New Delhi: “Jiyo or jeene do, hummein saas lenein do (Live and let live and help us breathe freely); WTE plant ko hatana hai, zindagi bachani hai (We need to remove WTE plants and save our lives) – These were some of the messages from the residents of Sukhdev Vihar, in New Delhi. These residents have time and again raised their voice to protest against the waste-to-energy (WTE) plant in Delhi’s Okhla area and called for its closure. Back in March 23, 2019, over 300 South Delhi residents organised one of the largest open-chain rallies to protest against the Okhla waste-to-energy (WTE) plant. Their appeal was that the WTE plant, located in the heart of the city is spewing toxic fumes, filling the atmosphere with stench and making people sick. According to the data shared by Down To Earth, a fortnightly magazine which was started by environmentalist Anil Agarwal with an aim to make people aware of the challenges that the environment is facing, more than one million people reside in the residential colonies that surround the plant.
This is the scenario when Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) norms states that boilers, in case of explosion, will hazardously impact everything within 260-metre radius and a manual by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development adds that such plants should be located no nearer than 300 meters from residences and industries. What’s even worse is the fact that despite these guidelines, Okhla WTE plant is within the vicinity of residential areas like Sukhdev Vihar DDA Flats, Haji Colony and are located mere 45 metres away from the plant.
It’s not just about the Okhla WTE plant, it is about all the WTE plants as more or less all pose the same risk. There have been repeated violations by most of the WTE plants in the country. In 2016, the National Green Tribunal slapped Rs 25 lakh fine on the Okhla WTE plant for affecting the environment. Though all the four operational incinerator-based WTE plants in the country have installed Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS), which sends real-time pollution data to the environment ministry and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Delhi-based environment think tank Centre for Science and Environment states that the implementation has been lax. There is a lack of equipment standardisation, faulty installation, and inadequate maintenance in most plants.
Explaining why WTE plants are not an ideal solution for India, Chitra Mukherjee, Consultant, Waste and Sustainable Livelihood said,
The country’s first WTE plant was set up in 1987 in Timarpur, Delhi. That time, it ran for just 21 days before it was shut down due to poor quality of incoming waste. Since then, 14 more WTE plants of 130 MW capacities have been installed in the country. Out of these, half have already been closed down and the remaining are under scrutiny for environmental violations. This is the proof that WTE plants are not an ideal solution but they are a mere tool of waste management.
Reiterating the same fact and highlighting why WTE is not an ideal solution for the waste that India produces, Richa Singh, Landfill expert from Centre for Science and Environment said,
We feel waste to energy is that magical technology and a one stop solution to everything. But we have to understand that we have a very different type of waste. If you see the composition of the kind of waste we generate then you will find that most of it is biodegradable and organic waste that is your food or kitchen waste. This type of waste has 70-80 per cent of water, now when you put this waste in the waste-to-energy plant, you are simply spending money on burning more of water. And that’s where the logic behind the waste-to-energy plant fails.
Talking about the national capital specifically, Swati Singh Sambyal, Independent Waste and Circular Economy Expert said that Delhi generates 11,000 tonnes of waste in a day, out of which only 10 per cent is non-recyclables, which highlights that Delhi clearly doesn’t need three WTE plants.
The experts also listed the major issues with WTE plants in India:
1. India’s Waste Has Lower Calorific Value
As per the definition, calorific value is the amount of heat or energy produced when waste is burnt. According to CSE, the ideal calorific value for WTE plants is 1,900-3800 kcal/kg. However, India’s waste calorific value ranges anywhere between 1,411–2,150 kcal/kg, which is considered too low to burn.
Explaining this concept, Ms Singh said that India’s waste is full of water, now to burn it one will need more fuel, which will be impacting the environment more as it will be creating more emissions. She added,
Feed stock, the kind of waste that should be there in the waste-to-energy plant should have high calorific value, which means the heating value. With more of water waste, this value will drastically reduce as a result a lot of emissions will be generated. Now, can you imagine in a city like Delhi, where the air quality is already compromised, with the implementation of more and more waste-to-energy plants, we are further compromising the air and impacting the health of people living in the nearby areas.
Highlighting this issue of the kind of waste being sent for processing to WTE plants, Ms Mukherjee said,
The kind of waste that is needed in waste-to-energy plant is around 1800 kcal/kg. But Indian waste is low in the calorific value (the amount of heat or energy produced when waste is burnt), it is high in organic content and is less than 1500 kcal/kg. So how will this technology work in India and that’s why even waste-to-energy plant in Ghazipur was shut for quite some time.
2. To Be Effective, WTE Plants Required Only Segregated Waste
Underlining the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 and what it states for WTE plants, Ms Mukherjee said,
The 2016 waste to management rules clearly states that the WTE plants should get the waste that is non-biodegradable, non-reactive and non-recyclable. But at the moment when segregation is not happening then how do you send that segregated waste to these plants. As a result, what is simply happening is that unsegregated waste which has about 50-60 per cent of wet waste, 15-16 per cent of dry recyclables, and 10-15 per cent inert waste is going to these plants. So, how will it function? We are using the government’s money in building these technologies that doesn’t really give context, it is just being used here because it is an easy option for our waste management woes.
