 rupees every week to hire their tankers to take away this to the effluent treatment centres.
This is the problem faced by most of the small and medium restaurants and food manufacturing units like bakeries and many cash-strapped establishments simply ignore the regulations and dump the wastewater into the sewerage lines. As per regulations, restaurants cannot unload water used in the establishment into the sewerage lines before treating it.
But this often is beyond the means of many restaurant owners. Some establishments simply dig holes in the premises and let the wastewater flow containing oil residue, fat and other biomaterial into it.
This is leading to contamination of water tables and urban canals, posing a threat to the environment and becoming a public health risk. Some pass it on to the sewerage lines leading to the clogging up of the system as the fat accumulates.
With the explosive growth of small and medium eateries, the cities of Kerala are now grappling with a mounting waste management crisis. When the subject comes up for public discussion, it mostly pertains to solid waste as the garbage-strewn streets remind everyone of the situation.
Moreover when accidents like the Brahmapuram landfill fire occurred, it brought to focus the clear and present danger the state and the country face. Some experts have described waste mountains in our landfills as ticking time bombs.
But the liquid waste contamination is not as visible or a subject of public concern as water flowing into the gutter or dumped onto the ground is often seen as a messy, but less harmful activity. Adding to the problem, the fast-growing real estate sector is contributing to water contamination in Kerala as effective treatment of wastewater is absent in places like apartment complexes.
According to studies done by Kerala authorities and research groups, water contamination is reaching alarming levels across the state. In some places, e-coli levels have risen dramatically as raw sewage is getting mixed with groundwater, which is our main source of drinking water. Some studies show the contamination rate is as high as 90 percent.
However, a ray of hope now shines on the horizon, as scientists from the CSIR-NIIST have come up with an innovative waste treatment system tailored to fit the needs of the city's bustling food industry.
CSIR-NIIST director, Dr C Anandharamakrishnan says the institute takes special interest in solving socially relevant problems like waste treatment. NIIST is already working on this with government departments like Pollution Control Board, Suchitwa Mission, and Trivandrum smart city project.
Dr Krishna Kumar, principal scientist at CSIR-NIIST, says that their breakthrough processing system can effectively treat both liquid and solid waste generated by restaurants, bakeries, and even larger establishments like wedding halls and apartment blocks.
The treatment process developed by CSIR-NIIST called Nowa, includes aerobic and anaerobic systems and efficiently decontaminates wastewater, removing fat, oil, cleaning agents, and tiny food particles. Moreover, the system not only purifies the treated water but also makes it recyclable for purposes like watering plants, cleaning, and toilet flushing, effectively reducing water consumption.
This custom-built system can cater to the unique needs of individual customers, making it accessible to establishments of all sizes, says Kumar. In larger establishments where large quantities of liquid and solid waste are generated, this can be developed further to generate biogas also.
He says this has been successfully implemented in a large-scale bakery unit in Adoor town in central Kerala which handles about half a tonne of flour almost every day and the treatment plant designed and executed by NIIST there produces biogas which is used by the bakery unit now.
It currently costs around 4 lakh rupees for a unit that can handle 2,000 litres of wastewater a day. Plants for larger units can be erected and NIIST says as it is a pre-fabricated system, each unit can cater to different demands of the user. Kumar says this cost will also come down as and when the production of the units increases.
NIIST also has gone a step forward with its waste treatment projects and recently invited the local restaurant owners in Trivandrum to visit the campus and see how the plant works. During a vigorous interaction with the scientists, the restaurant owners expressed interest in utilising the technology as they pointed out they also are affected by pollution.
But as the president of the Trivandrum Restaurant Owners Association, B Madhusoodhanan Nair, said later the desire is there but not the resources.
“It is beyond the ability of most of our members to raise 4 to 5 lakh rupees to install such a plant. If the government extends some financial help like a subsidy, many of the restaurants across Kerala will gladly adopt this technology.”
The research institute has installed a model of this plant at their campus as a showcase project and the waste generated by the campus canteen is treated by this. It decontaminates grey water from the canteen for non-potable use and turns the solid waste into manure.
