03 Dec 2013

Out of India’s Trash Heaps, A Controversy on Incineration

India is planning to burn more of its trash to generate badly needed electricity. But as the case of a waste-to-energy plant in New Delhi shows, critics are worried about lax air pollution controls and the impact of incineration on people who eke out a living picking through waste dumps.
By david ferris

For years, Sujata Das has started her workday by climbing to the top of the Okhla landfill in New Delhi to wait for the dump trucks. As they have rolled in and dispensed their loads, she and hundreds of other ragpickers have sifted through the garbage by hand, looking for plastic, paper, and scrap metal that could be sold for recycling. For her labors, Das used to earn about 5,000 rupees ($80) a month, enough to feed her three children and send them to school.

Then, two years ago, the contents of the dump trucks abruptly changed.

Instead of carrying garbage and the occasional jackpot of a shirt or a metal pot, the trucks now deliver load after load of charcoal gray ash. The trash no longer comes directly from the streets of Delhi but via the Timarpur
Ragpicker Sujata Das
David Ferris
A waste-to-energy plant threatens the livelihood of New Delhi ragpicker Sujata Das and her family.
Okhla Waste Management Plant. Since late 2011, the plant has been accepting 1,950 metric tons of trash each day, a quarter of Delhi's total, and burning it to convert its embedded energy into electricity. The ash is what's left over.

"Earlier we would find lots of plastics and paper," explained Das, a vivacious 35-year-old in a purple headscarf. She stood in the muddy alleyway of her shantytown, where buildings are made from castoff cardboard and tarps. "But now they burn it so I don't find it. What will we do with the ash?"

Vaporizing garbage and using the energy produced to create electricity would seem to be an ideal solution for India, where the growing landfills make a stink and the lights go out for a few hours every day. But critics
The Timarpur plant's $44.6 million price tag is a tenth of that for a comparable plant in Europe.
contend that the Timarpur plant, the first fully functioning one in the country, is fouling the air even as it clears the land.

The incineration technology used in the Timarpur plant lags behind that of state-of-the-art waste-to-energy incinerators now in operation in Europe, with one test in March by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee yielding levels of dioxins and furans more than 30 times above the legal limit. Neighbors have reported a film of black ash on their terraces since the plant opened. That, along with concern about pollution reaching nearby hospitals and the Kalindi Bird Sanctuary, prompted a neighborhood association to file a lawsuit, which has resulted in two court injunctions against the plant. But Timarpur — built and operated by the Jindal Group, India's fourth-largest industrial conglomerate — keeps burning.

India's big cities are poised for a building boom of waste-to-energy plants, but they are using inexpensive Chinese-manufactured incinerators with less rigorous pollution controls and operating in a new sector nearly devoid of regulations. The Timarpur plant's $44.6 million price tag is a tenth of that for a comparable plant in Europe, according to reports in the Indian media.

A second plant is poised to open in Delhi and another is on the way. Three others are being built in the state of Andhra Pradesh and one in Gujarat, and more are planned in Chennai, Mumbai, and Bangalore, according to Ranjith Annepu, India coordinator for the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council.

The growth of waste-to-energy plants has created a competition for rubbish and exposed a clash between waste-to-energy incinerators and economic opportunity for some of the poor in the world's second-most-populous country. The nine months following the plant's opening saw a drastic change in fortunes for the 450 trash collectors working at the Okhla landfill, a small subset of the 40,000 to 50,000 ragpickers who work in New Delhi. A survey by Chintan, a Delhi nonprofit that works with ragpickers, found that the population of Okhla ragpickers fell by two-thirds, to 150, as workers were forced to move away to find day labor
Ragpickers act as an informal recycling army in a country with almost no curbside recycling.
that pays even less. Many families who remained said they took their children out of school in order to have more hands available to comb through the heaps of ash for valuable chunks of metal slag.

Ragpickers can be seen poking through rubbish piles in every Indian city, acting as an informal recycling army in a country with almost no curbside recycling. Working long days and carrying large sacks, they pluck plastic, paper, and metal from alley litter piles, overflowing curbside bins, regional collection hubs, and dumps.

Trash is a ubiquitous fact of modern India. It is strewn on many streets, leading to vermin and disease, or burned by residents in vacant lots and yards, creating toxic air pollution. Dumps are filled haphazardly and often aren't covered by topsoil, increasing emissions of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.

"It is similar to how the U.S. was in the 1920s, when they were openly dumping the waste, but the U.S. always had land, and the cities had enough money to transport it far enough," said Annepu. "Here the cities don't have enough money, they don't have enough land, and even if they build a landfill somewhere, the city expands so fast that within five or six years the landfill is encircled by people."

On a cloudy afternoon earlier this year, I visited the Timarpur waste-to-energy plant as it ran at full tilt. The walkway between its six-story buildings filled with a hum that was nearly a roar. The air had a vague chemical smell but not the stench of trash. I looked into one of the three 10,000-ton collection pits, where a giant steel claw, as big as a UPS van, picked up a clutch of waste and transferred it to the top of a pile four stories tall, disturbing the resident flock of pigeons.

