About a decade ago, in 2013, the Planning Commission constituted the “Task Force on Waste-to-Energy” to identify technically feasible, financially affordable and environmentally sound processing and disposal technologies for municipal solid waste in India. The committee headed by K. Kasturirangan, released their report a year later on May 12, 2014. However, the Task Force forced its only solution of building 556 waste-to-energy (WtE) plants to burn 2,22,336 kg of waste every day to produce a meagre 0.06% of India’s electricity by 2050. Apart from that, it preached other disappointing solutions such as changing public attitudes, making them sensitive, disciplined etc.

While it did recommend “source segregation” and “decentralised waste management”, which are excellent solutions, these solutions alone cannot stop the garbage mountains building up across the country. Today’s society seems to have embraced the idea of “Take. Make. Throw. Innovate.”. The garbage problem starts during its production and not during its disposal. And no amount of tailpipe solutions can solve this problem.

SWOT analysis of WtE

Any technology for municipal solid waste treatment needs to undergo a rigorous Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis before it is implemented. WtE plants burn garbage in a furnace to produce steam which would power a turbine to produce electricity. Looking from the perspective of the people and the planet, WtE has only Weaknesses and Threats. It pollutes air, soil, and water through the release of emissions and leachate, causes major health problems in surrounding communities, places financial burdens on local and central governments, generates the most expensive form of electricity, generates hazardous ash as a residue, undermines waste prevention, reuse and recycling and excludes local economies of recycling and waste management.

However, beyond all rationality, the Task Force in its report (page no 65) says that composting causes more water and solid waste pollution than a WtE plant! Furthermore, it says that the greenhouse gases generated from WtE can be “utilised”. Perhaps, the report was written by the government, for the industry and at the cost of the people.

PPP: public to private profits?

Noting that the previous experiences with WtE were not very encouraging in India, the report proposes to dole out a series of support measures to the failing industry at the cost of public money. It proposed a slew of measures ranging from providing Viability Gap Funding (VGF) of up to 50% of the project cost, interest-free loans, providing tipping fees, beneficial electricity generation prices, tax exemptions, providing free land, etc. Furthermore, it proposes setting up four sophisticated R&D centres in IITs at a cost of Rs 600 crore. The Union government’s affection towards WtEs forms an intriguing case. Though the National Green Tribunal slapped a fine of Rs 25 lakh on the Okhla WtE in Delhi in 2017 for releasing 800-900% more dioxins and furans and endangering the lives of thousands of residents living as close as 50 metres from the plant, it ultimately allowed the plant to function. The icing on the cake was when the Okhla WtE was “gifted” with Rs 10 crore in FY 20-21, by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

Plastics: What goes around comes around

WTEs are primarily designated to burn high calorific value waste or essentially non-recyclable plastics such as multilayer plastics and single-use plastics. However, the fact that 99% of plastics are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels should drive home the point that plastics are fossil fuels. Single-use packaging like those used by FMCGs, carry bags and multilayer plastics food packages are meant to be thrown away within minutes of purchase. But they keep polluting our environment for thousands of years.

The myth peddled by the plastics industry was busted by a report which lists the top five reasons why recycling is not effective. It is because they are extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical to recycle. There is more bad news for the advocates of plastic recycling. The Canadian Government’s 2021 reporthighlighted the toxicity risks in recycled plastic, which prevents “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.

Plastic recycling cannot happen in the absence of a strong policy which stops the production and consumption of plastics in the first place. The symbiotic yet clandestine relationship between the plastics, FMCG and WtE industries was brought to the fore when India released its plastic waste management rules in 2016. It laid down rules to phase out non-recyclable multilayer plastics by 2018. But the industry lobby managed to bring an amendment to the rules, which allowed plastics to be burnt in WtEs! And from the WtEs, these plastics get into our atmosphere. What goes around a WtE as waste, comes back around as diseases in our bodies

Waste to energy for waste of the West

WtE plants do not have takers in the global West. From a peak of about 190 incinerators in the 1990s, the US has just about 70 incinerators today – mainly because of their environmental, health and economic impacts. Acknowledging the fact that WtEs harm the transition to a circular economy, the EU has excluded them from financial support. When India importas the technology for WtEs from the West, it also gets tons of thousands of toxic and non-recyclable plastics as a bonanza. First, they ship their technology, closely followed by shipping their waste. China put its foot down in 2018 and cut the “recyclable plastics import” completely with its Sword policy. However, using some legal loopholes, companies in India imported almost four times more plastic waste after China’s ban. In 2022, citing the shortage of used plastics, India allowed the import of 93,000 tons of plastic waste from the West, even as India struggled to recycle its own plastic waste.

The most important RRR

Plastic is the most challenging and complex component of the municipal solid waste fraction. A quick chat with our grandparents on how they dealt with garbage during their times would affirm the central role of plastics in today’s mounting garbage problems, especially single-use plastics. According to “Break Free from Plastics”, a global movement against plastic pollution, the solution for the plastic problem should involve bringing about a systemic change by taking a holistic approach to tackling plastic pollution throughout the entire lifespan of plastics, with a focus on prevention rather than cure. However, the task force on WtE has taken a siloed approach and deals with garbage as a mere litter problem. The holistic solution to today’s garbage menace should involve the RRRs: Refusing WtEs and single use plastics, reducing virgin plastic production and consumption (capping) and reusing.

Since the task force released its report a decade ago, one parameter of our waste management system has shown a significant improvement: the ranking of WtEs as a solution! If the task force labelled WtEs as a good solution, the NITI Aayog has gone a step further and lauded it as the “best” solution. Our urban local bodies spend up to 40% of their budget on waste management. The alarming increase has been highlighted by the World Bank. Cities like Delhi, which heeded the advice of the task force and burnt about 8,000 tons of garbage every day, are paying the price for it in terms of worsening air quality, spike in health ailments and loss of livelihood. In light of the failures of these WTEs, it is high time that India moves towards waste minimisation, decentralisation and adopting indigenous technologies for waste management that suit local conditions.

This article was originally published in Science.The Wire and can be read here.

Image from Pixabay

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