Seeing is Believing: Zero Waste Kanyakumari

By Bhavani Prakash

Shores of Kanyakumari District

Shores of Kanyakumari District

In a previous blog, we had featured Madavi Nathan Oliver’s observations on the Plastics Free Kanyakumari (PFKK) campaign in the district of Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, India. The campaign spearheaded by the District Collector (DC), Rajendra Ratnoo includes banning of single use plastic bags, and is progressing towards a Zero Waste Kanyakumari through a responsible handling of solid household waste as a next step. The DC is an office comparable to the Mayor of a city or a group of towns/villages.

When DC Rajendra Ratnoo invited me to participate in the campaign during my recent trip to India, I was more than keen to see this with my own eyes and contribute in any way possible. Though many parts of India such as Ooty, Sikkim, Mysore, Dharmasala, Mumbai and Delhi have a ban on the handing out of single use plastic bags, litter on the streets and solid waste management continue to be major issues in India. A ban on single use plastic bags is only the first step. Behaviour change can only be brought about by a well thought out waste management strategy and crucially in its implementation.


KK StationKanyakumari is about a twelve hour train ride away from Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu. One of the most glaring sights from compartments as trains meander in and out of railway stations in India, is the plastic litter heaped up in towns. Even bushes and grasses in the otherwise picturesque countryside can’t seem to escape from the ubiquitous plastic.

Nagercoil (the district headquarters of Kanyakumari) was a pleasant surprise with neatly swept platforms and the near absence of litter. But for the odd plastic or paper cup on the tracks, the cleanliness was indeed a stark contrast to the rest of the train journey. As we inched forward towards the last stop of Kanyakumari (the southernmost town of India which shares the same name as the district), I was literally counting the odd litter lying around. Clearly the stoppage of plastic bags had made a difference.

KK countrysideTraversing through many parts of Kanyakumari over the next couple of days however, one can’t say that the district is entirely litter free. I found a lot of it in the form of paper cups and random paper and plastic waste along the busier commercial streets of Nagercoil, but the quantum of visible waste on the streets was considerably less compared to many parts of Chennai and its outskirts with similar populations, where there is no ban on plastic bags or any waste management campaign in place. The beautiful countryside beyond the towns of Kanyakumari district was much cleaner. It was an utter delight to travel through the pastoral landscape carved by lush paddy fields, banana plantations and palm and coconut groves.


It is against the law in the district to use any single use or throw-away plastic items like carry bags and cups.  Anyone found carrying a plastic bag can be slapped a fine of Rs 100 by the authorities.  Shops that provided or sold plastic bags or disposable plastic cups can be made to pay higher fines, have their materials seized and even be shut down for non-compliance.

Shops at Kanyakumari town

Shops at Kanyakumari town wrap things in old newspaper and jute string

I tested a few shopkeepers in Kanyakumari town. “Who wants to pay Rs 5000 as fine?” said one near the famous Kanyakumari Amman temple which is built close to the spot where the three great seas merge – the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.  I bought a shirt from another shop and it was promptly packed in newspaper and jute string. Likewise, a statue carved on a coconut shell which I picked up in the town. Enforcement was certainly showing positive effects. As for measurable results, the DC told me that the production of single use plastic bags in the district had come down to near zero.

Will litter on the streets reduce with enforcement?

Will litter on the streets reduce with enforcement?

As of September 1, 2010, the fines are going to be stricter. Anyone found littering will be fined Rs 100 for the first offence, Rs 1000 for the second and Rs 10,000 for the third time. Subsequent offences are liable for prosecution and imprisonment. With this it is hoped that the visible litter on the streets will considerably reduce too.


Enforcement though critical, cannot by itself ensure the success of a behaviour change program. It requires strong leadership, clear objectives, sustained education and training of local leaders and the masses to make a big difference.

After spending several hours with the DC, accompanying him to meetings and talking to him, I could definitely perceive sincerity, focus and passion towards the cause of achieving zero waste – the kind of energy that one normally doesn’t associate with Indian bureaucracy.

Kanyakumari consists of 1,057 rural habitations, 56 Town Panchayats or Councils and 4 municipalities. The DC has scheduled regular awareness building and training programmes with local leaders on an ongoing basis.

