As Delhi choked on toxic smog in November 2017, the Koramangala 1st Block Resident Welfare Association thought it apt to discuss the feasibility of Waste to Energy (WTE) for Bengaluru. In her opening remark, Padmashree Balaram, the President of the RWA, said: “We should not be governed in the hands of misinformation. We should also be smart enough to realise that information is not wisdom. Every topic, however controversial must be discussed with a scientific temper”.
The timing, however for such a discussion could not have been more appropriate. Bengaluru has managed to instill a certain discipline in its operations, moving away from regressive system of collection, transportation and disposal of waste, to adoption of decentralised, waste stream based management.
Waste-to-Energy and the waste management hierarchy
There is no denying that the city needs to get its act together in a stringent implementation and enforcement on the ground. However, it is important to recognise the city’s effort to put in practice the waste management hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle- compost, by adopting decentralisation which is in line with the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016.
The Karnataka High Court’s landmark direction on the adoption of 2Bin1Bag method of segregation at source, the construction of decentralised infrastructure to manage dry waste at the ward level and wherever possible the use of biomethanation for wet waste, the necessity to adopt micro plans at the ward level; the State Government’s rules on ban of single-use plastic, the BBMP’s drive to promote neighbourhood composting santhes all reinforce the commitment to waste hierarchy.
The numbers, the problem of diverted waste
A major problem plaguing the system was the lack of data or the inaccuracy or incompleteness of the same. However, the dry waste collection centers operated by the informal sector have thrown out interesting statistics. A look across 33 dry waste collection centers reveals that they have been successful in collecting the low-value waste, thus fulfilling the purpose that they have been set up for. From these centers the city has managed to divert 3800 tons of waste from June to October 2017, otherwise destined to landfills.
What next is a question that plagues the municipality. Mr. N S Ramakanth, Member, BBMP Expert Committee on Solid Waste said, “We have been stressing the need to have aggregation centers in each zone or assembly constituency, as this, in turn, reduces the burden from the operators of the centers who have space constraints”.
Juxtaposition of waste-to-energy and recycling
Dr. Amitha from the Department of Accountant General of Local Bodies questioned the need for Waste to Energy plants. “Have we followed the principles of waste hierarchy or do we just need an easy solution”, she posed.
Is out of sight, out of mind, the solution then? Moving it to aggregation centers and stocking it up, is not the solution, cries proponents of incineration. “Quoting examples of western countries and advocating their best practices is not a solution for India, says Kabir Arora, from the Alliance of Indian Waste pickers”.
He adds: “We must remember that trash is not renewable and burning them destroys valuable resources for good. An important point to note is in most European countries incineration is used for heating primarily. Adding to the argument, Ravi Chandar says, “Waste-to-energy is not a magical solution for people’s irresponsibility”.
A study titled Recycling versus incineration: an energy conservation analysis, by economist and environmental consultant Jeffrey Morris in 1995 states: ‘recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves more energy than is generated by incinerating missed solid waste in energy from waste facility. Furthermore, energy conserved by recycling exceeds electricity generated by energy-from-waste incineration by much more than the additional energy necessary to collect recycled materials separately from mixed solid waste, process recycled materials into manufacturing feedstock, and ship them to manufacturers, some of whom are located thousands of miles away’.
Echoing this Almitra Patel, an environmental policy advocate, and an anti-pollution activist quoted the SAARC Dhaka Declaration of Waste Management 2004, which stated “Incineration of solid waste not to be considered due to low calorific value and pollution”.
The problems of pollution and shifting responsibility
Many countries are focusing on product stewardship and extended producers responsibility. The governments have proposed to ban many materials from being disposed in landfills and incinerators which include materials such as mattresses, box springs, carpet, plastic and synthetic flooring, pressure treated timbers, electronic waste, paint and coating products, paint thinners and containers, single-use pressurized containers, safety flares, domestic pesticides and their containers, products containing mercury, batteries, adhesives, textiles, non-packaging expanded polystyrene, packaging and printed paper etc.
The countries have also actively banned leaf yard waste, compostable organic material and many recyclable materials from going to landfills. To quote from Good Practice Flanders: Landfill and Incineration Policy: The Flemish Government implements landfill and incineration restrictions. As a result landfilling of bio-waste, unsorted waste, separated waste suitable for recycling and combustible wastes are banned. Incineration of separated waste streams and unsorted waste are also banned.
Unfortunately, in India, we still look at a linear system of disposal and hence the questions of burning versus burying arise. We still take to landfill to make compost out of mixed waste and pay a tipping fee. We need organic waste processing centers, which are source separated. In the ensuing discussion that took place, Venkatesh Murthy, from the BBMP stated, “We have to move away from tipping fee for incoming waste to support fee based on output”.
Nalini Shekar from HasiruDala says: “From a circular economy perspective, by burning or burying waste, we are failing in our fundamental rights to leverage on job creation potential and encouraging micro-entrepreneurs by recycling”. She emphasises on the need to relook at the Waste Management Rules as a whole.
The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 clearly outline the need for producers to fix modalities for waste collection based on Extended Producers Responsibility ( EPR), where producers take responsibility of the product throughout its lifecycle. It highlights the need for producers to collect back multi-layered plastics and phase out the production of the same in two years’ time. It is now two months short of the one-year mark since the rules no strategy is in the horizon.
Trash burning is a serious problem- open or in incineration plants. Municipal landfills are also a primary source of methane, a greenhouse gas, more potent than carbon dioxide. The underlying element of air pollution is often ignored in both the methods. And while there is no single recipe for waste management, there are a few basics that need to followed: Compulsory segregation of waste at source, destination-based decentralised processing, producing and using more materials that can be recycled and composted and scientific landfills for inert waste, encouraging recycling and adopt principles of circular economy.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are author’s own.