The garbage had already been run under magnets to pull out metal, shaken over mesh to remove pebbles, and sorted by hand for things that don't burn (bricks and ceramics) and things that shouldn't (rubber and PVC plastic). Among the remainder were recyclables like cardboard and other types of plastic; they burn hot, making them prized feedstocks. Next
The plant is consuming a quarter of the trash of a city of 11 million and turning it into power.
the claw delivered the trash to the incinerator, which is primed with diesel until it reaches a stable temperature of 850° C (1562° F). Superheated smoke rose up a flue surrounded by coils of water-filled pipes. The water turns to steam, which spins a turbine and creates electricity. Inside a control room, a large readout displayed the electrical output: 16 megawatt-hours, full capacity, which amounts to less than 0.3 percent of Delhi's peak energy demand.

Earlier, in a conference room, the operations manager, Sandip Dutt, explained his plant's features with obvious pride. After all, the plant is not just consuming a quarter of the trash of a city of 11 million and turning it into power, but is the first in the country to successfully do so. In recent decades, more than a dozen large-scale composting and waste-to-energy plants have failed.

"The more (a landfill) will ferment, the more methane gas it will generate and harm the atmosphere," said Dutt. "We are incinerating the waste so these landfill areas can be reclaimed. The negative part will always be there, the coin has two sides. You can say, 'OK, ragpickers are not getting that much business.' But then in the larger interest of society, I think these incinerator plants are sounding better than maintaining the livelihood of ragpickers."

Near the end of the tour, my guide pointed up to the pair of 196-foot-tall smokestacks. "No smoke!" he said. As I looked back down at my notebook,
India does not have the laws or government agencies to regulate this new sector of waste-to-energy incineration.
I noticed that it was covered with a light dusting of ash from the plant.

The plant's management claims that the scrubbers on the plant's stacks are working, that it has added additional pollution-control technology not required by India's Ministry of the Environment, and that emissions of pollutants like sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides are below legal limits. Plant officials have said that emissions of dioxins and furans — toxic chemicals emitted by the burning of PVC — are at zero, although that claim was contradicted by the tests from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

That "legal limit" might be arbitrary, points out Ravi Agarwal, the head of Toxics Link, an Indian environmental organization. The technology to accurately monitor the smokestack of such a plant doesn't exist in India, he


Incineration Versus Recycling:
In Europe, Debate Over Trash

Rooftop Solar on the Rise
Increasingly common in Europe, municipal "waste-to-energy" incinerators are being touted as a green trash-disposal alternative. But critics contend that large-scale incinerators tend to discourage recycling and lead to greater waste.
said, and neither do laws or government agencies to regulate this new sector.

In any case, the plant was bought on the cheap compared to waste-to-energy plants in Europe. Dutt said his plant's equipment was bought from Hangzhou Boiler Group in China and based on designs from Martin, a German boilermaker. Few documents have been made public about the design and construction of the plant. But lower quality filters and scrubbers may be one reason why the Timarpur plant emits more pollution than the low-emissions incinerators widely used in northern Europe. New Delhi officials have generally praised the Timarpur plant.

Meanwhile, the pile of black trash-ash looms over the other mounds at the Okhla dump, uncontained and at the mercy of the winds. Das and her fellow ragpickers continue to comb through it, though what they mostly find is metal, twisted into slag from the furnaces of the plant. No more plastic bottles.

"The little money we made was from that, but now that's not the case and I find it very difficult to run my house," Das said. "I can't afford to feed my children well or send them to a school. That is the state of my life now."


David Ferris is a freelance journalist who explores how energy technology is changing our lives. He authors the 'Innovate' column for Sierra magazine, blogs for Forbes, and has contributed stories about energy to Smithsonian, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and The New York Times.

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With reference to the David Ferris article on the subject of waste management in India, I want to bring to your attention some facts from worldwide experience of the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University.

First, you can download the EEC WTE Guidebook for Latin America that distills information on waste managementin developing nations.

— You will see there a table of capital costs in several countries. Plants are built in China at a fraction of the cost of EU and US plants, but their emissions meet EU standards, unless their management tries to cut corners — e.g using less activated carbon for dioxin control.

— The ash that is transported to the landfill you describe in Delhi is one tenth the volume of the original MSW so the ash landfill will last ten times as long as the MSW landfill and, also, in the absence of organic substances there will be no acids formed to create toxic solutions that can contaminate the groundwater.

— Scavengers working on an MSW landfill is by far the worst and most risky occupation in the world. Also, only a small fraction of "recyclables" can be recovered as waste is continuously brought in by trucks. It is a pity that the municipalities sending MSW to the WTE did not plan for citizens to source separate recyclables which could then be picked up by informal recyclers under much more humane conditions than at the mixed MSW landfill (see Guidebook for such recommendation and flow diagram.)

The truth of the matter is that WTE plants are environmentally much superior to landfills or waste dumps, and journalists like you interested in sustainable development should read about this subject because the only alternative to landfills is properly managed WTE plants that recover electricity and metals instead of using up land for landfilling (2.5 hectares per year avoided by the WTE you describe in your article).

