Today is World Environment Day. Tell that to SC Sarin, a resident of Delhi’s Okhla area, and he will give you a wry smile. For him, June 5 is one of those days when everyone will walk and talk green but it will be business as usual. The reason for Mr Sarin’s cynicism is not far to seek: he and his neighbours are fighting a battle against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s (MCD) decision to set up a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant right inside their colony. The plant, the MCD claims, meets international norms and the corporation would earn — buzzword alert — ‘carbon credits’ through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. But lift the veil of jargon, and the very question of whether such a plant is eco-friendly looks contentious.
The plant, say residents of the colony, puts their health at risk. Nearly, 2,000 tonnes of municipal waste will be brought every day for incineration. Due to the lack of segregation techniques at the source, incineration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-studded waste would release harmful dioxins. “And we will end up inhaling toxic fumes,” says Sarin, who is also the head of the Sukhdev Vihar Residents’ Welfare Association. The Cheshire Home for the elderly is also located in the area, something that was not taken into account while setting up the plant.
Dioxins are endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic chemicals and have inter-generational health impacts. And incineration of mixed waste is one of the key sources of this pollutant. Come to think of it, India does not even have a single dioxin-testing centre.
Interestingly, the MCD’s claims that it will earn ‘carbon credits’ is also dubious because Annexure A of the Kyoto Protocol says that waste incineration is a green house gas emitter. The US’s Environmental Protection Agency has also ruled that incinerators emit dioxin and are major sources of mercury, lead, arsenic and other pollutants. The ash that results from burning trash is even more toxic. Also from a climate change perspective, composting and bio-methanation technologies are far superior to incineration.
In Europe, too, there’s not much support for WTE technologies. On May 29, CEE Bankwatch, a non-governmental financial watchdog partly funded by the European Union, slammed the European Investment Bank (EIB), the EU’s long-term lending bank, for directing roughly two-thirds of its waste-management investment into incineration plants even though incineration is near the bottom of a list of the EU’s preferred ways of handling waste. Under guidelines set out in the Waste Framework Directive, the EU’s top priority should be waste reduction, followed by recycling and composting. ‘Energy recovery’, which largely means incineration, is near the bottom of the list. Landfill is viewed as the last option. Earlier, the European Parliament passed a resolution denouncing incineration technology. India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy has also expressed grave reservations against this technology.
Moreover, all recent waste policies of the Indian Government, which include the Supreme Court’s committee report on waste, the Shukla Committee report of the Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment, the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000, and the regulations issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) also don’t recommend incineration of chlorinated products for the same reasons. In fact, the ‘White Paper on Pollution in Delhi with an Action Plan’ of the MoEF says that the thermal treatment of municipal solid waste is not feasible and recommends composting as the viable option. The MCD’s Feasibility Study and Master Plan for Optimal Waste Treatment and Disposal for the Entire State of Delhi, 2004, also talks of the high costs of the incineration technique.
“The move by the incineration industry to term waste incinerators as ‘renewable energy’ projects is not only fraudulent but also dangerous,” says Gopal Krishna, Convener, Delhi Campaign for Safe Environment (DCSE). “Municipal solid waste is not considered to be a renewable energy source since it tends to be a mixture of fuels that can be traced back to renewable and non-renewable sources.”
And it is not only agencies like the MCD that are backing the wrong horse. According to Krishna, it’s “top down” from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The Ministry’s WTE policy, conceived in 1986, has failed to deliver anything. “They have now issued an executive order to state chief secretaries and administrators of Union Territories to follow this follow WTE policy,” says Krishna. Indian garbage has an average calorific value of about 800 cal/kg. For combustion technologies to succeed, they would need about 2,000-3,000 cal/kg, otherwise auxiliary fuel has to be added. This makes the process more uneconomical and polluting than it already is.
India is party to the Stockholm Convention that deals with very toxic chemicals — persistent organic pollutants (POPSs), which include dioxins and furans. These are largely the result of waste combustion or thermal treatment of municipal and medical wastes, especially involving chlorinated plastics such as PVC.
Environment is big business. But are we being taken for a ride?