Chennai’s Waste Management Crisis

When Chennai’s existing dump yards at Kodungaiyur and Perungudi had reached full capacity a few years ago, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) had planned to construct new dump yards at Kuthambakkam and Minjur but this move was rejected by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).[1] Burning waste on open land, including landfills, had been completely banned by the National Green Tribunal since December 2016.[2] The NGT also instructed all government agencies to implement the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 in all the states and Union Territories and to ensure that all waste processing and disposal plants be constructed and maintained strictly according to these Rules.[3] Constrained under the above circumstances, GCC has started talks with multinational companies to remediate its existing dump yards with new technology and also install waste-to-energy plants or incinerators. It is also planning to re-lay the roads within the two dump yards for enabling better access within them.

GCC’s Proposals

This remediation proposal for the two dump yards and setting up of waste-to-energy plants at each of the two locations will be at a cost of Rs. 1,300 crores. The capacities of these waste-to-energy plants will be 32 megawatt (MW) in Kodungaiyur and 26 MW in Perungudi. The dump yards are to be cleared and a sanitary landfill will be setup that could operate for 10-15 years. However, there are several questions regarding the sustainability of the plans. GCC had made source segregation mandatory since October 2, 2017, however response from citizens for the past few weeks seem to have been lacklustre, as per GCC officials. Also, GCC’s plans to collect dry wastes once a week on Wednesdays was not put into operation.[4]

GCC’s move to go ahead with the setup of waste-to-energy incinerators has met with severe opposition from residents living near these dump yards.[5] Residents feel strongly that these incinerators cause severe air pollution through the carcinogenic dioxins that get released from this process. They also contend that this process also leaves behind toxic ash residues. The budget for GCC’s latest solid waste management revamping plan is currently at Rs. 1,442 crore with extra budget added for composting and biomethanation plants in response to public demands.[6]

Advantages Claimed by Supporters of Incineration Globally[7]

  • Volumes of waste get reduced significantly and need for land and landfill space is greatly reduced, as space is at a high premium in urban areas.
  • Waste incineration plants can decrease the costs and energy associated with transporting wastes.
  • Electricity and heat are produced that can be used to power and heat nearby buildings.
  • Ash is produced that can be used by the construction industry.
  • High buildups of leachate and methane gases produced by landfills are eliminated.

Many of these claims are unproven, and do not hold true when the total full-cycle costs of incineration are compared with the costs associated with the more sustainable approach of waste reduction, composting and recycling. There are several disadvantages of incineration outlined below that clearly show that this method is unfavorable for Chennai, specifically, and for developing countries, in general, that are already struggling with livelihood and health issues.

Disadvantages of Incineration Plants[8]

  • Severe Health Consequences

Burning waste releases toxic gases and ash that include nitrogen oxide, heavy metals, particulates, and dioxins, which cause cancer and neurological damages, disrupt reproductive systems, thyroid systems, and respiratory systems.[9] It has been found that even with advanced technological controls, such as filters and scrubbers installed, some toxic gases, such as dioxins and ultra-fine particles escape and enter the atmosphere causing serious health problems.[10] The Department of Conservation (New York, USA) had found that their state’s incinerators emitted 14 times more mercury than coal-fired plants per unit of energy.[11]

The Okhla incineration plant in New Delhi is being investigated by the NGT for release of toxic gases, such as dioxins and furans, which were more than 30 times above the legal limit as per testing by Delhi authorities.[12] There are inadequate technologies in India to accurately monitor the fuming smokestack of gases released by these incinerators, nor are there effective laws or government agencies to regulate this new sector.[13]

  • Incinerators Actually Encourage Waste Production

Incinerators require large volumes of waste for their burning, so local authorities burdened with waste dumps tend to choose incineration over recycling and waste reduction programmes. Also, claims that plastics are reduced because of incineration are deliberately misleading because plastics are just converted to gaseous pollutants, while manufacture and plastics consumption remain high.

  • Energy-consuming

Estimates show that recycling conserves 3-5 times more energy than what waste-to-energy generates because the energy required to make products derived from recycled materials is significantly lesser than that used to manufacture these using virgin raw materials. In essence, incineration is very much a waste-of-energy.

  • These plants are expensive to build and skilled staff are required to operate and maintain them.
  • Impractical way  to manage organic waste

A high proportion of waste in developing countries consists of organic waste that has higher moisture content (40-70%) than waste in industrialised countries (20-40%), making burning more difficult. Waste policy experts, such as Dharmesh Shah, suggest that the organic waste (which comprise nearly 50% of Chennai’s municipal wastes) can be composted and sold, recyclable wastes (which amount to around 30-35%) can be sold to waste marts and the remaining inert wastes (which amount to 15-20%) do not require a waste-to-energy plant. He also points out that these plants seem to have failed in cities like Pune and Delhi. The Okhla plant is running into operational issues due to the waste content not being of sufficient calorific value needed for the burning process.[14] 

  • Impacts Climate Change

Greenhouse gases are released when wastes are burnt, negatively affecting global warming targets that the world community is struggling to bring under control. Studies carried out in Canada, for example, reveal that incineration-based technologies produced the highest amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) - even more than that produced by traditional coal-based thermal power plants.[15] This fact was reiterated in a study made by U.S. E.P.A and by Danish authorities.[16] A video by the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) clears six myths about incinerators.

