- In India, Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants are being considered the ultimate solution for the country’s burgeoning waste. However, there is strong opposition from the public for the recently proposed WTE plant at Bandhwari.
- According to waste management experts, the waste generated in India is not fit for incineration owing its composition, low calorific value and moisture content.
- Many countries across the world have realised the limitations of WTE plants and are now shifting focus to reducing waste and segregating at the source.
- The video discusses Bandhwari’s WTE plant and its expansion, the lack of waste segregation in Indian cities, and a hopeful example in waste management from Gurugram.
On June 13, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Haryana government regarding inaction over hazardous waste contaminating the groundwater near the Bandhwari landfill.
The waste dumping site, located near the Delhi and Haryana border, has been in the news for many years now. To deal with the many health, environmental, and waste management challenges, the Haryana government has proposed a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plant. In 2018, Haryana’s Chief Minister M.L. Khattar laid the foundation stone for a 15 megawatt (MW) capacity plant. Later, when a proposal was mooted to increase its capacity from 15 MW to 25 MW, it received intense opposition from the local people.
“On August 31 last year, a public hearing was organised regarding the increase of the capacity of the proposed WTE plants. Around 300 people were present there. Everyone opposed the plan vehemently,” informs Neelam Ahulawalia from Aravalli Bachao Citizens Group which has run an online campaign against the proposed WTE plant which has received support from more than 34,000 people. In their petition, they have argued, “Despite the fact that waste incineration is a completely failed model in India, the Haryana government is in the process of setting up a waste-to-energy plant in our Aravalli Forest at the Bandhwari landfill site, which is not only a complete waste of huge amount of money but is another environmental disaster in the making.”
Their fear seems reasonable when one looks at the history of WTE plants in India. The first WTE plant was set up in Timarpur in Delhi in 1987. Built by a company from Denmark, the plant was supposed to incinerate 300 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day to generate 3.75 MW of electricity. Established with the cost of Rs. 20 crores, the plant survived for only around 20 days. The reason for its failure was the poor quality of waste coming to the plant, states Dharmesh Shah, a technical advisor with Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), a non-governmental organisation.
This WTE plant failure story has continued since then. “A total of 14 WTE plants have been installed in India, out of which seven plants were closed,” informs Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management and circular economy expert.
Landfills have become a common feature of the landscape in many Indian cities. Increasing population, urbanisation and industrialisation are some of the main reasons for increased waste generation. A 2018 World Bank report also underlined the connection between economic development and waste generation.
During the budget session in 2022, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) informed that the total quantity of solid waste generated in the country was 1,50,761 tonnes per day (TPD) in 2019-20. The same World Bank report from 2018 states that India’s per capita waste generation lies at 0.57 kg per day as compared to 0.52 kg in South Asia and 0.74 kg at the global level. India, however, is yet to find a sustainable way to deal with this burgeoning waste in every city.
Talking to Mongabay-India, founder and CEO of iForest, Chandra Bhushan says, “Our capacity to manage waste has not grown with the pace of our capacity to generate waste. There is a huge gap between the quantity and quality of waste we are generating, and the capacity of the municipality to manage that waste.” iForest is a Delhi-based think-tank.
To deal with these challenges, state governments are relying on WTE plants. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s (MNRE) website says that the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5690 MW. A report titled To Burn or Not To Burn, by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that was published in 2019, says that plants of a combined capacity of 382.7 MW are proposed in India. According to the report, the plants with a capacity of 69.2 MW are operational, the ones with a capacity of 84.3 MW are under construction and 66.35 MW plants are non-functional. Sambyal is one of the authors of this report.
Waste not fit for incineration
The proposed Bandhwari WTE plant is one among these plants and the Aravali Bachao Citizens Group opposes the plant on various grounds including a CPCB report, which says that the waste dumped at the Bandhwari site is not fit for incineration.
“This is true for almost all the WTE plants,” Sambyal says, adding that most of the waste sent to WTE plants is unsegregated and has inert content which is not suitable for burning in WTE plants. She says, “Additional fuel is required to burn this waste which makes the plant unviable. This is the reason why WTE plants in many cities are not functioning properly or were shut down.”
The quality of waste suitable for the WTE plant is decided based on its composition, calorific value, and moisture content. The existing waste going to WTE plants is majorly organic waste. To Burn or Not to Burn says that organic waste is around 40-70 percent of the total waste, paper and cardboard contribute about 6 to 7 percent, and then come recyclable plastic (6 to 10 percent), and non-recyclable plastic (5-10 percent). Other than this, metal, glass and domestic hazardous waste contribute around 1- 3 percent.
