Author: Maria Hart
Energy Review, Vol 4. Issue 7. 2022
Every year, roughly 62 million tonnes of waste are generated in India, and this is expected to rise to 165 million by 2031. One strategy for managing trash that is gaining support in both the public and private sector is waste incineration, a waste-to-energy process that involves diverting waste from landfills and burning it for energy. Waste incineration has been promoted as a way to deal with the burgeoning trash problem while simultaneously providing clean, renewable energy to power homes and businesses. But in reality, burning trash for energy is about as dirty as it gets.
The first waste incineration plant in India opened in Timarpur, Delhi, in 1987. Within weeks, however, the plant was forced to close due to inefficient operations. This has been the case for many of India’s waste incineration plants, of which only a handful remain operational today. Waste incineration plants are expensive to operate and maintain. They also require high calorific value waste, which is hard to come by in India because the majority of collected waste is unsegregated. To self-sustain combustion, waste incinerators require a minimum calorific value of about 1,800 kcal/kg. Most waste in India falls between 1,411-2,150 kcal/kg, making it difficult for waste incinerators to operate without adding in additional fuel (which exacerbates both the expense and pollution associated with the process). Because of this, waste incineration facilities often produce energy that costs more than double that of traditional power plants.
Besides inefficiency problems, burning trash can emit more harmful pollution than if it were to end up in a landfill. Waste incineration actually produces more carbon than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy, and on average, incinerators emit slightly higher amounts of greenhouse gases than natural gas does. Some industry advocates argue that burning trash is better than sending it to a landfill because landfills produce higher concentrations of the potent greenhouse gas methane. But by avoiding methane emissions, other health-damaging pollutants are generated, essentially trading a dirty method for a dirtier method. For many communities living near waste incinerator plants, this tradeoff is not one that they can afford to make.
Burning trash for energy is far from a “clean” process. Waste incinerators are known to produce high levels of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter that can affect lung and heart function. For residents living in the neighbourhoods adjacent to one waste incinerator plant in the US city of Detroit, Michigan, hospitalization rates for asthma were among the highest in the city before environmental justice organizers successfully petitioned for the closure of the plant in 2018.
Other incinerator-generated pollution includes nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides (which are also produced by fossil fuel power plants) that can be harmful and even deadly to humans, affect air visibility, and damage plant life. Waste incinerators also produce toxic ash, which contains heavy metals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. This is especially dangerous for rag pickers and people living near landfills in India, many of whom live and work informally—where the ash is deposited. Some of these communities, like those surrounding the Okhla plant in South Delhi, have joined up with concerned doctors and public health workers to protest the use of waste incineration as an energy source, citing evidence of toxic pollution near their homes.
Despite these risks and mounting public concern, waste incinerators are gaining popularity among government and private sector leaders in India who are promoting them as environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. Plans for new waste incineration plants have been in the works for years, and government officials are pushing to increase processing capacity at existing facilities. One plan published by an influential government think tank in 2017 called for the construction of up to 100 new waste-to-energy plants and the establishment of a Waste-to-Energy Corporation of India to fast-track public-private partnerships that would build incineration plants.
But further investing in waste incineration threatens the health and wellbeing of millions of people and compromises India’s progress towards a clean energy future. Several alternative and truly clean solutions that can address both the energy and trash problems include:
1. Promoting clean energy alternatives. Promoting cleaner, less expensive, and truly renewable forms of energy production can help to shift reliance away from waste incinerators. Some of these alternatives include solar, wind, energy storage, geothermal, small hydropower, and energy efficiency practices.
2. Adopting zero-waste measures. Waste incineration relies on a constant stream of trash, so removing this stream could render incineration facilities unnecessary. Zero-waste measures include composting, reuse strategies, and recycling, all of which are better for the environment and jobs and could help to limit the need for large landfills across India.
3. Incorporating informal waste pickers into waste management strategies. Waste pickers can provide crucial waste management services (especially in harder-to-reach urban informal settlements) by collecting, transporting, and sorting recyclable waste. Recognizing and compensating workers for these services can protect their health and wellbeing and increase productivity in diverting waste from landfills—a win-win for people and the planet. This strategy has already proven successful across India. For example, SWaCH, a cooperative of self-employed waste pickers in Pune, India, is helping to keep the city’s streets clean while minimizing waste in landfills and advocating for the health and safety of informal workers.
(This article draws on research conducted for a recent policy brief on waste incineration published by the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund. Ms. Maria Hart is a Master of City Planning student at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design. She holds a BA in Government from Dartmouth College and previously worked at the World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in Washington, DC., USA.)