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­­­­­How to tackle religious waste in India?

There are more than 400 rivers in India, which provide 90% of the country’s water. But according to the Central Pollution Control Board, the water in half the nation’s rivers in unsafe to drink and at least a quarter of the rivers cannot be used for bathing. Apart from industrial and domestic waste, a high level of pollution in the rivers come from religious activities. The waste from these religious activities include statues of deities, flowers, pots, ashes and incense sticks.

Why is this an issue?

Flowers are a great way to show religious devotion in India. India’s temples, mosques and Sikh gurudwaras are offered about 800 million tons of blossoms every year which includes red roses, yellow marigolds, prickly Xanthium. Since these flowers are considered sacred, people don’t throw them in the garbage but rather into the local water bodies like rivers, ponds and lakes. This floral waste has been building up with the growing population and an increasing number of temples in the country. It is estimated that about 600,000 places of worship are now dumping their waste in this manner every year. This kind of floral waste is now responsible for about 16% of the country’s total river pollution.

Although flowers are biodegradable they do pollute the rivers. Firstly, a lot of the waste is dumped wrapped in a plastic bag. This creates an issue due to plastic pollution. Secondly, the flowers are covered with pesticides which leach into the river. According to investigations by Phool, toxic arsenic, lead and cadmium are turning these bodies of water into a potentially deadly carcinogenic soup. The process of decaying leaks nutrients in the rivers which leads to an algae growth. Algae bloom in the rivers leads to a decrease in oxygen content affecting the aquatic ecology. As an example, the Varanasi-Allahabad religious corridor in northern India generates about 70-100 tons of religious waste every day which has reduced the oxygen level of the river and caused silting.

Immersing statues of deities in the river is a ritual in several major festivals. The paint, decorations and sometimes the raw materials used to make the statue are not environmentally friendly, so they pollute the river. This has been a major concern for authorities for many years. They have tried to raise campaigns of mud statues and homemade statues, but the majority still uses the tradition statues made of P.O.P. During the festival season of September-October, hundreds of thousands of statues are immersed in water bodies throughout the country.

In the Hindu religion, it is mandatory to cremate the dead and scatter their ashes in the river. It is believed that the dead will not attain salvation if the last remains are not immersed. There doesn’t seem to be a straightforward solution or substitute for this due to the sentiments and traditions of the people. Proper water and waste management of rivers by the authorities is the viable option to reduce pollution.

How are people solving this issue?

Over the years some organisations have immerged with innovative ideas and solutions to recycle and reuse the waste generated from religious activities. Most of these processes involve specific skills and technology which can be replicated by other organisations or temples throughout the country.

  • Art of Living Foundation – The foundation is collaborating with entities such as Coal India to scale its solid waste management project. They collect the waste from the temples, send it to their waste processing units. The waste is shredded and broken down to create organic manure through the help of bio-enzymes. Their projects are focusing on temples which generate the largest wastes in the country. Figure 1 shows the waste processing unit used by the Foundation. Mayank Vashishtha, who leads the waste management projects, says that they create one tonne of organic manure every day from the religious waste. So far, there are 13 waste management plants installed at various places of worship. But they keep encouraging other temples to install their projects since transporting the waste large distances is not possible.
Figure 1 Waste processing unit used to convert religious waste into organic manure.

  • HelpUsGreen – Agarwal and Rastogi have come up with an innovative ‘flowercycling’ technology where they convert religious waste of Uttarpradesh (India) into aromatic sticks, soaps and compost. They upcycle 2.4 tons of floral waste daily from the temples and mosques of the state. Their focus is on the waste thrown in the Ganga river. They have recycled about 11,060 metric tonnes of temple waste to date. Not much information is available about the technology they use but it shows the potential of converting the floral waste into soaps, incense sticks and compost.
Figure 2 Agarwal and Rastogi showing their products recycled from floral waste.
  • Noida Horticulture Division and Society for Child Development – Similar to HelpUsGreen, this joint venture is tackling the religious waste issue by converting the floral waste into organic colours, incense sticks and compost. This initiative is not only helping recycle the floral waste but also transforming the lives of the socially affected people of Noida. According to the Noida Authority officials, they are recycling, on an average, 60kg of floral waste collected from 7 temples.
  • Phool – Phool has been inspired to transform the floral waste that goes into the Ganga river. They focus heavily on research and development to come up with innovative ways to produce incense sticks, vermicompost and florafoam. Florafoam is a 100% biodegradable alternative to the toxic Thermocol. They have employed 73 women who have recycled around 11,000 tons of floral waste. Figure 3 shows the complexity of the whole process and the different stages involved in it. The flowers are separated by hand in the first stage. They are sprayed with organic biocullum and washed with water after that. In the 5th stage, the petals are separated and sun-dried. After this stage, the end products are either converted into incense sticks, vermicompost or florafoam. This is determined based on the species, carotenoid level and other factors. The dried petals are used for making the incense sticks and florafoam. The green part of the leaves and flowers is used for making vermicompost. Again, these processes involve adding materials which are not disclosed by Phool as they are developed by their research team. Although this restricts a people from recreating the same steps it still allows other organisations interested in floral recycling to understand their work and hopefully work with them for future projects.
Figure 3 Illustration of how Phool recycles the floral waste. It shows all the different stages and processes involved.

