Getting rid of landfills, as Delhi municipal corporations are planning, is a good idea but waste segregation is essential.
Given that two people died as the 15-storey high Ghazipur landfill in Delhi collapsed in September and a mountain of trash swept them into a nearby canal, and the frequent fires at such sites—barely a month after the tragedy, a massive fire broke out in the same landfill—the plan to do away with landfills in the capital is a welcome one. According to a news story in The Times of India, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and its southern counterpart have been allotted land to develop engineered landfill sites which will be equipped with waste-to-energy power plants that will consume the trash and leave only the residue to be dumped. According to this plan, an official of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation is quoted as saying, even the existing landfills can be lowered and, once methane is extracted using a bio-methanation process, the mounds will be covered with a layer of soil and then get a green cover. Delhi generates over 10,000 tonnes of waste every day—India generates 65-70 million tonnes every year—and with most landfills already exhausted, the only option is to keep piling them up higher and higher; Ghazipur was meant to be 20 metres high but ended up being 50 metres.
It has to be seen how the solution works out, but it is quite odd that simpler solutions like segregating of wet and dry waste is not being done at the household level with proper techniques to treat it—with the waste dumped in the manner it is right now in most cities, as Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Almitra Patel have pointed out in this newspaper, it gets no air to breathe and then rots which leads to foul air around the landfill and, since this creates methane, it is also prone to fire and adds to global warming since methane traps a lot more heat than carbon dioxide. Ahluwalia and Patel, in fact, cite examples of cities like Gurugram, Faridabad and Nagpur where garbage is collected and treated correctly. As opposed to the garbage being dumped as it is today, it is stacked in neat rows that are not too high and that are built in such a way as to allow air to come in—each row is turned four times a week to ensure all parts get aerated and sprayed with composting microbes to aid decomposition. Suryapet, in Andhra Pradesh was the first Indian city to process its wet waste, recycle its dry waste and leave nothing for land filling—the composting can then either be done at home or taken to a nearby place for decentralised composting or biogas production or even to centralised plants.
If this kind of segregation is not done, it is likely that the plants used to convert unsegregated waste to generate electricity will emit toxic gases as by-products, adding to the city’s health hazards. Apart from the many uses for compost generated through the bioremediation of wet waste, if local segregation is done, more than half the waste in urban India won’t need to be hauled over long distances to waste-to-energy plants, also resulting in significant savings on transport. As India gets more urbanised, it can’t afford to not get this right, else it will drown in, or choke on its own waste.