  • Loss of jobs

Incinerators also displace workers engaged in managing waste, especially thousands in the informal sector.[17] A research study conducted by start-up Kabadiwalla Connect (KWC) has found that in Chennai, 5730 tonnes of paper waste (i.e., 40% of all paper), 2100 tonnes of plastic waste (i.e., 18% of all plastic) and 2070 tonnes of glass waste (i.e., 60% of all glass) is handled by the informal sector. Thus they help to keep 35% of all paper, plastic and glass waste generated out of our landfills.[18] The GST levied on the recycling sector is already set to cripple the industry. Incineration reduces recycling activities significantly, and would result in a reduction in livelihood opportunities.

Keeping Fingers Crossed

On one hand, we have GCC, which feels that incineration will miraculously make their headaches of waste management vanish. On the other, we have incineration technologists whose goal is to benefit financially and increase market share by promoting incineration globally. If both stakeholders manage to reach mutually-advantageous settlements in the immediate future, then it will be the Chennai residents who have to bear the negative consequences of incineration.

In summary, with the new source segregation initiatives not been fully accepted by the public or even implemented in many areas of Chennai yet, with GCC’s focused stance to move ahead with 100% privatisation of its conservancy work, and the unhealthy incineration option being still on its agenda, it seems that the city is inching towards doom. Residents of Chennai must stringently demand for a sustainable alternative that will not compromise their health, degrade the environment, cause loss in jobs, and large expenditure of taxpayer money.

 

[1] “Plan to set up two waste processing factories may be shelved”,  Aloysius Xavier Lopez, Chennai,  June 06, 2015, Updated: June 06, 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/plan-to-set-up-two-waste-processing-factories-may-be-shelved/article7288013.ece

[2] “NGT bans open waste burning”, PTI, New Delhi, December 23, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/NGT-bans-open-waste-burning/article16928115.ece

[3] “NGT bans open waste burning”, PTI, New Delhi, December 23, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/NGT-bans-open-waste-burning/article16928115.ece

[4] “Civic body’s plea to segregate waste at source goes futile”, DECCAN CHRONICLE, Oct 24, 2017, Updated Oct 24, 2017, http://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/in-other-news/241017/civic-bodys-plea-to-segregate-waste-at-source-goes-futile.html

[5] “Residents near dumpyards fume at corporation’s stage-managed meet”, TNN, Jul 29, 2017, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/residents-near-dumpyards-fume-at-corporations-stage-managed-meet/articleshow/59815166.cms

[7] “WASTE INCINERATION: ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES”,  September 18, 2015, https://greentumble.com/waste-incineration-advantages-and-disadvantages/

[8] “WASTE INCINERATION: ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES”,  September 18, 2015, https://greentumble.com/waste-incineration-advantages-and-disadvantages/

[9] “NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF INCINERATION-BASED WASTE-TO-ENERGY TECHNOLOGY”, http://www.nswai.com/pdf_HE/health_enviro_may15/NEGATIVE%20IMPACTS%20OF%20INCINERATION-BASED%20WASTE-TO-ENERGY%20TECHNOLOGY%20(1).pdf (Accessed 11/10/2017)

[10] “Incinerators and “waste to energy”: Myths vs. Facts“, http://www.no-burn.org/wp-content/uploads/Incinerator_Myths_vs_Facts-Feb2012.pdf

[11] “Incinerators and “waste to energy”: Myths vs. Facts“, http://www.no-burn.org/wp-content/uploads/Incinerator_Myths_vs_Facts-Feb2012.pdf

[12] “Out of India’s Trash Heaps, A Controversy on Incineration”, David Ferris, December 3, 2013, http://e360.yale.edu/features/out_of_indias_trash_heaps_a_controversy_on_incineration

[13] “Out of India’s Trash Heaps, A Controversy on Incineration”, David Ferris, December 3, 2013, http://e360.yale.edu/features/out_of_indias_trash_heaps_a_controversy_on_incineration

[15] Incineration of Municipal Solid Waste - Impact on Global Warming - Fact Sheet, ttp://www.nswai.com/pdf_HE/health_enviro_may15/Incineration%20of%20Municipal%20Solid%20Waste%20-%20Impact%20on%20Global%20Warming.pdf (Accessed 11/10/2017)

[16] “Incinerators and “waste to energy”: Myths vs. Facts“, http://www.no-burn.org/wp-content/uploads/Incinerator_Myths_vs_Facts-Feb2012.pdf

[17] “Out of India’s Trash Heaps, A Controversy on Incineration”, David Ferris, December 3, 2013, http://e360.yale.edu/features/out_of_indias_trash_heaps_a_controversy_on_incineration

[18] “SEGREGATION - THE FIRST STEP TO KEEPING 70% OF OUR WASTE OUT OF THE LANDFILL!”,SEPTEMBER 15, 2015, http://www.kabadiwallaconnect.in/blog/2015/9/15/segregation-the-first-step