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Electricity, but at what cost?

Written By Gopal Krishna on Tuesday, June 17, 2008 | 12:18 PM

Energy from waste, toxic & non-renewable


Indian garbage: should energy be the driving concern?

Environmental groups are deeply concerned over the attempts by the industry bodies to pervert waste management by arguing for waste maximization in order to generate more and more electricity unmindful of public health consequences. Urban wastes a growing urban problem, and the industry is eyeing it as a potential money spinner.

Even though every stakeholder does have a role in mitigating the problem, it must be
realised that waste is wasted natural resources and it is unsustainable to generate more and more waste. Hence instead of treating it merely as an economic good, any intervention must be examined in the context of waste minimisation, making waste less toxic and reducing its environmental impact. In the Indian context, it is a fact that the livelihood of millions of people depends on waste recycling.

ASSOCHAM study on `Mitigating Climate Change: The Indian Perspective? released on 12 June fails to note that the composition of Indian municipal solid waste (MSW) is quite different from that of US and Europe; its distinctive features are the following:
1. Low calorific value,
2. High moisture content,
3. High proportion of organic matter,
4. Earth, sand and grit.

The problem of waste concerns not only its quantity but also its nature. There are two main components of Indian urban waste; the biodegradable component consisting mainly of food items, kitchen waste, etc; and the nonbiodegradable component consisting of plastics, metals, etc. Intervention in the waste stream, that is, manufacturing, usage, disposal and post disposal, needs careful planning in a holistic way.

The multibillion-dollar worldwide waste industry sells the promise that waste as a mixed
commodity is fine and there is no need for segregation or segmental approaches.
Components like paper, plastics, metal and food become .waste. only after they are mixed, but remain recyclable materials if they are not.

Treating energy as the sole focus for waste treatment is not only unsustainable from the
point of energy economics, but also distorts waste management, since it does not automatically lead to waste minimisation and sustainable waste behaviour. The issue becomes more complex if high-heat thermal technologies, such as incineration, pyrolysis or gasification are used for waste treatment.

These processes have an adverse environmental impact, necessitating a high cost to
even attempt any acceptable levels of regulation.
But the Resource Incineration Projects (referred to as Waste To Energy by financers) is being pushed as a Renewable Energy Technology (RET) under the CDM. RETs like Incineration technologies are being pushed through. If that happens, it will be a setback to the anti-incineration campaign worldwide that is aimed at eliminating Persistent Organic Pollutants like Dioxins, heavy metals like Mercury and combating climate change. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is mentioned in the Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol which deal with the climate change.
ASSOCHAM study claims that about 1500 megawatt of power could be generated from urban and municipal wastes by setting up waste energy projects from 40,000 million tonnes of solid wastes is generated every year in the urban areas of the country by 2010.
The fact is that as per Annexure A waste incineration is a green house emitter and therefore it does not qualify for carbon credits as is being claimed by the study.

Are they viable?

Burn techniques such as gasification, pyrolysis and incineration are technically inappropriate for Indian garbage which has a calorific value of about 800 cal/kg. Burning the waste would require at least 1,500 cal/kg, else auxiliary fuel is needed. This raises the probability of undesirable materials being used as fuel supplement, such as plastics and other waste oils. The use of backup fuel not only demolishes the rationale for the project, that is garbage disposal, but also makes the process more uneconomical and unprofitable than it already is.

Perpetual subsidies

The various subsidies given to these WTE projects without levying any cost on the waste generator bypasses a key reason for waste reduction. Disposal costs, if borne by the waste generators, serve as a disincentive to create more. On the other hand, these WTE schemes imply that waste generation is good, since it means more energy.

Why are burn technologies dangerous?

In theory, a properly designed thermal process such as an incinerator should convert
simple hydrocarbons into nothing other than carbon dioxide and water. However, in practice, the garbage contains chemicals that escape pollution control devices through airborne emissions, or concentrate in the ash residue, which is typically disposed of in landfills or stockpiled above the ground.

Some of these pollutants are:

Particulate matter, heavy metals, acid gases, oxides of nitrogen and products of incomplete combustion, including chlorinated organic compounds and, as with all combustion devices, large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is considered to be one of the major contributors to global climatic changes.

Acid gases: These are formed during combustion when certain elements in garbage come in contact with oxygen or hydrogen. Sulphur dioxide and hydrogen chloride are two of the gases released into the atmosphere, contributing to the acidification of rain or fog and consequently metal corrosion, and the erosion of limestone and marble buildings.

Dioxins and furans: Dioxins are the most lethal carcinogens known to humans. These
are formed as unintended by-products when chlorinated substances are burned at a
temperature between 200-800 oC. Dioxins and related chlorinated compounds are extremely potent toxic substances that produce a variety of adverse effects in humans and animals even at extremely low doses. These compounds are persistent in the environment and accumulate in magnified concentrations as they move up the food chain, concentrating in fat and breast milk. Findings from the new USEPA report states that the risk of getting cancer from dioxin is 10 times higher than reported earlier.

Adopt alternative cleaner methods of disposal

The search for systems sensitive to ecology and health to manage waste in developing
countries is particularly challenging. ASSOCHAM must promote low-cost solutions. The ideal resource management strategy for municipal solid waste is to avoid its generation in the first place. This implies changing production and consumption patterns to eliminate the use of disposable, non-reusable, non-returnable products and packaging. The alternatives include:
i. Waste reduction
ii. Waste segregation
iii. Reuse and extended use
iv. Recycling
v. Biomethanation technology
vi. Composting
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