Managing India’s municipal solid waste: Here are some action points

Incentives for segregation and penalty for non-segregation must be the first action point of any agenda on municipal solid waste management.

Managing India’s municipal solid waste: Here are some action points
Biodegradable waste, if segregated at source, can be delivered to a biomethanation plant for anaerobic processing. (Image: Reuters)

The NITI Aayog, in its Draft Three Year Action Agenda, has drawn attention to the need for a sustainable plan for solid waste management in Indian cities. However, they have taken the stand that incineration or ‘waste to energy’ is the best option as a sustainable disposal solution for the solid waste of larger cities. Their contention is that biogas and composting for waste management generate by-products or residues in large volumes that the larger cities will find difficult to dispose of efficiently. This reasoning is flawed.

NITI fails to point out that when incineration plants in cities use unsegregated waste to generate electricity, they emit toxic gases as by-products and irresponsibly dispose of these ‘dangerous by-products’ in the air. When we do not have effective mechanisms for monitoring the emissions, the health hazard becomes even more challenging. The National Green Tribunal has recently levied a penalty on the incineration plant at Okhla in Delhi for its violations of emission norms, but residents in the neighbourhood of Okhla have approached the Supreme Court with a public interest litigation for relocation of the plant. NITI’s Draft Action Agenda neither incorporates lessons from the experience of incineration plants in Delhi, nor does it take note of the many success stories of biomethanation in a number of Indian cities, including some large cities.

Incineration technologies require a continuous supply of waste with a sufficiently high calorific value and low moisture content. Aman Luthra in a recent article in Economic and Political Weekly (April 2017) has examined whether these conditions hold in India, using empirical evidence from Delhi. He demonstrates that Indian waste is not suitable for incineration because it has too high a moisture content, leading to low calorific value. The high-tech gasification plant in Pune that I had written about in these columns in October 2012 has closed down precisely for these reasons. A study by the CSE (2016) finds that the calorific value of Indian waste is 800-1,000 kcal per kg; it needs to be at least 2,000 kcal per kg to be suitable for incineration.

India’s old tradition of kabadiwalas and recycling of paper, glass, plastic, etc, becomes a contributing factor to the low calorific value of our municipal waste. A study by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2009 found that India’s informal recycling sector “recovers much of the dry, high calorific material leaving a moist residue with high green waste content unsuitable for production of combustible ‘fluff’ without considerable pre-treatment (that is, drying).” Progressive states like California in the US have established a new recycling goal of 75% by 2020. Should we not be trying to recycle more rather than move backwards to avoid recycling and improve the calorific value of the waste we generate so that the incineration plants can work?

Generating energy from waste is only one aspect of waste management. It is by no means the most efficient or the most economical means of generating energy. The policy focus must not sway from examining the financial and environmental costs and benefits of the different alternatives for waste management. In waste to energy, technology is moving fast, regulatory challenges are enormous, and the challenges of enforcing emission standards are even greater.

NITI has recommended the setting up of a Waste to Energy Corporation of India under the ministry of urban development “which may set up world-class waste-to-energy plants through PPP across the country.” They have invoked the example of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) which organises PPP efforts in roads. The parallel is inappropriate. First of all, the land on which the highways are to be built is already owned by the government of India, and there are no land acquisition issues. Besides, NHAI is a well-funded agency which receives the proceeds of the cess on petrol and diesel and also receives toll revenues. No such revenue source is available for a new central corporation on solid waste management. Will the ministry of finance fund this initiative? The land on which the plants will be built belongs to urban local governments or state governments. Should the central government set up a corporation to undertake tasks that are the responsibility of urban local bodies? This goes against the principles of cooperative federalism.

Surprisingly, NITI is silent on segregation of wet waste from dry waste at the source of generating waste. Incentives for segregation and penalty for non-segregation must be the first action point of any agenda on municipal solid waste management. The Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) are a significant improvement over the Municipal Solid Wastes Rules (2000) in emphasising the need for enforcement of segregation and recommending change in municipal by-laws which allow for cost recovery in the collection of waste segregated at source and imposing penalty for non-segregation. NITI has missed an opportunity to build on this opening. Even though it is often claimed that incineration can take unsegregated waste, segregating biodegradable waste and inert waste also helps improve the calorific value of dry waste.

About half of the solid waste generated in Indian cities is biodegradable. If this waste is segregated at source, it can be collected and delivered to a local biomethanation plant for anaerobic processing. Unlike composting in which biogas is released into the environment, biomethanation allows the capture of biogas which can be used for cooking or for electricity generation; it also produces liquid fertiliser. For example, the Nisargruna Technology for biomethanation was developed by Prof Sharad Kale at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, and is being used in Pune, Matheran, Chennai, Kalameshwar, Mumbai, Coimbatore and several other cities.

Small-scale plants in individual localities are operating with capacity to treat anywhere from 0.5 tonne to 20 tonnes per day of biodegradable waste. There are also a number of other companies providing biomethanation solutions for segregated municipal solid waste, eg, Green Power Systems and Mailhem. If this practice can be replicated across the board, 50% of the waste generated in urban India does not need to be hauled over long distances to waste-to-energy plants and landfills, resulting in significant saving on transport costs. At present, 20-30% of the municipal government’s budget on solid waste is spent on transporting waste.

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The decentralised strategy for treating biodegradable waste is as much relevant for large cities as for small. Individual households, housing societies, resident welfare associations, and bulk generators like hotels and sabzi mandis should be at the centre of the movement to get segregation going. Only the biodegradable waste generated in the area must be processed in the local plant and the waste must be delivered to the plant in closed containers and processed within a specified short period, while the biogas and liquid fertiliser must be used to derive environmental benefits.

This has been demonstrated to work. I saw the Matheran plant in operation where all the hotel biodegradable waste of this tourist town is processed without any odour and the biogas is used for lighting street lamps. In an ongoing review of the biomethanation plants in Pune, Prof Kale, head of the Symbiosis Centre for Waste Resource Management in Pune, and the Pune Municipal Corporation are working to strengthen the system of technical monitoring and strict maintenance.

I must compliment NITI for including action points on these very important but complex issues in their Draft Action Agenda. They must follow this up with extensive consultation with subject experts, stakeholders and practitioners in state governments and urban local governments before arriving at the final action points.

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