Sweden’s sophisticated systems that handle waste, and convert them into energy, are so good that the Scandinavian country has run out of waste to feed the machines.
Now, it has to import garbage from other countries!
Is that a good thing or a bad? What shall we make of this news in India, where we struggle to clean-up trash under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
Sweden’s widely-reported over-successful recycling is not quite recycling as we know it. Sweden has been burning its waste to generate energy for a long time — a process it has been calling recycling.
The technology is expensive, with most of the costs in pollution prevention. Besides, it is not recycling.
Technically, recycling involves converting a material into the same material, ideally reducing dependence on new materials for the same product. Simply put, you recycle a plastic bucket into another plastic bucket, not electricity. The world over, decision-makers use what is called a waste hierarchy to prioritise their options. As is easy to guess, waste prevention tops the list. Recycling comes lower but is placed much before waste-to-energy. You convert your waste-to-energy only if you can’t recycle it.
The facts on the ground underscore that this specific Swedish model of handling waste doesn’t offer much to India. We already have a massive army of over 15 lakh wastepickers and several lakh additional workers, whose livelihoods are based on the kind of paper, cartons and plastics that Sweden is converting to energy. These are people — mostly economically and socially marginalised — whose vulnerability increases when they lose access to such waste. The case of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant shows how this happens.
A study by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group showed that after the plant opened, 63% of the children dropped out of school to work because their families ceased to earn enough to keep them in school. The difference between Sweden and India is that for Sweden, shredded paper and a pizza carton is not only waste but a nuisance. For many Indians, it’s the currency for their next meal.
The case of Okhla also forces us to ask about public health and safely. Sweden’s highly-sophisticated systems are well monitored, and it not only has the capacity to monitor deadly dioxins and mercury but also, the funds to undertake such expensive tests: One single sample takes upwards of Rs50,000 to test. Thousands of residents of Okhla, have litigated against the plant, justified in their anger at breathing in massive amounts toxics and wiping off black particulate matter off their balconies every day. The pollution monitoring tests, undertaken once a quarter, are inadequate and can be easily rigged.
As our planet groans under the weight of our discards, I can’t but point out the moral hazard of building a garbage guzzling monster that offers Europe’s trash a rationale for its generation rather than push for its reduction. Is such a plant a solution, or Frankenstein? Should the plant capacity be reduced or should waste be cheerily exported? Should the countries of the waste’s origin be given this easy solution and allowed to externalise environmental costs or not?
Sweden should be boasting instead of its technologies around organic waste, thanks to which it knows how to convert wet waste into another kind of fuel, CNG. The developing world and India’s biggest waste problem is the organic fraction — over half our waste rots, stinks, emits greenhouse gases and sets landfills ablaze. Using CNG also reduces our air pollution. Learning about this from Sweden will serve every Indian much better than imagining that thermal waste-to-energy plants are the temples of 21st century India.
Bharati Chaturvedi is founder and director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group
The views expressed are personal