Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 19, 2013 02:27 IST

Turning garbage into gas

Prem Shankar Jha
Comment (43)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

While incineration endangers lives, gasification will produce transport fuel that can meet half of India’s consumption needs

Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has been at her wits’ end on how to dispose of the city’s ever growing mountain of garbage. Rising population and growing affluence have raised the daily outpouring of refuse to more than 8,000 tonnes, while simultaneously pushing up the cost of land to astronomical levels. The result: Delhi has run out of land for landfills, and none of the neighbouring States intends to surrender any to meet its needs.

The obvious answer to Delhi’s problem seems to be to burn the solid waste. Cities all over the world are doing it, so why can’t Delhi follow suit? In 2006, the Delhi Municipal Corporation proposed that a small, mothballed, waste incineration plant at Timarpur, that had been put to work for altogether five days since it was built in the 1980s, be reopened to convert 214,000 tonnes of solid waste a year into 69,000 tonnes by sifting out inorganic matter, and drying and palletising the rest to increase its fuel value. Burning this garbage, it was estimated, would produce six megawatts of power per hour, or 5.5 billion units of electricity a year.

The proposal never took off, but it became the springboard for a private sector grab at Delhi’s garbage — investors figured their income would come from the highly inflated tariff decreed by the Central government for ‘green’ energy and the carbon credits they would earn by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Their plans are close to maturing. In her 2013-14 budget speech, Ms Dikshit announced that the city already has one incineration plant at Okhla, burning almost 2,000 tonnes a day, and that two more are being set up to incinerate another 4,300 tonnes a day. What’s more, these plants will generate 50 MW of power every hour of the day. More incineration plants are on their way: since the Okhla plant went on stream, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has approved eight more plants in various cities.

There is, however, a catch. Incinerating garbage in Delhi will cost an estimated 200,000 ragpickers their jobs. Throughout the world, moreover, countries are closing incineration plants owing to the hazard they pose to human health. The threats come from particulate emissions that greatly exacerbate lung diseases from bronchitis and asthma to emphysema and lung cancer, and from dioxins and furans in addition to the usual nitrogen and sulphur oxide gases in the flue gas.

The dioxin threat

To residents of Indian cities who have become inured to dust, smoke, diesel fumes, as well as lead and nitrous oxide poisoning, this may sound like just one more addition to the long list of risks they face in their daily lives. But dioxins belong to another level of threat altogether. The word is a generic term for more than a hundred long lasting chemicals that are produced by burning municipal and medical waste and by a few industrial processes. Dioxins are insoluble in water and when they settle on land and water bodies, they are absorbed in their entirety by terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. They travel up the food chain into animals and fish that feed on plants and thence into humans. Since living organisms cannot metabolise them, they are found in very high concentrations in meat, fish, milk and eggs. In human beings, a prolonged exposure to dioxins — through a ‘rich diet’ — impairs the functioning of the liver and the immune and reproductive systems, and raises the incidence of cancer. In sum, dioxins shorten our lifespan. Men have no way of expelling them. Women can, but only by passing them to foetuses in their wombs or breast-feeding their babies.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which put together the first comprehensive report on dioxins in 1994, described them as “the most poisonous substances known to man.” In Finland, the government has ordered shut an incineration plant built with the most elaborate safeguards when it found, after two years of its operation, that dioxin levels in the surrounding vegetation had risen by 15 to 25 per cent within a distance of 4 km from the plant.

Whenever environmentalists have pointed these hazards out to the Delhi government, its officials and company representatives have assured them that elaborate safeguards have been incorporated into the design of the plants to ensure that they meet prescribed safety norms. But subsequent tests have falsified this claim. In tests carried out at Okhla last year, particulate emissions exceeded norms on four occasions and stayed within them only on six. A test carried out in May 2013 revealed dioxins and furans emissions from its two chimney stacks to be 2.8 and 12.7 times the prescribed maximum!

In the face of such facts, the Delhi government has merely reaffirmed its determination to go ahead with setting up the incineration plants. This has led to the usual accusations of corruption and crony capitalism, but in this case the cause probably lies in two preconceptions that are deeply imbedded in the public mindset. First, that garbage is simply a nuisance and has no economic value whatever; second, since the physical sorting of household refuse is not feasible in India, incineration is the only way out.

Both assumptions reflect the casual ignorance of decision-makers. There is a third way of disposing garbage that not only eliminates all pollutants, but turns garbage into gold. This is to gasify garbage. Gasification is an incomplete combustion of organic matter that replaces a large part of the carbon dioxide we get from combustion with carbon monoxide and hydrogen. These two gases are, and have been for a hundred years, the basic building blocks of the world’s petrochemicals industry. They are also ideal for driving gas turbines to generate power. From India’s perspective, their best feature is the ease with which they can be synthesised into any transport fuel one desires, and into Di Methyl Ether, a condensate gas that is a superior diesel substitute and a complete substitute for Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG).

