A Billion Reasons for Waste to Energy in India

In response to the need to properly manage Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in India the first of the third generation of Waste to Energy (WtE) plants began operations in December 2011.

A municipal solid waste open dump site near Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
Credit: Ranjith Annepu

Twenty three Indian cities will each generate more than 1000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste per day in the next five years. Cumulatively they will generate 93,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste every day. At this scale, solid waste management systems without waste to energy combustion technology, will not be able to safely and economically treat and recover energy from post-recycled waste.

By Ranjith Annepu

In response to the need to properly manage Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in India the first of the third generation of Waste to Energy (WtE) plants began operations in December 2011. Six more plants are in construction, five have been tendered and three projects are in the conceptual phase. In the next five years a further 40 projects are expected to complete the conceptual planning and design phases.

Lack of data and awareness, and qualified human resources are the biggest challenges for WtE in India. At some point, these will be overcome. The question is when and who will take the initiative? The government, industry or the public?

If we wait until public demands reach the intensity that will move governments or the industry, we will have impacted many lives.

The large scale of the waste problem, the need for safe disposal, and the availability of affordable technology are the three biggest opportunities for WtE. The government of India, various ministries, and supporting organisations, as well as the solid waste management industry have an opportunity to improve public health and quality of life, conserve environmental resources, mitigate climate change, and generate energy with the aid of this technology

Scale of the problem

Every day, urban India generates 188,500 tonnes of MSW - 68.8 million tonnes per year - and waste generation increases by 50% every decade. Some of this waste will be recovered by an army of informal recyclers - 20% in large cities according to the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group and less in smaller cities. However, more than 80% reaches open dumpsites where it causes damaging public health, deteriorating the environment, and causes climate change.

Landfill space is hard to find in and around India's urban centres. Dumpsites in almost all cities are already handling more waste than they can hold. Finding new landfills near cities is almost impossible due to the sheer lack of space for Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) like waste management because of the NIMBY phenomenon, the population density and the scale of increasing urban sprawl, and the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India.

Every municipal official who attended the Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT)-India's International Brainstorming Session in 2012 asked for help with this issue. Therefore, reducing the amount of waste that goes to dumpsites at a scale that can make a difference is of a high priority.

From the experiences of second generation waste management facilities in India, built in around the year 2000, the SWM industry learnt that the role of composting in reducing waste sent to landfill was overestimated. Composting was considered to be an obvious choice due to the high organic content (51%) in Indian MSW.

However, due to a lack of source separation, the yield of composting plants or Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) was only 6-7% making them economically unfeasible. Rejects from these plants were more than 60% of the input stream - the rest of the mass transfer was in the form of escaped water vapour and CO2.

The informal recycling sector plays a major role in collecting and processing waste from India's cities
Credit: Ranjith Annepu Technologies

For the next 20 years, the only way India's large quantities of post-recycled mixed municipal waste can be treated is through a combination of MBT, WtE and Sanitary Landfilling (SLF). This is not to discount other technologies which are effective at smaller scale, such as household and institutional scale biomethanation and kitchen waste composting.

Due to the number of these units that are required to make a significant impact, propagating these technologies takes decades. Until then, they will not be able to make much of a difference to the amount of untreated waste that will go to open dumps. However, with consistent support, these technologies will definitely improve the sustainability of India's waste management systems.

In the future, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies might become fierce contenders to traditional thermal combustion with energy recovery, but they are still emerging technologies. Gasification has not yet to be proven to work in India. Pyrolysis and plasma arc suffer a similar setback around most of the world.

India's only pyrolysis plant, in Pune, recently came under scrutiny due to its failure to run at capacity. Studying the reasons for this failure, which are currently unknown, could provide a better picture about the future of emerging technologies.

Urgent need

Nationwide protests against the present situation for waste management, and demands for environmental justice through safer waste management practices, are one of the greatest opportunities for WtE.

Disease, air pollution due to landfill fires and water pollution due to leachate from dumpsites happen because of the presence of organic materials and carbon compounds in the waste. They can all be avoided by achieving near complete combustion of waste inside WtE plants that are well regulated.

In the city of Mumbai alone, the open burning of MSW and landfill fires emit an estimated 10,000 TEQ grams of dioxins/furans and contributes to 20% of the city's air pollution due to Particulate Matter (PM), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Hydrocarbons (HCs).

In comparison, landfill fires emit 35,200 nanograms (ng) toxic equivalents (TEQ) of dioxins/furans per kilogram (kg) of waste burnt in comparison to 0.25 x 10-9 nanograms TEQ/kg combusted in France's 127 WtE facilities, which together emitted 4 grams TEQ of dioxins from the combustion of 16 million tonnes per year of waste.

Solutions

India now has access to affordable WtE technology, thanks to numerous Chinese and South East Asian companies with operational plants. Further, a European WtE company has recently established its office in India, and by sourcing their components indigenously and by standardising plant design is able to provide its technology at prices affordable to Indian cities. Together these technologies are available at one-third the price of WtE technology in the U.S. or Europe.

