[Editorial Analysis] Waste-to-Energy plants that use solid waste as feedstock pose threat to environment

Mains Paper 3: Environment

Prelims level: Waste to Energy plants

Mains level: Environment Impact assessment

Context

• Waste to Energy (WtE) plants are highly dangerous because of the toxic gases and particulates they spew when they burn mixed waste in the process of incineration.

• WtE plant in Okhla was slapped a fine of Rs 25 lakh in February 2017 by the NGT but many questions about air quality standards in the area remain unanswered, including why the plant spews soot and ash in the neighbourhood.

Environmental Impact Assessment

• To rub salt on the wound, we understand that the authorities are considering the expansion of this WtE plant from 16 MW to 40 MW.

• The latest protests by the residents at a public hearing were reported in the press only a few days ago.

• The residents claim that the plant’s original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) issued to IL&FS bears no resemblance to the plant now in operation.

• A new EIA has been filed for the proposed expansion, and they are apprehensive about the proposal to add two boilers.

• There are five municipal WtE plants operational in India with a total capacity to produce 66.4 MW electricity per day, of which the lion’s share 52 MW per day is generated in Delhi by its three existing plants.

• There is also talk of setting up a new WtE plant with a capacity of 25 MW at Tehkhand in South-East Delhi.

• The bandwagon is rolling on with cities across different states vying for WtE plants as a quick and lazy solution to the complex challenge of solid waste management.

Health hazard with burning WtE plants

• WtE plants in India burn mixed waste.

• The presence of chlorinated hydrocarbons like PVC results in the release of dioxins and furans when the waste is burnt at less than 850 degree C.

• Appropriate filtering mechanisms need to be installed to control such dangerous emissions.

• Dioxins and furans are known to be carcinogenic and can lead to impairment of immune, endocrine, nervous and reproductive systems.

• In the past, joint inspections involving the residents have shown that the plant was being operated without the adequate use of activated charcoal to filter out dioxins, furans and mercury from the emissions.

Amending the SWM 2016 Rules

• SWM Rules 2016 require that PVC be phased out in incinerators by April 2018.

• But it is impossible to identify and remove PVC beverage labels, for example, from mixed waste streams.

• As a preventive measure, the NGT directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to consider the phase out of such single-use short-life PVC and issue appropriate directions by July 2017. Their failure to do so till date is inexcusable.

• WtE plants in India are also inefficient in generating energy.

• Municipal waste in India has a very high biodegradable (wet) waste content ranging anywhere between 60 and 70 per cent of the total, compared with 30 per cent in the West.

• This gives our waste a high moisture content and low calorific value.

• Also, since Indian households have traditionally been recycling their waste such as paper, plastic, cardboard, cloth, rubber, etc, to kabadiwalas, this further lowers the calorific value of our waste.

• India’s Solid Waste Management policy requires that wet and dry wastes should not be mixed so that only non-compostable and non-recyclable wastes with at least 1,500 kcal/kg should reach WtE plants.

• Such waste comprises only 10 to 15 per cent of the total waste.

• The challenge of segregation at source is compounded by the municipal governments themselves when they use compacters to reduce the transport cost of the waste.

• Compacting compresses the waste and makes even gross segregation at the plant site impossible.

• In the absence of adequate feedstock of non-compostable and non-recyclable waste, it becomes necessary to use auxiliary fuel, adding to the cost of operating the plants.

Way forward

• WtE plants using municipal solid waste from Indian cities as feedstock pose a serious threat to our health and environment.

• We do not even have the municipal waste of the quality prescribed by our own SWM Rules to run such plants, let alone the regulatory and monitoring capacity to ensure their safe operations.

• We must seriously explore low cost options such as composting and bio-methanation.

• First things first: No mixing of waste at the point of generation.

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Prelims Questions:

Q.1) Consider the following statements regarding E-Waste Management Rules, 2016

1. The rules are not applicable to micro enterprises.

2. Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and other mercury containing lamp brought under the purview of rules.

Select the correct statement/s

a) Only 1

b) Only 2

c) Both

d) None

Correct Answer: C

Mains Questions:

Q.1) To what extent burning the WtE plants are vulnerable for the environment. Comment.

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