“Operation successful but the patient died” is perhaps the best phrase to describe the handling of the Brahmapuram fire which ravaged the city of Kochi.

Spread over 110 acres of land, the Brahmapuram dumpyard caught fire on March 2, 2023. After the heroics of several departments including Fire, Air Force and Navy, the fire was completely doused on March 13. Or was it?

The Brahmapuram fire, which catapulted into the air, atmosphere, water, soil and ultimately life, is a classic example of a ‘plastic chain reaction’.

Finding the root causes of the accident could prevent fires forecast by scientists in thousands of dumpyards across the country.

High temperature + plastics = Dumpyard fire

The science behind the Brahmapuram fire is surprisingly simple. Dumpyards harbour hundred thousand tonnes of mixed municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW has organic waste (50-60 per cent), plastics (8-10 per cent), paper (5-6 per cent) and inert elements (25-30 per cent).
Though the percentage of plastics might look miniscule in the overall composition of waste, it is non-biodegradable (percentage composition remains constant) while the organic fraction degrades rapidly since it has 88-94 per cent moisture.

During this rapid decomposition (both aerobic and anaerobic), high temperature and methane gas (highly combustible) is emitted, along with other toxic gases such as CO, CO2, SOx, NOx, among others. A combination of these noxious gases along with the methane generated during anaerobic decomposition causes the highly inflammable plastics to catch fire.

An investigative report by Down to Earth on the Brahmapuram fire claimed that, in all probability, the fire started from thick layers of dry plastic waste that had been piled up for several years. Thus, we can arrive at the formula, high temperature + plastics = Fire.

Interconnectedness — the five elements of earth

The fire was doused using 60,000 litres of water per minute, according to Renu Raj, district collector, Ernakulam. Many experts believe that this will lead to a very high leachate contamination, which will carry all the toxics straight to the Kadambrayar river, a drinking water source for several areas.

The toxins in the water will further be bio-accumulated into fishes and enter human bodies to cause several health issues ranging from nervous disorders to reproductive problems. Perhaps, ‘Out of the raging fire, into the water’ was not a sound idea. Furthermore, the nearby agricultural land and crops would be further damaged because of the excessive leachates from this dumpyard.

Wiped out, a documentary released in 2018, which highlighted years of neglect by the legislature, on the social and environmental impact of the Brahmapuram dumpyard is now viral across Kerala and gives a sense of déjà vu. It’s never too late to understand that, toxins in fire, air, water, atmosphere and soil means toxins in humans and all living beings on Earth.

In his first speech after the Brahmapuram fire, the chief minister announced a slew of measures, which included conducting a health study, a scientific study on air-water-soil pollution, police probe on a criminal case in connection to the fire and a vigilance as well as anti-corruption bureau investigation.

Despite these significant steps, it was disheartening to hear the CM say he was counting on the “waste-to-energy (WtE)” plant to turn the tide on the garbage problem. Does having faith in the WtEs move the garbage mountains?

Waste-to-energy plants are essentially incinerators that burn mixed municipal solid waste to produce heat, which in turn would power a turbine to produce electricity. The electricity produced by WtEs releases more toxins into the atmosphere than the dirty coal fired thermal power plants because it burns plastics.

Priced over Rs 7 per kilowatt-hour, WtE produces the costliest form of electricity (more expensive than nuclear energy), despite receiving about 40 per cent of the project cost as subsidies. This is because Indian waste has very low calorific value (800-1,100 kilocalorie per kilogram) and hence would require additional fuel to burn. Furthermore, it kills livelihoods dependent on collection, sorting and recycling of waste materials.

The Okhla WtE plant of national capital Delhi is a testament to the above facts. It was slapped a fine of Rs 25 lakh by the National Green Tribunal for releasing 800-900 per cent more dioxins and furans into the atmosphere, thereby increasing the likelihood of cancer in the neighbouring communities.

Also, the plant produced 250 metric tonnes of toxic ash daily from the combustion process, which is disposed of at a landfill in Tajpur and contaminates the soil and groundwater. An international research led by IIT-Madras found that burning of plastics in such WtE plants was one of the primary causes of Delhi’s air pollution.

WtE plants are being shut down world over! For example, between 2000 and 2022, 48 WtE incinerators in the United States were permanently closed and no new WtEs have been built in a new site since 1995 in the United States.
Even the European Union is turning away from WtE incineration. WtEs are being excluded from financial support and are cited as a threat to the circular economy by the European Commission.
But why is the Kerala government hell-bent in importing this outdated and toxic technology from the Western countries when we now know that waste-to-energy = waste of energy + toxins!

Plastics: Isn’t recycled or can’t be recycled?
“Landfills were not bad. However, today’s landfills bear little resemblance to the garbage dumps of our generation,” recalls Siddeswaran, a sanitary inspector of Salem, Tamil Nadu. “Trenches five feet deep would be dug up in designated places (now landfills) to dump the municipal solid waste. Farmers would queue up to collect the rich compost from these trenches after a period of about six months. Furthermore, entire staff salaries would be paid from the compost sales. But there were no plastics at that time,” said the 1989 recruit.

A big misinformation campaign that has been perpetuated by the plastic industry is the myth that plastic is recyclable! If plastics are recyclable, why are plastic recycling rates decreasing steadily? It was 5 per cent in 2022, down from 9.5 per cent in 2014.
Meanwhile, paper recycling has increased sharply from about 21.3 per cent in 1980 to 71.4 per cent in 2021. A report published by Greenpeace in 2022, clearly highlighted that most plastics cannot be recycled.

Over 99 per cent of plastic is made from fossil fuels. So essentially, plastics = fossil fuels. With increasing pressure to transition away from fossil fuels for energy, the oil industry is rapidly converting its oil and gas into petrochemicals, some of which are raw materials for plastics.The plastics industry estimated that it will triple its production by 2050.
In the aftermath of the Brahmapuram fire disaster, the Kerala government has announced that it will set up several “breathe-well clinics” for the public.

However, the need of the hour is the setting up of “think-well clinics”, for the legislators to help them make sound decisions on waste management, keeping the people and the planet above profits.

Photo: Facebook / Collector, Ernakulam

This article was originally published in Down To Earth and can be read here.

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