DC Rajendra Ratnoo at Erachakulam

DC Rajendra Ratnoo at Erachakulam

I had the opportunity to take part in two such meetings. One was with women leaders at Thovalai Taluk and the other at Erachakulam with town and village Panchayat or council leaders. At both meetings, the DC thanked the participants for the success of the plastic bag free program so far, and asked for continued support. The meetings served as an introduction to solid waste management which will be the next major leg of the campaign. I talked about simple methods for composting of kitchen waste and Kowsalya Devi, a key resource volunteer with the PFKK team spoke about separation of hazardous waste, such as paints, batteries, compact fluorescent bulbs, medicines, cosmetics and pesticides which tend to contaminate water and soils.

Each meeting ended with the DC asking the participants to visualize a clean and green Kanyakumari followed by affirmations for being a responsible and conscious citizen of the district, by avowing to abstain from plastic bag usage and committing to segregrating household waste.

Ongoing grassroot level training will continue at regular intervals to ensure that this reaches every single household. The next leg of the campaign involves educating trainers – one each for about 200 households and master trainers to train the trainers.

A clearly written guide or pamphlet will be circulated to each household in the district on how to segregate waste into Makkum Kuppai (degradable waste such as vegetable and fruit waste, cooked food, paper, eggshells, coffee and tea grinds) and Makkadha Kuppai( non-degradable waste such as plastics, metals, e-waste, glass, and hazardous waste). Households will be trained to compost the degradable waste. Maximum efforts will be made to recycle the non-degradable waste collected from households. Only the remainder will be sent to the landfill or the incinerator. Proper waste manangement will have a long term positive impact on the soil and water of the region.


The campaign has a very visible face. It is very easy to spot the various placards throughout the district, particularly in Kanyakumari town, exhorting the public to say, “No to Plastic.” The campaign is attracting media attention from regional and national dailies like “The Hindu” and Kumudam, a popular Tamil magazine among others. Overseas websites such as Lokvani.com and ours are featuring the ongoing campaign.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam , the former President of India visited Nagercoil recently and he acknowledged the PFKK campaign in his speech at a local school.

This is the first time a sustained and comprehensive campaign for a waste management program in India is using multiple platforms – radio, television, newspapers and social media. In particular, social media such as the Facebook Fan Page, “Plastic Free Kanyakumari” (PFKK) has been an excellent way to build up the knowledge base for the campaign, as well as to connect volunteers.

PFKK logo

PFKK logo

Why is visibility important?

It serves as a morale booster for the volunteers and residents of the district to know they are part of a meaningful movement. It also ensures transparency of the program, so everyone can monitor the progress of the campaign and see the ongoing developments for themselves. Most important of all, it enables the campaign become an important case study for other regions of the country, and even other developing countries to follow.


 The path towards Zero Waste Kanyakumari will certainly create many new avenues for green employment. Entrepreneurs can engage in recycling or downcycling of plastic into new plastic raw material. Upcycling opportunities exist to convert plastic materials into new products such as bags, belts, purses and other premium products which can even be exported. There is already new supply replacing single-use plastic carry bags by manufacturers of multi-use polypropylene, canvas and cloth bags.
Training for recycling paper

Training for recycling paper

The district wide encouragement of composting will create a demand for composting pots from terracotta or earthenware, an eco-friendly and biodegradable container for the purpose. Economic opportunities will arise for self-help groups who choose to collect compost from households to consolidate and market the compost.

Opportunities for creating a new recycled paper industry can be explored for papers such as newspapers invoices, used school notebooks and diaries, used calendars, which are not otherwise used for packaging. New crafts from papier mache using recycled paper has the potential to create new jobs.

Some of the challenges observed are outlined here. Efforts are being made to address them:

* Non-recyclable and non-degradable waste continue to be partially landfilled and partially incinerated. The DC acknowledges this is not the ideal solution but it is a necessary transition phase. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has approved co-incineration in Cement Kilns at more than 1,400 degree Celsius to get rid of toxins

*  The details of waste segregation have yet to be ironed out – to find an economical way to help waste collectors pick up households’ segregated waste. One option is through self help groups or waste collectors who pay households for the recylable waste, and ensure the wet waste reaches a more centralised biogas unit.

