India: Environmental experts criticise government’s waste-to-energy focus

Environmental non-profits have urged the Indian government to amend its waste management strategy, which favours the building of waste-to-energy plants over the building of biogas production facilities.

The building of a waste-to-energy plant near and existing landfill site in Gurugram, a city in the north Indian state of Haryana, has been opposed by local residents as well as environmental experts.

The Bandhwari landfill contains waste mountains reaching up to a height of 42 metres-the proposed waste-to-energy (WTE) facility is supposed to reduce the incoming waste volume. 

Commissioned by the government, Ecogreen Energy initially set out to build the WTE plant in 2017 yet construction efforts have lagged behind these past four years. During this time, three million more tonnes of garbage accumulated on the proposed building site.

In the wake of this delay, voices have grown loud questioning the effectiveness of WTE infrastructure in mitigating waste volume.

WTE represents a solution to the general waste problem only in so far as it treats non-recoverable and non-biodegradable waste.

For the solution to take, however, waste segregation is key. Yet due to high expenses, this is not practised as thoroughly in India as it is in western countries, resulting in the generation of huge piles of mixed waste.

Segregation is necessary for the establishment of material streams with high energy content (ex. plastic or paper) that can then be used to derive energy or fuel via WTE processes. But as this is not commonly practiced in the Indian context, the yield in waste is generally low-calorific. Waste of this sort may cause incineration difficulties when fed into WTE plants, which essentially renders the government’s waste reduction plans via WTE moot.  

Environmental experts in the country also argue that using waste to derive energy or fuel that has the potential to generate extra value if recycled represents a missed economic as well as sustainable opportunity.

Since 1987, only 15 WTE plants were built in India due to a lack in supply of necessary high-caloric waste. One half of them has shut down while the other is currently being monitored for purported environmental failings.

Relevant experts claim that in 90% of cases, biogas combustion is a less ecologically hazardous waste management solution than incineration.

Biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide, is a more sustainable option than natural gas as it is not derived by drilling or fracking.

(Considering that a large majority of disposed waste in India has an organic origin, there seems to be some potential to the idea.)

WTE plants can serve to complement bio-methanation in the remaining 10% of cases, activists claim, with facility clusters serving larger areas proving a better idea than individual plants for every individual city.

Despite concerns voiced over this issue, the official government response has been in favour of WTE plants. According to S. Narayanan, member secretary of the Haryana State Pollution Control Board, the efficacy of the approach is dependent ‘on what is incinerated in the plant’-yet, in face of India’s lack of proper waste infrastructure, which renders waste segregation for the sourcing of high-calorific waste suitable for energy conversion purposes fraught, this appears to be irrelevant.

In India, 77% of solid waste is dumped on landfills, with only 18% being composted and 5% being recycled.