How can you help to solve the issue?

  • Large scale solutions –

Although, recycling religious wastes into incense sticks or soaps is not feasible for many people there are a few things that could be done easily to solve this issue. Firstly, the most impactful solution would be for government institutions, municipalities, temple trusts, cooperative societies and e-commerce players to implement a structured mechanism for manufacturing organic fertilizers using religious wastes. This can be achieved through the implementation of bio-fertilizer plants near the major sources of religious wastes. A bio-fertilizer plant uses rapid composting with the help of technologies such as vermiculture to turn floral waste into useful organic manure. This manure can later be sold in the markets for farm distribution. It is estimated that building such a plant near Ganga river can cost around INR 17,000,000. This would include the land and building cost, plant machinery and equipment, and other expenses such as initial setup and contingency fund.

An alternative to building a biofertilizer plant is to buy smaller machines which can do the same work but less efficiently. For example, as mentioned above the Art of Living Foundation encourages other temples and religious places to use and set up their waste processing units themselves. Similarly, smaller temples can also purchase a Green Waste Repressor. Such a unit can recycle and reduce organic waste like household wastes and religious wastes into organic compost and liquid fuel. It can be installed by a professional in your house or a place of worship.

  • DIY solutions – 

There are some fun and innovative things that could be done with your floral waste. For example, making potpourri is a popular way to recycle your flowers. You dry the flowers until crispy and mix it with your favourite spices. Add a few drops of essential oil or your favourite perfume and let the mix mature for 10 days in a sealed jar or a bowl. After that your potpourri should be ready.

Figure 4 How to make potpourri at home from floral waste

Converting rotten flowers into a scent for floor mopping is also a unique way of recycling flowers. Just add a cup of baking soda and a tablespoon of salt to your ¼ cup of dry or rotten flowers. The fragrance of the flower will spread throughout the house after mopping the floor with this mixture.

  • Composting at home –

Alicia Rudnicki has developed this stepwise guide, as described below, on how to compost flowers at homes. It explains in detail what part of the flower goes where, how to cut the flowers and how to make the different layers for composting. However, it is recommended to not compost all flowers in such a manner. There are certain flowers such as thorny roses which take a long time to compost. Therefore, you should check if the specific flower can compost quickly or not before starting the process. If you would like to know more about composting and which composting method is the best for you, check our post on composting here.

Stepwise guide on how to compost flowers at home by Alicia Rudnicki:

  • Step 1 (Pinch the flowers): Pinch spent blossoms from perennial and summer annual garden plants, separating the petals and tossing them in an outdoor compost heap contained in a covered bin or pit in the ground.
  • Step 2 (Cut green parts): Cut soft, green stems and leaves into bits and add them to the compost for nitrogen. For perennials, wait to do this until well after flowering has ended so foliage can feed roots for the next growing season.
  • Step 3 (compost dry foliage): Place dried foliage and flower heads in the heap for carbon. Pull up roots and add them to the pile if the plant is an annual that won’t survive the winter. However, for perennials, leave roots in the ground for next year’s growth.
  • Step 4 (compost flowers from vases): Remove cut flowers from vases before they get dry, so you can add them to the heap for nitrogen. Save dry cut flowers for carbon layers. Break up the petals and cut the stems and leaves into bits before adding them to the pile.
  • Step 5 (sandwich layers for composting): Organize your compost heap in sandwich-like layers. Alternate sections of green materials with layers of brown materials, such as dried leaves or shredded paper. Water between layers, but don’t drench the heap. Turn the compost about once a week to aerate it and encourage the growth of heat-loving bacteria that will help decompose the flowers and other materials.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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