Ms Mukherjee signed of by saying the need of the hour is to focus on reusing and recycling of waste in our cities.
Swati Singh Sambyal also reiterated the same fact and said,
The biggest flaw of these plants is that they are getting mixed waste and not segregated waste. The mixed waste is not suitable for burning, it also requires an additional fuel to burn the waste, which makes the plants economically very unviable and this is the reason why WTE plants not just in Delhi but in other cities are not functioning properly. We are not really focusing on the composition and quantity of the waste that is needed for WTEs.
3. Electricity Produced By WTE Plants Is Negligible
Ms Mukherjee states that in India incineration is a very easy option. What we do is that we simply burn our waste or simply put it in the landfill. But these are not the appropriate measures. Explaining why the WTE plant is a misnomer, she said,
These plants don’t really produce much of the electricity, the electricity that is produced is very negligible. Nor do these take care of any of the electricity needS in the city. These are basically the incinerators which the west and developing countries have been using to manage their waste. Even there this technology has started to phase out, so, the plant manufacturers are trying to make the market in India and China. These are very expensive plants; they need a lot of monitoring and environment norms that are needed to be met.
Even data from Centre for Science and Environment highlights the fact that western countries are phasing out WTE technology. As per CSE, the US has not set up a single incinerator-based WTE plant since 1997 as the US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Commission have developed comprehensive standards for municipal solid waste incineration.
4. WTE Plants Impacting Health Of The Environment And Residents
Explaining how WTE plants are impacting the environment and the health of people around, Swati Singh Sambyal said,
Ideally for WTE plants the bottom ash (Which is the solid residue from combustion of municipal waste) shouldn’t be more than 20 percent and for most of our plants it is as high as 40 percent. Bottom ash disposal is also challenging and we clearly don’t have a mechanism to treat that waste, perhaps at some corner of the city there is already a mountain of this bottom ash that is already there and is creating a huge havoc because it is hazardous in nature.
Further talking about the health impact of WTEs on lives of people who are living nearby, Ms Sambhyal added,
The WTEs are very polluting in nature because we are feeding the poor quality of waste. We know the huge impact of Okhla plant in Sukhdev Vihar colony wherein the doctors have only advised residents to shift if it is a viable option for them. So, WTE in many ways is not the way to go, of course they are required for big cities but why can’t we have hubs or regional integrated processing sites with waste-to-energy plants over every city demanding their own WTE plants, that I think is a huge no-no.
Highlighting the fix to the waste crisis, Ms Singh added that we should instead of depending on waste-to-energy plants focus our energies on the basic rule of waste management and that is waste segregation. She added, “We should be channelising segregated waste into various recycling facilities instead of putting all of that into waste-to-energy plants.”
WTE Plants Work For Different Countries But Not India
In one of the reports of CSE, it said that WTE can be the option for only fraction of waste that cannot be managed by other technologies. It adds that the choice of technology – whether the waste should be burned, composted or recycled – depends on the quality of the waste. On the other hand, Down To Earth in one of its reports shared an example of Amsterdam and said that the capital city of the Netherlands has one of the biggest incinerator-based WTE plants in the world, which treats about 4,400 tonnes of waste every day and has an electricity efficiency rate of over 30 per cent, the highest in the world. It produces 1 million megawatt-hour of electricity and up to 600 giga joules of heat annually, which is enough to service 0.32 million houses in the city. But adds that the same technology, however, has failed in India because of quality and composition of India’s municipal waste and because most cities in India still collect unsegregated waste, which has high moisture content (around 50 per cent) and low calorific value.
CSE suggests that waste should at least have 1,800 kcal/kg for self-sustaining combustion. WTE plants in countries like Sweden, Norway and the US have worked because the garbage there ranges between 1,900-3,800 kcal/kg. However, in India low calorific value was the reason behind the closing of most of WTE plants.
Talking about Delhi, currently the national capital has three working waste-to-energy plants and the fourth one will be in operation from August at South Delhi’s Tehkhand area. In the city, the general trend is towards using incineration as primary method of waste processing, even when it has faced stiff resistance from both residents and environmental experts. Residents have also flagged pollution generated from such plants as affecting their lives and experts have pointed out that it is high time that city should start focusing on segregation of household waste instead of setting up waste to energy plants. So, to tackle India’s burgeoning garbage crisis there are no easy solutions or shortcuts. It has to be back to basics of segregate waste, compost organic/biodegradable waste and recycle as much as possible of the non-biodegradable waste and only treat whatever else remains that can neither be composted nor recycled. And there are quite a few successful examples within India of cities becoming garbage free or attaining zero-waste status by effective implementation of these basic principles of waste management.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.