NIIST also plans to explore the idea of installing such treatment plants in residential and commercial establishments also.
The management of solid waste is also a huge challenge in Kerala. The food waste from restaurants in Trivandrum is removed by private entities but some in the sector say it is difficult to ensure that it reaches intended targets such as pig and fish farms or dumped elsewhere.
Burning food waste along with other materials in incinerators is common, despite it being unlawful. This harmful practice is even followed by larger establishments like some convention centres and marriage halls.
One of the standout features of the NIIST system for solid waste is its ability to handle a wide variety of solid waste, including eggshells, lemon peels, and bones, along with the usual food leftovers. Unlike some existing solid food waste treatment machines that require strict segregation, the NIIST system is more robust, says Kumar.
Another significant advantage of the NIIST system is its reduced water consumption compared to traditional waste treatment methods. With some current systems demanding three litres of water for processing one kilogram of waste, this water-saving feature is particularly beneficial for units generating large quantities of food waste. The lower water usage results in less slurry output, making the process less messy and devoid of strong odours.
The waste management challenges faced by hotels and eateries in Kerala are formidable and require urgent attention. The scientists at NIIST are offering a way forward and it is now up to the stakeholders to ensure that Kerala takes a step forward to a cleaner and more sustainable future.
Kerala should plan a cyber autobahn
When it comes to mobility, Germans are a class apart. The autobahns they have are considered one of the best driving roads on the planet, and CNN once said they changed the world itself. The same can be said for German automakers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Now, these auto giants are focusing on electric vehicles, and the creators of such dream machines are looking to establish a link to Kerala. Germany-based dSPACE, which provides software for autonomous and electric vehicles, plans to establish an R&D centre at the Kinfra Park in Trivandrum. The company says the centre will take full responsibility for dSPACE products.
Another German firm specializing in such software, AOX, has entered into a partnership with Trivandrum-based firm Acsia for automotive software services. Acsia had recently acquired a German software firm called Arctictern Solutions GmbH, which is also in the same kind of business. It looks like the Kerala IT sector is well-placed to start a cyber autobahn for more traffic in the same sector. The grapevine has it that Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) is also toying with the idea of establishing an Infinity Centre in Germany to develop more IT links in the country. Stay tuned.
A jackpot offer from KSUM
Here is an offer for startups in Kerala – try your luck with the state lottery. KSUM says they want a solution to help the Department of State Lotteries verify winning tickets and detect fakes. Currently, state officials manually go through around 300,000 tickets daily to verify the winners and weed out the counterfeits. Yes, you read it right – the lottery officials do it manually every day. So KSUM has issued a Lottery Challenge to provide a solution and hopes to find a lucky winner soon. We hope the next stop for KSUM is the Sabarimala shrine, where the counting of coins and notes worth crores is also done manually. According to Kerala Kaumudi, Cochin University of Science and Technology offered to use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to count money faster, but the proposal didn’t gain currency with the officials.
No more rubbish talk about AI
Back to the trash business again. We admit that sorting and disposing of garbage daily is not one of our favourite tasks, but we soldier on bravely every day. Now, Google says they may have a robot ready to do that task, thanks to AI. In a blog post, the company states that it is developing a vision-language model robot that will be able to identify and recognise things that need to be disposed of and do it for you. “Just like language models are trained on text from the web to learn general ideas and concepts, RT-2 transfers knowledge from web data to inform robot behaviour,” says the company. The tech giant also says the use of AI to train robots shows enormous promise for more useful machines like this. So, no more trash talk about AI.
Take a bow, Japanese officials
The Japanese government has a headache. Many career bureaucrats are leaving their cushy but unexciting jobs and opting for roles in startups. A significant number of them are motivated to contribute to society and are choosing jobs in social enterprise startups that deal with issues like global warming, education, and agriculture. According to Nikkei Asia, besides being motivated by the good cause, they also get paid better in these positions. However, what surprised us the most was a quote from one such official: "We are busy responding to politicians' whims," said a bureaucrat. "I often feel that it is not our job to make proposals to help society meet its needs." Does this sound familiar to anyone else?