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Waste-to-energy or waste-to-pollution?

By Gopal Krishna

Waste incineration poses serious risks to human health and the environment. It also violates international environmental norms. But the government continues to experiment with burn-technologies and waste-to-energy programmes, ignoring cheaper and safer alternatives

Acknowledging a news report on the closure of a Rs 84 crore municipal-solid-waste (MSW)-to-electricity plant in Lucknow, on May 6, 2005, the Supreme Court ordered a stay on any further subsidies for proposed and future municipal-waste-to-electricity (WTE) projects. It sought an inspection of the functioning and records of the Lucknow plant by a central government-constituted committee.

When the Centre commissioned the plant, the objective was to generate 5 MW of electricity using biodegradable waste. The plant generated a mere 0.3 to 0.5 MW.

In line with the court order, the central government constituted a committee of experts to inspect the functioning of waste-to-energy plants with a special focus on the Lucknow-based centrally-sponsored waste-to-electricity plant. The main purpose of the independent non-government committee's review is to investigate the propriety and need for ongoing subsidies for technically and economically unviable municipal-waste-to-electricity projects in the country.

However, far from investigating the issue, the committee was taken over by the Union Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES) which, in July 2005, despite the May 2005 court order, widely publicised its grants and subsidies for waste-to-electricity (WTE), including 'burn technologies' which violate India's international commitments. Thus the MNES -- the very ministry that is to be investigated - constituted the committee, a clear conflict of interest.

Ignoring the facts regarding the composition of Indian waste, which has a low calorific value and is hence unsuitable for electricity-generation, ministries in the central government continue to experiment with this technology at considerable public cost. Despite the failure of the same technology in Timarpur, Delhi, on March 14, 2005 the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) signed another agreement for an incinerator plant to generate electricity from waste with Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited (IL&FSL).

The MNES is also implementing a national programme on energy recovery from urban and industrial waste, to promote new technologies such as bio-methanation, pyrolysis/gasification and combustion for the processing and disposal of waste.

Researchers of waste suggest that composting and recycling are better alternatives as they save the huge amounts of energy required for incineration. Waste incineration encourages a one-way flow of material on a finite planet, thus making the task of conserving resources and reducing waste more difficult, not easier. On one occasion, President A P J Abdul Kalam rightly summed up the need for integrated zero waste management. He illustrated it by referring to a village of around 2,400 families that generates over 48 tonnes of garbage a year. The garbage is converted into manure and recyclable waste, generating over Rs 3 lakh in revenue. This scheme provides employment to many people in the village. Measures like these promote sustainable development, rather than introducing failed polluting technologies that turn citizens into guinea pigs for experiments.

However, the president appeared a little misguided when he said in his Republic Day Speech in January 2006: "The Bangalore Municipal Corporation is in the process of implementing an 8 MW power plant using solid municipal waste through the BOOT (Build, Own, Operate and Transfer) scheme. The power plant is similar to what we have in Hyderabad and Vijayawada." These plants are based on completely discredited incineration technologies.

Waste incineration systems (including waste pelletisation, pyrolysis and gasification systems) produce pollutants that are detrimental to both human health and the environment. They are expensive and do not eliminate or even adequately control toxic emissions from today's chemically complex waste. Even new incinerators release toxic metals, dioxins and acid gases. Far from eliminating the problem of landfills, waste incinerator systems produce toxic ash and other residues. They release incinerator ash into the environment, which subsequently enters the foodchain.

The MNES's waste-to-energy programme to maximise energy recovery is technologically incompatible with reducing dioxin emissions. Dioxins are lethal Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that cause irreparable environmental and health damage.

Incinerator technology intervention in the waste stream distorts waste management. Such systems rely on minimum guaranteed waste flows. They indirectly promote waste generation, whilst hindering waste prevention, reuse, composting, recycling and recycling-based community economic development. Such systems cost cities and municipalities more, and provide fewer jobs than do comprehensive recycling and composting schemes. They prohibit the development of local recycling-based industry.

Waste-to-energy projects are being promoted in manifest violation of international environmental norms. Incineration of waste violates the Kyoto Protocol, which regards waste incineration as a greenhouse gas emitter. It also violates the Stockholm Convention on POPs which calls for improvements in waste management with the aim of stopping the open and uncontrolled burning of waste. It violates the recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP's) Global Assessment on Mercury which includes measures aimed at reducing or eliminating mercury emissions from waste incineration, because, unlike other heavy metals, mercury has special properties that make it difficult to capture in many control devices. It violates the Dhaka Declaration on Waste Management adopted by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in October 2004. According to this declaration, SAARC countries cannot opt for incineration and other unproven technologies.

It also goes against national legislation and norms such as the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, according to which it is illegal to incinerate chlorinated plastics (like PVC) and waste that's been chemically treated with a chlorinated disinfectant. And it ignores the recommendations of the Supreme Court-constituted committee on waste management.

According to the 'White Paper on Pollution in Delhi with an Action Plan', prepared by the MoEF: "The experiences of the incineration plant at Timarpur, Delhi, and the briquette 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. 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. Considering the large quantities of waste requiring to be processed, a mechanical composting plant will be needed."

It is therefore incumbent upon India's policymakers to exclude waste, waste resources, waste pelletisation, waste incineration, pyrolysis and gasification technologies from qualifying as renewable energy/fuel sources and to stop offering renewable energy subsidies/loans for burn-technology-based waste-to-energy programmes and policies. The high-cost routes must be avoided. Instead, appropriate methods such as small-scale bio-methanation, composting and proper recycling should be propagated.

(Gopal Krishna is an environmental and occupational health analyst based in Delhi. He is also co-founder of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India.)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006