Sambyal explains, “Indian waste has low calorific value and high moisture content. The calorific value of waste in India ranges from 1,411 to 2,150 kcal/kg. If it is compared to the calorific value of garbage in Sweden, Norway, Germany, and USA ranges between 1,900 and 3,800 kcal/kg; India’s is too low to burn. In this case, these plants need supplementary energy to burn the waste.”
Pollution coming from WTE plants is another issue and the poor quality of waste put into the plants is making them unviable. Bhushan explains that most of these plants are established at competitive bidding, which means they have to provide energy at 5 or 7 rupees per unit. If supplementary energy is needed, they are not economically viable and get closed down. More than half of the WTE plants have shut down today, which says that technology improvements don’t work with the quality of waste that is being generated today. To add a comparative perspective, solar and wind energy cost somewhere between Rs. 2 and Rs. 3 per unit while the tariff of thermal energy is in the range of Rs. 4.5 to Rs 6.
However, Shah has a completely different take on the factor about energy. He says that the energy part of this project is negligible. “WTE is just a waste management tool. The Waste-to-Energy was brought in because ‘incineration’ got a very bad name in the Global North. A lot of the communities were protesting it because the plants were polluting a lot. The industry then came up with a new idea and named it WTE, adding an energy component to it. Energy is negligible and it can never be competitive unless it gets a huge subsidy,” he tells Mongabay-India.
Controversies over WTE plants around the world
Bandhwari is not the only place where people are protesting against the WTE plants. The proposals of installing WTE plants in Mumbai, Bengaluru and even Delhi for Okhla WTE plants, have been met with protests. The residents and environmental activists are concerned about the impact of WTE plants on their health.
A resident of Sukhdev Vihar in Delhi said that this fear is not without any reason. “We are concerned about our health. Earlier, the National Green Tribunal fined the Okhla WTE plant for violating pollution norms. The plant is set up at a 40-metre distance from Sukhdev Vihar, violating all the norms,” he claims. Similar fear prevails among citizens in other cities as well.
Responding to a question relating to the health concerns of citizens, Shah claims that there is ample evidence globally that talks about the health impact of WTE plants. “A report from Zero Waste Europe funded by the European Commission has a compilation of case studies of incineration and its impact on human health,” Shah tells Mongabay-India.
He adds, “Where WTE plants are running in western Europe and the USA, investments are way high. We spend a fraction of that. I have compared the Okhla incinerator, which costs 200 crore rupees, at least 10 times less than any incinerator running in West Europe. That itself is a big concern because most of the plants are under pollution control. They are inherently polluting. So, they invest the most amount of money in the pollution control component. Here they cut the cost, so pollution control is substandard. In urban areas, burning waste is one major reason for air pollution. Now, you are legitimising it by burning substandard waste in an incinerator.”
“Europe has some of the most advanced burning facilities, still, the sub-continent has taken the first step to phase out incinerators and pushing for a circular economy,” he said.
Since 1997, the USA has not seen a single new incinerator due to people’s resistance, health-related risk and high cost. The EU is facing another challenge. Due to better waste management strategies in the EU, incinerators are not getting sufficient waste for burning. There are more incinerators than the waste available for burning. This has led countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Spain to import trash from elsewhere.
Hundreds of municipalities around Europe have now set Zero Waste as their new goal. The Philippines has officially banned incineration and few other countries have expressed a desire to phase it out, he adds.
Despite all these facts, Indian authorities seem dedicated to WTE plants as a solution to India’s waste management problems. When asked why, Chandra Bhushan says that the easy way to handle waste is driving towards WTE. “Other solutions need hard work which includes convincing people to segregate waste at source, taking the community together, decentralizing waste management, etc.,” he adds.
Sambyal adds that there are flaws in the execution of existing policies. “We have to understand the composition of waste. Only 10 to 15 percent of total waste is incinerable. Without understanding this, people are considering WTE plants as the ultimate solution to waste management. For instance, in Delhi, around 80 percent of the processing is happening via incineration, which is not sustainable. Based on the total waste production, we don’t need WTE plants in each and every city. We may need it regionally or state-wise,” she adds.
Shah stresses that many developed countries are moving towards reducing waste. “You have waste management rules which clearly say that waste should be segregated at source, and you have to decentralise waste management. This is the reason Bengaluru is doing far better than Delhi. In Bengaluru, they have managed to set up a waste management centre in each ward, what we call a dry waste collection centre and waste collection centre. So waste is segregated at home and then only it is collected, and each set of waste is going to a different centre as per its nature,” he concludes.
Out first video in the series highlighted the non-compliance of rules at the landfill site and the socio-economic disadvantages that arise due to improper waste management. Watch the full video here:
Banner image: An interim dump site at Sikanderpur where garbage is brought from various parts of Gurugram before it’s sent to Bandhwari landfill. Photo by Shaz Syed/Mongabay.