Nickolas J. Themelis, Director,
Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University

Posted by Nickolas Themelis on 04 Dec 2013

The article is really informative and worth reading.
Posted by Deepa Atal on 08 Dec 2013

Excellent article. Incineration is not sustainable according to AEA:

Every time a community builds a trash incineration it sets back the real solutions by 25 years - the time it takes to pay back the massive investment involved. Every time you burn something you have to go back to the beginning of the linear society (extraction-manufacture-consumption-waste). After 25 years you are no closer to sustainability. All you are left with is a pile of ash of approximately one quarter of the mass of the trash that was burned. Promoters claim that incineration produces energy and fights global warming. This is utter nonsense. Three to four times more energy is saved by recycling the same materials as burned. One European company estimates that a combination of recycling and composting reduces global warming gases some 46 times more than incineration generating electricity (AEA, 2001).

The social costs of incineration are staggering especially in developing countries. The huge amount of money spent on incineration goes into complicated machinery (over half the capital cost is needed for air pollution control) and most of it leaves the country in the pockets of the multinational companies that build these monsters. With the alternatives most of the money goes into creating local jobs and local businesses, thereby staying in the community and the country. In Brescia, Italy, they spent about $400,000,000 building an incinerator and have created just 80 full-time jobs. While Nova Scotia, a province of Canada, after rejecting an incinerator, has created over 3000 jobs in the handling of the discarded resources and in the industries using these secondary materials.

So incineration is neither sound for the planet nor for the local or national economies. On the pros and cons of Incineration Paul Connett Executive Director, American Environmental Health Studies Project (AEHSP),has very thought provoking analysis: "Is incineration safe?"

This is an issue I have followed for 25 years. The issue that piqued my interest was the incredible fact that simply by burning household trash we make the most toxic substances that we have ever been able to make in a chemical laboratory: polyhalogenated dibenzo para dioxins and furans (PCDDs, PCDFs, PBDDs, PBDFs etc), called "dioxins" for short. There are literally thousands of these substances. There is no question that over 25 years the industry has got better at capturing these pollutants but we are still hostage as to how well the plants are designed and operated, monitored and the regulations enforced. In addition to this, incineration releases many toxic metals from otherwise fairly stable matrices. At worst these metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium etc) go into the air, at best they are captured in the fly ash in the air pollution control devices (APC). But it is a truism to state that the better the APC the more toxic the ash becomes. Where is this ash going to go? In Germany and Switzerland the fly ash is put into nylon bags and deposited in salt mines. In Japan a number of the incinerators vitrify the ash, making it into a glass-like material, but that takes a huge amount of energy away from the system. Do you know where the ash is going in this proposal?

For every four tons of trash burned you get at least one ton of ash: 90% is called bottom ash (that is the ash collected under the furnace) and 10% is the very toxic fly ash.The alternatives are not pie-in-the-sky.

Many communities in California, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and the UK have embarked on the zero waste strategy (not all call it that) and have achieved some with very rapid and impressive results. San Francisco (population 850,000) has reached 72% diversion from waste disposal. Their goal for 2010 is 75% diversion and their goal for 2020 is Zero Waste. Many other communities in California have also reached over 70% diversion. In Italy over 200 communities have done so. Novarra near Turin (pop. 100,000) reached 70% in just 18 months. Salerno, went from 18% to 82% in one year. Villafranco d'Asti (population 35,000) has reached 85% diversion and the small town of Ursibil in Spain has reached 86%.

Zero Waste in India: India is uniquely placed to achieve even greater diversion rates. You have hundreds of thousands of "rag pickers" scavenging every last piece of glass and bottle top from your landfills. Instead of frittering away millions (maybe billions) of dollars building giant incinerators, put that money into formalizing this sector: give them buildings, good working conditions, protective clothing, showers etc, and educate their kids. Form them into cooperatives so that they can continue to share in the profits of the recovered material (if this is not made clear they will probably fight such a change). What these people are doing is the most difficult task of all: looking after the residuals. More than anything else these people need our respect. Householders can look after the recyclables, compostables and reusables." ("Why incineration is a very bad idea in the Twenty First Century." Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives).

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 12 Dec 2013

This is an excellent article with lots of information. The issue raised by Dr. A. Jagadeesh regarding the social security and respect of the rag pickers and their children is a serious issue and demands urgent attention. Finally, the waste-to-energy program is a good idea to deal with a huge amount of solid waste generated in a populous country like India. But we must take care of the emerging pollutants. This technology (W-to-E) may prove to be a double-sided sword if we ignore the other aspect of this method of waste management.
Posted by DR RAHUL KUMAR DHAKA on 22 Dec 2013

I have spent the last 12 days touring India while my husband has worked. We've been in Mumbai, Bangalore and now Delhi. We live outside of San Francisco. The one thing that has really shocked me is the amount of trash everywhere. Children and adults live among piles of garbage. Why is this so? Why does the Indian government allow this? There is clearly wealth in this country and there is debate and concern over this issue.

I would like to understand how this government can allow such a seemingly basic societal issue to go unresolved.
Posted by Jannell on 04 Mar 2014



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