*  The alternatives to plastic entail continuous monitoring and feedback. Some shops are working around the system by giving thin polypropylene bags that look similar to the old carry bags. Even though they are not “plastic,” these bags are petroleum based, and are not designed for multiple number of uses, and may tear after one or two usages. Going forward a minimum thickness should be specified for polypropylene bags, so they may be used for several times, before sent for recycling

* Paper cups are seen as alternatives, but as the DC pointed out, there is a thin non-separable waterproof plastic coating, making the cups non-biodegradable. Also single use cups tend to be thrown away and littered outside shops, so behaviour change in terms of littering is important, and this may come about with the new regulations against littering

Perhaps the most important challenge is the institutionalisation of this campaign which the DC himself is working hard at accomplishing. DCs cannot continue in their roles perpetually in any district and will have to move on to new roles. The momentum that has been created has to be sustained for the coming years if the vision of Zero Waste Kanyakumari is to be achieved.  This is critical for the district and if it has to serve as a role model for the rest of the nation.


The campaign has been moving quickly focussing on one key step at a time – first the ban of single use plastic and next the segregation of household waste into biodegradable and non-biodegradable matter. If the entire waste cycle is to be closed, the campaign will one day have to encompass all kinds of upstream industry and commercial wastes in addition to household waste.

The campaign is currently supporting the spread of organic farming as well and this is an area where a lot of future attention will be directed. I attended a meeting with the Organic Farmers Association and Vermicomposting Association in Nagercoil, where it was useful to listen to the feedback given by the farmers about the methods they use and challenges they face. The DC has pencilled in regular interaction with them – something that will give them a sense of being listened to, and offer them a forum to find solutions to their various problems.

nardepIn this context, I also had the opportunity to visit the Nagercoil branch of the Vivekananda Kendra, a non-profit organisation which among other activities, has been doing several decades of research on organic farming and renewable energies in a local context. NARDEP, Vivekananda Kendra’s arm involved in sustainable development have been training farmers all over the country on organic farming techniques. It was very heartening to see a movement towards relearning and rediscovering ancient and inherited knowledge of the lands, while incorporating new, sustainable technologies.


Local leaders being trained

Local leaders being trained in Zero Waste Management

What is commendable is that a remote district of Southern India has been able to accomplish far more than the bigger metropolitan cities of the country in terms of taking concrete action on waste management. If I had to talk of one impressionable moment from the visit, it was when a local panchayat (council) leader came up to me and Kowsalya Devi after the meeting. With great enthusiasm, he invited us to come to his village to teach his people how to manage their waste.  There is much eagerness to learn, and local leadership to be nurtured.

Effective leadership is critical for any behaviour change program – we are seeing the positive effects of this already.  If this permeates to create and unite leaders throughout the district at all levels, the common objective of a cleaner and greener Kanyakumari has the potential of being realised speedily – for the wellbeing of the population and for future generations.

Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Kanyakumari: The Plastic Bag Free District in India

Photo courtesy:  The beautiful photos of Kanyakumari’s landscapes have been taken by Ramesh Amala Srinivasan.

KK paddy fields

The paddy fields of Kanyakumari

Kanyakumari is a rustic and beautiful place, with a variety of magnificient landscapes - rolling mountains, verdant plains and serene beaches. At the southern tip of the Western Ghats range  - one of the two major biological hotspots in India other than the Himalayas, it is also a place of historical interest.

I have been fortunate to visit areas of immense natural beauty that have simply taken my breath away. May this wonderful district remain pristine and clean for all.

Many thanks to all those who made this trip really memorable and friends I’ve connected with. My personal wishes for a successful campaign:

DC Rajendra Ratnoo, Kowsalya Devi, Samson Edwards (and his intrepid 5 year old, Smith), Kumar Mullakkal, Suhithar Baus, Madavi Nathan Oliver, Gaugarin Oliver, Swaroop Thampy, Ramesh Amala Srinivasan, Joe Winston, Timothy Charles, Dr. Devaprasath Jeyasekharan, Parveen Mathew, Mr. Jeyaperimbakumar, Muthukumar Isha, Kumaran Appuchami and Mr. Kirupananda Rajan (And sincere apologies if I’ve missed out anyone)


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Posted by on Jul 27 2010. Filed under Biodiversity, Plastics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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