As more successful WTE companies establish their presence in India, the country's access to the technology will increase along with our knowledge and expertise.

Integrating the Informal Recycling Sector

In India, one of the reasons for employing MBT technology before WtE is to make waste input into WtE plants homogenous. Increasing source separation, by employing the informal sector for door-to-door collection, will make waste homogenous and avoid the need for MBT.

More importantly, inclusion of the informal recycling system will improve sustainability of the system in terms of resource efficiency, and climate change mitigation while providing a livelihood to urban poor.

The informal recycling sector, an underutilised opportunity in India, could be integrated into the formal system by training and employing waste pickers to conduct door-to-door collection of wastes and allowing them to sell the recyclables they collect. When properly managed and monitored, the informal sector, along with MBT and WtE, could quickly achieve landfill diversion rates of up to 93.5%. In some Indian cities, the informal recycling sector is the first readily available tool to improve SWM.

The role of the informal sector in SWM in developing nations is increasingly being recognised, and there is growing consensus that it should be integrated into the formal system. India is at the forefront of organising the informal sector, as a result of which, we have an informal recycling sector that can conform to reliable work and schedules.

Politics

There are a handful of local governments which are leading the way in improving waste management. The steps taken to solve New Delhi's waste management problem is laudable. India would not have its only operating WtE plant without the kind of leadership and determination showcased in Delhi.

The plant was built in 2011, at a time when the need for WtE plants was felt nationwide. 1700 tonnes of Delhi's waste enters this facility every day, generating around 18 MW of electricity. The successful operation of this facility reinvigorated dormant projects across the nation.

An announcement on granting viability-gap-funding for WtE projects made by India's finance minister in his 2013 budget speech has helped catalyse action towards developing a promotional framework for WtE. India's Planning Commission and the Ministry of Urban Development organised meetings with private stakeholders to understand their needs. The results of these meetings are currently unknown.

Lack of Data and Awareness

Lack of data and awareness impacts every aspect of India's waste management industry - not just WtE. Other than the National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute's (NEERI) survey performed eight years ago about waste composition and generation in 59 cities, there is no other reliable data available.

Owing to the lack of reliable data about quantity, composition, calorific value and seasonal variations of MSW, municipalities are struggling to come up with a structured and a well-moderated response to their own needs. Lack of data decreases the clarity in tender requirements put forth by municipalities and leads to miscalculations by private parties.

It was also one of the main reasons for the failures of many first generation (1960s to 1990s) and second generation waste management facilities (2000), regardless of whether they employed composting or WtE.

The lack of operational data from the first and second generation WtE facilities, all of which failed, continues to impact the scope of current projects and the financing and regulatory policy. Lack of consistent operational data is the reason for improperly conceived projects whether it is regarding negotiations about preferential tariffs, tipping fees, or risk and profit sharing.

Due to a lack of awareness about the technology and best practices, municipalities expect magic solutions. This is also because of salesmen that promise zero residue, zero emissions and zero leachate. Such false promises can be counteracted by information, training and education.

Expertise, Coordination and Financing

Adding to the challenges facing WtE in India, a lack of consultants and professional expertise has led to tender documents being developed that are often not clearly scoped, not thorough or are just copied from existing tenders from other cities and do not consider local requirements. This is mainly due to the lack of consultants and professionals who have expertise in designing WtE projects. This leads to the stipulation of unreasonable eligibility criteria, one-sided agreements and choosing the wrong partners.

Many first and second generation WtE projects failed because of irregularity in payments. Payments from most municipalities are delayed by three to four months.

Some are even delayed for over six months. This puts enormous pressure on the liquid cash reserves of private stakeholders that have to provide services and pay employees.

Further to this, the SWM industry in India is young and growing, with a significant influx of new players from other sectors. They all face similar challenges while developing projects, but do not have mechanisms to achieve consensus on their basic requirements, so that those can be communicated to decision makers.

Conclusions

A clear trend observed during India's recent waste crisis is that the outbreak of epidemics and public protests around happening in the biggest cities of their respective regions. When looking at converging factors such as improving public health, the scale of the problem and the time at hand, there is no confusion about WtE being the solution.

WtE is expected to be a major option for many Indian cities. While self-reporting and regulating emissions is a must, WtE will become the right choice for India when it becomes more inclusive with increased public understanding.

Municipal governments should practice caution in scoping projects, choosing private partners, and carry out transparent tendering processes by hiring knowledgeable consultants.

Meanwhile, the national government must design reasonable and strong regulatory framework for emissions monitoring, and policy for integrating the informal recycling sector. It should not hesitate to seek guidance from other Asian countries which have already passed through this phase of waste to energy development.

Ranjith Annepu is the India coordinator, for the Global Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT).