What Can Compost Teach You About Building Sustainable Cities Of The Future?

Traditionally, cities and urban settlements are known to be extractors of rural natural resources and exporters of pollution to rural and peri-urban areas. Our landfills are a case in point. But, lately, the use of urban organic waste in rural agriculture is receiving much attention. Early this year, Bengaluru’s Municipal Corporation announced a compost buyback scheme to encourage citizens to compost their kitchen discards. More recent news points to a growing demand for urban compost among rural farmers.

In a context where much of the biomass from farms - vegetation, plant material and crop residue - is either degraded from the excessive application of technology and chemicals or diverted towards the production of fuel and energy, rural farming communities aren’t left with much in the way of agri-waste to compost and use as soil amendment.

Proto Village

Proto Village

On the other hand, cities where waste segregation and composting are promoted as part of the larger solid waste management strategy are witnessing a spurt in home composting. Urban compost made with kitchen and garden waste is valuable as a re-generation medium. If it is made properly, it has a tremendous ability to restore life to soils that have lost their texture, water-holding capacity and microbial life. But with limited uses for citizen compost in the city, households are left with more compost than their gardens and parks can hold. Daily Dump, India’s premier home composting solution provider, identified this early on as a potential barrier to the uptake of urban home composting, and quickly put takeback efforts in place. Today, Daily Dump collects 10-12 tonnes of compost a month from 55 residential communities in Bengaluru and delivers it to landscape contractors, peri-urban and rural farmers, and organisations that conduct tree planting initiatives.

Such urban-to-rural compost pipelines are an efficient way to utilise compost from cities in a closed-loop system: the nutrients from our food are sent back to farms as compost which is used to grow food. “Farmers are keen to use this to support the other kinds of manure they use. Vineyards, coffee plantations, mango groves are great places for this material,” says Daily Dump founder, Poonam Bir Kasturi over email.

But, the costs associated with identification of farms, collection and transport of compost often deter the scaling up of such initiatives.

It was then that Daily Dump came upon the work of Proto Village which takes some of the most barren land in the country in arid Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh and turns it into a self-sustaining, ecologically-sound farm. “We wanted to support their endeavours so we decided to partner with them by crowdfunding the costs, the time it takes us to sieve and mature the compost, as well as the labour and transportation for getting it to the farm,” Poonam says.

She is optimistic that such programmes could directly link generators of bulk compost to those who need it, in some form of barter or relationship that goes beyond a transaction. “People could receive produce in return for their compost or get a day to spend understanding how the farm works,” she says. The current focus is on getting more people to support the transport of this rich urban resource and value it for all it is worth.

New life grows out of bags of compost

New life grows out of bags of compost

A sea change in how we see waste

The volume of urban India’s waste is expected to swell in the next few decades and we cannot keep up the ‘default mode’ way of thinking about the current city compost pipeline. There is also much to be desired in the quality of urban compost. A fundamental shift is required in how we treat our waste if we are to produce compost of a quality suitable for growing the food we eat.


"Urban planning does not allocate areas in neighbourhoods for circular economies to function."


“Officials know that extracting compost from mixed waste actually creates material with unwanted levels of toxicity considering how many more chemicals we are putting into our consumer and production streams. Yet they end up investing in large, centralised plants because they have no option. But is that really the case?” Poonam asks. The problem can be traced back to how cities are conceptualised and designed. So, while we have space marked for bus depots and toilets, parking, repair, shelters for all the bus drivers, conductors, and supervisors, we have no such infrastructure for waste. Even our water, energy, food and bio-diversity are seen as silos without any interconnection.

Poonam also calls out the flaws in the design of government-backed compost buyback schemes saying, “Won’t the price of good quality nutrition be fixed below even the basic costs to generate this black gold?” This is indicative of our basic misunderstanding of what circular economies provide as wealth to the nation. It reveals our inability, as a country, to understand systems of regeneration and abundance, and the value of working with nature.

It is possible, however, to have dense but regenerative cities. “The only way to control the quality of compost before giving it to farmers to grow food is to compost in-situ. Architects and builders need to plan for this in all their projects, in addition to providing adequate car parking and swimming pools,” says Marcy Newman of Daily Dump.

Citizen disengagement with Nature is what formed the genesis of Daily Dump 11 years ago. Since then, the organisation has been using design to help people get a peek into natural systems, engage in new ways with the materials they use, and their behaviour with these materials. “We thought it would get easier to convince people that this one habit in their daily lives would allow them to help create better habitats for all of us and be connected with the bigger system we are all part of,” Poonam says.

The response, however, was not what they expected. While composting is taking off all the country, it has devolved into a ‘clean’ housekeeping issue absent any deeper engagement with its real value or an increased closeness with Nature. “For us it was never about cleaning up,” she says.

Helping vendor Gangaratna make her sambar even tastier

Helping vendor Gangaratna make her sambar even tastier

Daily Dump’s newest initiative, Under The Flyover, is similarly rooted in a disconnect between human beings and Nature. The project, implemented in partnership with organisations like Azim Premji University, Meghshala, Nature Conservation Foundation and others, is spread over 3 months and conducted with students from 5 schools. Its goal is simple: to allow children space to explore the idea of ‘Nature’ from different points of view and develop a deeper, more personal experience of it, one that goes beyond its recreational functions. Students are encouraged to explore and engage with natural cycles in a hands-on way and understand the value of Nature in their daily lives experienced through their built environments, food, business and culture.

Flyovers - urban artefacts, the quintessential public commons, and probably the most unlikely place from which to observe Nature - become labs where what is born and what is made intersect. “They are places that have no boundaries, and morph during the day to serve many needs. Such a place is just perfect for thinking about what Nature is and what it means to me? How does it matter to me, to my life, to my city?” says Marcy. So it is that the children hunkering down, peering at soil, hands grimy with compost, plant seeds under these bridges of concrete and steel. Last week, for instance, they explored how a nearby street food vendor uses runoff water at her idli stand. They planted tomatoes for her to use, all while learning about sunlight, water runoff, systems thinking and foot traffic under the flyover. They’re joined occasionally by corporate employees out for lunch or municipal workers seeking shade.

Off-duty bus drivers stop by to plant saplings

Off-duty bus drivers stop by to plant saplings

At the end of the session, children encounter this  problem: what is the point of creating nutrition of any form if we don’t value it and put it back to regenerate another system?

Under the flyover, compost turns into a teaching tool to introduce students to the idea of circular, regenerative systems. It forms their understanding of what it means to be part of this natural, man-made world, and opens their eyes to the endless possibilities that emerge when the two work together. While it might sound incongruous, compost will play a lead role in the cities of the future which will devote more space to the growing of food. “They will need compost for traffic islands, pathways, parks, living and working spaces. So, it’s not only farms that will need compost,” Poonam says.

It is expected that 60 percent of India’s population will live in cities by 2050. Unless there is a shift in urban planning approaches, it’s not hard to foresee increased pressure on scarce natural resources, overburdened waste management and sanitation infrastructure, and social instability. Under The Flyover recognises that children have the ability to reimagine urban spaces of the future. As future leaders and planners, it is important that they look with new eyes at the prevalent nature-development dichotomy characteristic of the current smart city model, and find ways to overcome it. It is possibly the only way forward if cities of the future are to be built on the principles of sustainability, equity and universal well-being.  

Images courtesy Daily Dump.         

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in Scroll, YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founder of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.