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There's wealth in waste

By Darryl D'Monte

Five companies are bidding to manage the 7,000 tonnes of waste New Delhi generates every day. But surely it's more important to reduce garbage generated at source than to apply lucrative but environmentally unsound technological solutions to waste management?

In virtually every sphere of managing the environment, experts are fond of the quick fix. They imagine that the more sophisticated (and expensive) the technology, the better the chances of solving the problem. There is a parallel when it comes to medicine: doctors often report how poor patients aren't satisfied unless they are given an injection and some costly medicines.

This is particularly true of getting rid of solid waste in our burgeoning cities -- something that's getting to be a huge problem. Cities like Mumbai and Chennai, hemmed in by the sea, are finding it more and more difficult to find dumping sites for their waste. As cities expand into the periphery, residents complain about the odour and unhealthy impact of garbage dumps cheek-by-jowl with their homes.

Critics have questioned the MoUs signed by the Mumbai-based Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) with the Mumbai and Delhi municipal corporations to employ Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF) technology to produce energy by burning waste. Amiya Kumar Sahu, founder of the National Solid Waste Association of India, which claims to be an NGO operating in the field of waste-disposal, believes this method of disposing of garbage spells money.

According to the new financial daily, Mint, five organisations are bidding to manage the 7,000 tonnes of waste New Delhi generates every day. Entrepreneurs are hoping that they can convert some of that into gold. Five companies are bidding to process 1,000 tonnes of the waste. According to the financial details provided by one bidder, the company will earn a revenue of Rs 21 crore in the first year, on an initial investment of Rs 50 crore. Is there wealth in waste?

One of the companies bidding for the Delhi project is Ramky Group, a Hyderabad-based company that has made its fortune managing waste. It manages waste in seven cities, and plans to invest Rs 400 crore in the business over the next few years, according to its managing director Ayodhya Rami Reddy. Ramky ended 2005-06 with a turnover of Rs 600 crore.

IL&FS Ecosmart offers environment management solutions to study the feasibility of compost plants that will convert waste to fertiliser, and waste-to-energy projects. "There is a sustainable business model in this (waste management)," says Mahesh Babu, chief executive officer of IL&FS.

The first problem is the composition of garbage in Indian cities, as I pointed out on this website two years ago ('Indian solutions for Indian waste', ). Due to the relative scarcity of packaging material as well as the omnipresence of ragpickers, garbage in Indian cities tends to contain very little plastic or paper. Around 60% of the plastic is removed before the garbage reaches the dumping site. In Mumbai, which has about the same volume of urban waste as Delhi, the state government's edict banning plastic bags less than a certain thickness has also drastically reduced the potential of this raw material for certain technologies. This gives the garbage far less calorific value -- in other words it is composed largely of wet, organic vegetable waste that does not burn easily.

According to IL&FS, RDF is an advanced version of direct incineration. It produces energy by compressing waste into pellets, which are then incinerated. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) master plan on waste management till 2020 states: "RDF is often an option when emission standards are lax, and RDF is burned in conventional boilers with no special precautions for emissions." However, the world over, there are concerns that such disposal could pollute the air as well as leave dioxins as a residue. Dioxins are among the most lethal carcinogens known to humans that have adverse effects even in extremely low doses.

One also wonders whether RDF technology takes into account conditions in India . Imagine the heat generated during a Delhi summer, which could make the plant work at less than optimum efficiency. This was precisely the case some three decades ago, for instance, with concerns about the Tata thermal power plant in Chembur, in Mumbai, which employed Siemens technology and used electrostatic precipitators to remove the dust particles emitted when coal was burnt to generate electricity. In those days, there was also the fear that when components of sophisticated machines broke down, it would take days -- if not months -- to obtain spares. This is presumably not such a problem any more. In Mumbai, the heavy monsoon may also complicate matters.

There is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court on the management of solid waste, in which two experts have suggested that RDF must be supported by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy only on an experimental basis. " All burn technologies for energy from mixed municipal wastes are dangerous because of the uncontrolled presence of chlorinated hydrocarbons like PVC in our wastes which yield dioxins and heavy metals like mercury," says Almitra H Patel, member, Supreme Court Committee for Solid Waste Management. Bangalore-based Patel was among the first to raise the issue in the country. Ironically, industrial countries are themselves trying to phase out these technologies because of their harmful effects.

