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A hidden treasure in tonnes of floral trash

Floral waste has a tremendous and largely unexploited potential of being converted into pigments, biogas and organic acids by using simple and inexpensive technologies

Firstpost print Edition

The soft saffron of the dusk melts silently in the River Kshipra as you drive back from the old city of Ujjain. The spent floral offerings of the Mahakal Temple float in the muddy waters, lost and listless, at the doorstep of time and timelessness.

This Chaitra Navratri, tonnes of stale blossoms of spring choked our water bodies, cursed to a slow decay. Flowers form an integral part of our worship. Yet their disposal is posing to be a phenomenal ecological hazard. Since the floral offerings are considered to be sacred, they are not discarded in the trash bins when wilted, but are usually flung into the local water bodies or rivers, polluting the water and causing irreversible damage to the environment.

The toxic pesticides and insecticides remaining as a residue on flowers get washed away into the water, bruising the fragile ecosphere. Organic matter from the decomposing floral waste leads to the growth of algae, which deplete oxygen levels in water and threaten aquatic life. Rotting flowers harbour microbes that cause pollution, noxious smells and spread infectious diseases. Decomposing flowers are a pollution hazard on land as well. Floral wastes, however, have a tremendous, and largely unexploited, potential of being converted into wealth by using simple and inexpensive technologies. With a collective effort, the wounded flowers can not only be gainfully used but can also generate employment.

Essential oils extracted from the discarded fragrant blossoms like champak, roses, jasmines, tuberoses, etc. are much in demand in the making of perfumes, toiletries, cosmetics and incense sticks. The floral wastes can be converted to different value-added products like pigments, dyes, food items, sugar syrup, compost, biofuels, biogas, bioethanol, organic acids, etc., which have diverse applications. The eco-friendly dyes from the flowers can be used to colour up fabrics like cotton, silk and wool on an industrial scale. The floral dyes are also used in the making of cosmetics and toiletries as they are not toxic, not allergic to human health and, more importantly, are non-carcinogenic.

The compost can be used to produce manure to promote organic farming. They can be sold to generate revenue or can nourish a vegetable patch in the temple backyard. Biogas produced from rotting blossoms can be used for cooking as well as for generation of electricity in remote areas. Biofuels and bioethanol can help ease the energy crisis. The waste flowers are also used in antibacterial finishing of soya bean protein fabric and in the making of handmade paper. The flowers can be dehydrated and converted into artistic greeting cards, wall plates, landscapes, decorative items, etc.

Floral waste, as an inactive microbial biomass, can also be used for biosorption, a process of binding and concentration of heavy metals from even very dilute aqueous solutions. This can help in the treatment of wastewater and other industrial effluents and thus help reduce pollution.

Some of the places of worship are already playing a pioneering role in recycling floral waste. At the Siddhivinayak Ganapati temple, one of the country’s first environment-friendly religious places, pigments are extracted from marigolds to use as a natural colouring agent for laddoos or as tilak or sindoor. Flowers offered daily at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah in Rajasthan are no longer going to waste. They are being recycled and used as compost for plants. Two recycling machines, installed by mining company Hindustan Zinc, churn out around 25 kg of compost each from 100 kg flowers.

As part of its corporate social responsibility, state-owned Coal India Limited has initiated two projects at Dakshineswar Kali Temple and Babadham Temple, in Deoghar, to produce organic fertiliser from the floral waste. These facilities are self-sustaining as NGOs manage the project and sell the fertilisers at the market. At the Kamakhya Devalaya, an in-situ waste segregating and processing system has been implemented. Daylong campaigns have been organised to sensitise the devotees on the importance of waste management and garbage disposal. Waste segregating bins have been installed inside the temple premises with relevant information.

A couple of new projects have come up lately with the aim to upcycle disposed flowers into bio-fertilisers and lifestyle products. Start-up firms and companies across the country are lending a helping hand to reuse or recycle the floral waste. Eight religious sites in Delhi have installed machines to covert floral waste to compost as part of an initiative by Angelique Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of a Delhi-based company. In a bid to stop polluting the Ganga, HelpUsGreen works with temples in Kanpur and neighbouring areas to collect wounded blossoms for making hand-rolled incense sticks.

The process is also touching the lives of many at the bottom of the pyramid. Local youths are being deployed for segregating waste, separating flowers from garlands and operating the processing units. Women from different self-help groups are being roped in from the villages. They can put in their labour at their leisure hours—for instance, take the flower dough home and hand-roll incense sticks.

Though many prominent places of worship are leading by example, the smaller shrines are yet to take a cue from them and flower pollution is continually on the rise. All the shrines and places of worship across the country need to team up to be part of the mission. The dumping process needs to be managed with dexterity supported by befitting legislation and its stringent implementation. All the places of worship should be mandated to spend a portion of their earnings for proper waste management of the floral offerings.

The state governments need to play a major role in the mission of sensitising the smaller shrines on this issue. The Central Pollution Control Board will have to issue directives or suggestions to the various state governments to spread the awareness on recycling of floral waste, especially those from the shrines. And the state governments should come up with innovative measures in various districts on how to collect floral waste from the various shrines and take them for reutilisation, which will go a long way in boosting the local economy by generation of employment and making of market worthy by-products. The floral offerings in our prayers will find an appropriate meaning if we treasure them better and use them judiciously to improve our lives, beautify our planet and build a better tomorrow.

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