What do they do?
Garbage is gold. A lot of electronic waste, including your cell phone, carries precious metals like platinum and gold. And many tech-savvy professionals have made it their calling to harvest it.
The raw material is ample 700,000 tonnes of electronic waste every year, according to an expert. “From a 40-foot container-load of printed circuit board, chemical engineers can recover about 10 kg of gold,” says S Sampatth, president of Hyderabad-based Samki Teck Resources, which turns plastic and rubber waste, such as empty wafers packets, poly bags, stickers and cello tape, into resources. It converts inorganic waste into energy (diesel oil) through reverse engineering.
“After computer science, waste management will be the future,” declares Sampatth, a civil engineer from IIT Madras. Experts explain how somebody else’s waste can become consumable for others — as compost, biogas, or diesel oil.
“We waste too much of waste,” says Sampatth. “In India, 300 grams of waste is generated per capita per day. That comes to about 40 million tonnes per year.
Of this, about 5 per cent is plastic and rubber. Between 1.2 million to 1.5 million of this plastic and rubber goes to landfills or lies scattered on the streets.” Sampatth reckons that from this 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes of waste, waste management companies can generate about six lakh tonnes of diesel per year, which can be used to run a truck for six crore km.
That’s just one of the alluring possibilities in India’s mounting landfills.
Companies are tapping into more waste for business. Sampatth says his company is building a full-fledged plant “about which we will make an announcement in about two weeks in Hyderabad.” He adds, “If you set up 500 such units, it will mean about 500 new entrepreneurs, employing about 500-1,000 engineers between them.”
Organic waste is a much bigger business proposition – it constitutes 35 per cent of all garbage generated in India. Water management, construction waste and debris (30 to 40 per cent) and hazardous waste, including bio-medical waste, too, call for professional management.
The country lacks experts in bio-medical waste management, says Mumbai-based Amiya Kumar Sahu, president, National Solid Waste Association of India and convener/coordinator, NSWAI-Environmental Information System or ENVIS, a result of its tie-up with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
“Then there is huge scope for recycling of batteries, tubelights and CFLs, which requires skilled professionals,” says Sampatth. “There is a lot of potential in this field, especially in a developing country,” says Sahu.
A lot of waste management work is being done by private and non-governmental organisations. There has been some move in government set-ups towards professional garbage management. For example, through a public-private partnership, Mysore City Corporation is reportedly planning a unit to convert discarded plastic into crude oil with diesel, kerosene, wax and perfume as by-products.
Once upon a time, this didn’t happen. Before 2000, when Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules came into effect, civic bodies didn’t even keep an inventory of garbage, says Sahu, who wrote the first draft report on the rules submitted in 1997. The 2000 rules laid down compliance criteria and the procedure for managing and handling municipal solid waste in cities and towns. The rules also said civic authorities would “adopt suitable...technologies to make use of wastes so as to minimise (the) burden on (the) landfill.”
Apart from such domestic developments, the international carbon credit market has had a positive spin-off, too. Recently, Municipal Corporation of Delhi earned Rs. 5 lakh worth of carbon credits for one of its plants.
Ketan Mehta, owner of Ecosense Labs in Mumbai, says their business picked up about two-three years ago as the carbon credit market became “liquid and fluid”.
Ecosense, involved in R&D of solutions using biotechnology, sells products including those that hasten the conversion of biodegradable waste into compost, without producing methane, a greenhouse gas. “With carbon credits, the profitability and viability of these (waste management) projects has turned around.”
The profit margin changed from eight to 15 per cent to about 12 to 15 per cent, he says.
Surely, there’s some profit in this field.
Environmental engineers and postgraduates in environmental science design sites and processes and do lab-based analysis work, respectively. Students from other disciplines, such as chemical, civil, microbiology and biotechnology, are involved in different aspects of waste management.
How do I get there?
Take up science in Class 12. After this, you can opt for a bachelor’s in environmental, civil, chemical or mechanical engineering, microbiology, or even biotechnology. Admission to these programmes is through competitive exams. After completing your engineering, you may pursue a masters in environmental engineering as well. Else, you could also do a BSc programme and follow it up with a masters (MA/MSc) in environmental studies.
Typical day in the life of a Environmental Engineer
An average day of an environmental engineer working with a company:
10am: Reach office. Ask team for status reports on weekly/ biweekly projects.
11am: Meet with team, work on project proposals, collect details on competitors’ technology
2pm: Back to work
3pm: Participate in or conduct the weekly internal lectures series on topics related to the environment of professional interest
4pm: Visit the project or work site
6pm: Back home