As it happens, there was a bad precedent a quarter of a century ago. In Timarpur, on the outskirts of Delhi , the MCD launched an expensive Rs 44 crore project with Danish know-how, to convert waste into pellets and generate power from this source. The project ran for only 21 days, and, till today, in one of those characteristic fictions that the bureaucracy is so fond of, it is said to be "maintained". Three years ago, the corporation wanted to enter into a similar agreement with an Australian company Energy Development Ltd. However it did not divulge the details to the mayor at the time, and since he was miffed it was called off!

According to reports, another 12 cities have signed up with IL&FS and other private companies to set up plants that produce electricity from urban waste. Andhra Pradesh has entered into a few such agreements. At a seminar last year, N C Vasuki, president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) and CEO, Delaware Solid Waste Authority, USA , cautioned about the use of these technologies. He pointed out that China and India were the biggest generators of dioxins and ought to put proper controls in place before embarking on such projects.

According to the Delhi-based NGO, Toxics Link, advocates such as Vasuki tend to decry the European practice of making the polluters pay, ie the producers of waste. They argue, as believers in free market principles, that it is the consumers who have to pay since they have made the choice of purchasing the products. However, in Europe (as well as certain US states like California ) there is much higher environmental consciousness in general. In France , for instance, something like 75% of all packaging material is recycled. I have been to a plant where all the cardboard, plastic and other materials are offloaded from a garbage compactor and put onto a conveyor belt for workers (mainly migrants) to sort out. Europe has moved against the use of landfills, and the disposal of waste containing more than 5% carbon has been vetoed since last year.

The IL&FS plant is being planned for the New Delhi Municipal Corporation at Okhla, on the outskirts of Delhi , with a 200-tonne-a-day capacity. The NDMC now pays the MCD Rs 2 crore a year for use of its landfill sites, and Toxics Link believes that it is trying to go in for incineration to save this money.

According to Ravi Dass, director-in-chief, conservation and sanitation engineering department, the MCD has taken steps to earn carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) permitted under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In other words, industrial countries or foreign companies can pay to treat the garbage in Delhi (and other cities) and earn credits for their own carbon emissions. It is well known that methane, which is the second biggest greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, has a longer half-life, and garbage is a major source, along with paddy fields and cattle.

The MCD is quantifying the amount of landfill gas from three sites. A project note has been submitted to the World Bank, which is funding a feasibility study. The MCD believes that trading in carbon credits will raise approximately Rs 400 crore in the next 20 years. The private sector can set up CDM-capturing facilities. Toxics Link, however, alleges that incineration violates the Kyoto Protocol because it causes greenhouse gas emissions.

As it happens, there is a great deal of euphoria about the country's potential to generate such projects. At a meeting of the International Society of Ecological Economics late last year, Dr Sudipto Ghosh, secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, waxed eloquent about how this sector was growing faster than any other -- including construction and infrastructure. But critics like the Centre for Science and Environment have dubbed it the "Corrupt Development Mechanism" because it essentially means that developing countries are selling their emission rights cheaply. Soon after 2012, they will have to join industrial countries by signing the Kyoto Protocol and will also have to pay for emitting carbon. This will cost several times more than the $ 15 a tonne currently.

Under the circumstances, there is no question that a developing country ought to look for labour-intensive solutions rather than capital-intensive ones. In that context, the wisdom is gradually dawning that it is better to reduce the amount of garbage at source than to dump it and then treat it. Paradoxically, Mumbai, which is more densely developed than many other cities, has made considerable progress on this front. Advance Locality Management (ALM) groups are exhorting citizens to separate their organic (kitchen) waste from non-organic waste. Only organic waste can be deposited in compactors. Several progressive families have even started recycling waste in their backyard gardens, even on balconies and terraces. Vermiculture is being used in several cooperative society gardens for all the apartments.

The tricky, though less technical part is non-organic waste. Unfortunately, ragpickers have been demonised in many of our cities even though they actually do the middle class a favour by recycling its waste. In some suburbs of Mumbai, ALMs have identified their friendly neighbourhood ragpickers and have got them to collect waste paper, plastic, bottles and the like every week or so. In areas like Dharavi, said to be "the biggest slum in Asia ", there is a thriving business in recycling waste, probably the most ingenious such system in the world. Even torn cardboard boxes, for instance, are painstakingly patched up for re-use.

Thus, the simple but effective answer is to reduce the amount of waste generated at source. This requires education and exhortation, not some new-fangled imported technology.

InfoChange News & Features, March 2007