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A Burning Issue: The toxic tale of Delhi Waste

Written By Krishna on Tuesday, March 06, 2012 | 5:32 AM

Gopal Krishna*
New Delhi

Burning waste for energy? Sounds good? Environmentalists are questioning its efficacy in view of the nature of solid waste in India and the potential pollution this may cause. Recycling materials like organic matter, paper and plastic saves more energy than is produced in the incineration and gasification plants. Recycling and composting of waste costs much less and create millions of jobs, they say.

January 2012. Toxic smoke and soot filled up all the houses in New Delhi's Sukhdev Vihar. The Okhla waste-to-energy incinerator had gone into action. Built barely 150 metres from residential areas, it has a bird sanctuary, a university and three hospitals within a radius of 10 kilometres.

in Narela-Bawana in the national capital are miffed and worried. The idea of waste-to-energy plants based on a tried, tested and failed incineration technology in Delhi's Okhla, Timarpur, Gazipur and Narela-Bawana faces bitter opposition from residents, waste pickers and environ-mental groups. It is anti environment, anti-workers and anti-people, they say.

Every day, Delhi generates nearly 8,500 metric tonnes of waste. So the government came up with a plan to burn most of it, about 7350 MT and guess what, produce energy out of it. Three new incineration projects - the 2050 MT project at Okhla by Jindal, the 1000 MT project at Narela-Bawana by Ramky and the 1300 MT project at Ghazipur by GMR, are the Municipal corporation's answer to its waste load. The adverse public health, livelihood and environmental consequences are, of course, ignored.

To environmentalists, this is a distortion of MSW management as these hazardous incineration technologies disregard a Supreme Court order, scientific evidence and past experience both nationally and internationally. A contempt petition is pending in the court. Besides, there is a Writ Petition in the Delhi High Court against the large carbon trade project for the waste incineration based power plant at Okhla.

Failure of a similar plant in Timarpur, Delhi, in early 1990s was audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and Delhi High Court had reprimanded the officials. In recent times, the experiment in Andhra Pradesh has established that Residue Derived Fuel (RDF) incinerator is a failed technology. It has been linked to rising cases of skin rashes, asthma, respiratory problems and some cases of stillborns in the vicinity, to the presence of plant.

India generates about 115,000 MT of municipal solid waste (MSW) daily. As part of its climate crisis solution, 35 waste related carbon credit projects have been given host country approval by the National Clean Development Mechanism Authority across the country. The capital's new waste-to-energy incinerators are the latest in this initiative.

The physical composition of Indian waste shows that inert material constitutes 43.59 - 53.90 per cent and compostable matter, 44.57 - 30.84 per cent, says the Urban Development Ministry's Manual on Municipal Solid Waste Management. Thus, the residue from these projects will be significantly higher after incineration. Also, the polluting potential of a plant using MSW as fuel is serious. Emissions include suspended particulate matter (SPM), sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrogen chloride (HCl), dioxins and furans which are among the most toxic substances known to science.

The manual reveals that the chemical composition of Indian waste has a calorific value of 1009.89 - 800.70 kcal/kg with moisture content ranging from 25.81 - 38.72 per cent and organic matter from 37.09 - 39.07 per cent. In this context, a Technical Report titled "Environmental Audit of Municipal Solid Waste Management, June 2006" infers, "We can deduce that Indian waste has a high content of organic matter which makes it suitable for processes like composting and anaerobic digestion… The waste also has a high moisture content which makes it unsuitable for incineration."

In May 2010, the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for the National Capital Region (EPCA) asked the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) about the actions taken to improve MSW management in the capital. According to the minutes of the meeting, "to this MCD replied that individual waste-to- energy projects have been already given to Jindal, Ramky and GMR, which will result in minimal inert residue for landfilling along with the generation of electricity.” This is factually deceptive and scientifically incorrect.

The waste-to-energy incinerator projects mentioned by MCD do not make MSW disappear or minimise residue. Instead, they maximise it. They are the costliest of all solid waste management options, result in air and water pollution and still need to be supplemented by landfills as they produce an ash that is far more toxic than ordinary domestic trash. This was deliberately not disclosed to EPCA by the MCD which has chosen not to learn from the failure of similar plants in Timarpur and Ghazipur.

"Thermal treatment methods such as incineration or conversion of waste to briquettes and its subsequent use as fuel are not feasible due to the low heat value of the municipal solid waste in MCD area. The experience of the incineration plant at Timarpur, Delhi, and the briquetting plant at Bombay support the fact that thermal treatment of municipal solid waste is not feasible in situations where the waste has a low calorific value," says the 'White Paper on Pollution with an Action Plan' of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

“A critical analysis of biological treatment as an option was undertaken for processing of municipal solid waste in Delhi and it has been recommended that composting will be a viable option,” it adds.

In the matter of Okhla's waste-to- energy plant, Jairam Ramesh, the then Union Environment Minister, had written a letter to the Chief Minister of Delhi pointing out violations of the provision of the environmental impact assessment notification following a site visit and meeting with residents in March, 2011.

The three waste-to-energy incinerators in Delhi are in violation of the Supreme Court order in Writ Petition (Civil) 888 of 1996. The Court has only approved the biomethanation technology. It was heartening to find its reference in the National Action Plan on Climate Change released by the Prime Minister but the hazardous incinerator technology finds place in the Draft National Mission on Sustainable Habitat.

One is still hopeful that Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change will do the needful in order to adhere to the cardinal principles of waste management in this respect.

The above objections are also relevant for the GMR Energy Ltd's New Delhi Waste Processing Company Private Ltd (now renamed as Indraprastha Energy and Waste Management Company Private Ltd) at Ghazipur, Delhi. The proposed project is being set up on 5.73 acres of land at Ghazipur. A case has been filed against it by the residents in the Delhi High Court.

Only biological methods instead of hazardous technologies are required to deal with waste management through material recovery and by recycling.

India's Inter-Ministerial Task Force on Integrated Plant Nutrient Management has not encouraged the waste-to-energy policy and instead recommended setting up of 1,000 compost plants all over the country.

What is needed is a Zero Waste approach that strives to reduce waste disposal in landfills and incinerators to zero, investing in reuse, recycling and composting jobs and infrastructure. If you're not for Zero Waste, how much Waste are you for?

*Gopal Krishna is Convenor, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) and a public policy analyst

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