Gasification also eliminates the threat from dioxins. When gasification is carried out with oxygen, it produces only seven per cent of the flue gas obtained from combustion. The reaction takes place, moreover, at such high temperatures —1000 to 3,000 degrees Celsius — that dioxins and furans get broken down into their basic elements, losing their toxicity. The release of dioxins from a 24 tonne-per-day plasma gasification plant that has been running for more than a decade in Yoshii, Japan, has been found to be less than one per cent of that released by corresponding incineration plants. Consequently, city and municipal corporations around the world have begun to switch to gasification. According to the U.S.-based Recovered Energy Inc., a turnkey engineering company specialising in renewable energy projects, there are 200 Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) gasification plants under construction or in operation globally, of which half use the revolutionary new technology called plasma gasification.

Isolated ventures

Ironically, India already has employed plasma gasification technology — for the past four years, two 68 tonnes-a-day commercial plants employing this technology have been disposing of medical and other hazardous wastes in Pune and Nagpur. Since Indian states do not share information, however, these have remained isolated ventures.

At present, most MSW gasification plants abroad produce electricity. But this is giving way to the production of transport fuels. British Airways is partnering Solena, a U.S.-based biofuels company, to set up a plant that will gasify 1,300 tonnes a day of London’s solid waste to produce 16 million gallons of Aviation Turbine Fuel and 9 million gallons of naphtha in addition to generating up to 40 MW of power. This plant is expected to meet two per cent of British Airways’ global demand for jet fuel. Solena has won contracts for similar plants with Qantas, Lufthansa and SAS. Lufthansa’s plant will have a modification that New Delhi will do well to take note of: instead of naphtha, it intends to produce 9 million tonnes of diesel fuel.

India stands therefore at a crossroads. In 10 years from now, 600 million Indians will be living in cities with more than a million inhabitants who generate at least 600,000 tonnes of garbage a day. Incinerating this garbage will endanger the lives of future generations. Alternatively, this is sufficient to produce more than 35 million tonnes of transport fuel a year and meet half of India’s current consumption of the same. The saving in foreign exchange will lift the threat of a foreign exchange crisis forever. It will also free domestic prices from the yoke of international oil prices forever. And it will do all this without requiring a rupee of subsidies.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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Increse in urban population has seriously posed threats to amenities available to people in urban area, healthy and clean disposal of urban waste has been one of biggest challenges for local bodies.and all major problems follow this one, may that be health, clean water, free movement of people etc.gasification of waste is providing best remedy for this but should be implemented rapidly and efficiently unlike many nonfunctional sewage water treatment plants in urban will pave the way to our right to healthy and clean environment.

from:  Amol M. Patil
Posted on: Jul 20, 2013 at 11:02 IST

Corruption leads to Global warming

from:  Sunil Soni
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 10:59 IST

I think that this is a very high concern. Is this information not
known to the govt? Maybe it is possible to generate 50MW of
electricity every hr of the day by an incinerating plant but at what
cost? Health hazard is one of the prime concern India, because nobody
pays much attention to it. If gasification is a better option to
convert this huge amount of waste to fuel, it should be sincerely
considered even if the initial investment is more. This can have a
sustainable solution of handling waste and generating fuel gas,
without creating a health hazard. How can this be conveyed to the
government before the new plants for incineration come up?

from:  Ambarish Modak
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 10:52 IST

When it comes to waste disposal, incineration was the only known
technology with its side effects, thereafter the gasification is the
state of art in MSW disposal. Some how some where the the application
of pyrolysis for the MSW disposal is sidetracked. The technology
offered by the developed countries is at a higher cost for the waste
disposal as the content of the waste in India is low in its calorific
contents hence the rate of returns is also lower and the plant becomes
defunct/non-operational soon. Other drawbacks of the technology gets
highlighted in the due course of time and the social media builds
pressure on the system.
The proper system for the quality of the waste in India can be
developed but neither the Government nor the Private sector risks the
cost of development.

from:  Ravi Nafde
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 08:52 IST

The article has well differentiated between incineration and
gasification. As rightly said by the author,there is absolutely no
sharing of information among the states in extracting power from
garbage.Next to Noida,Delhi and Pune, Chennai also kick-started a mega
project of generating power from garbage but not enough push seems to
have been given to augment its capacity. However,the business model of
Sweden in converting the country's entire garbage to power can also be
studied focussing on the aspect of gas-emission and Sweden is now
looking for neighburing countries in importing garbage to feed its
power plants.Benefits of such massive project as pointed by the author
is really mindboggling.The resource crunch we face in foreign
exchange, hefty import bill on account of petro products and rise in
fuel price can very well be tackled if the government goes in for
establishing a separate Ministry and a board to study the nuances of
MSW and its further replication all over the country.

Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 08:11 IST

This opportunity is king of a golden duck for those who could
venture in the process of making money out of garbage.Maintaining a
clean enviroment will also change one's attitude towards society.We got
plenty of fuel and all we need is research and investment.I believe the
change will come soon.

from:  Sagar
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 06:50 IST

In this area I find in the site '', that Indian experts Mr. Gangadharan
and Mrs. Anita Gangadharan have successfully worked and established a company to
generate power from waste materials, at Novi, MI, USA, under funding from US Govt.
Why not our stat govt. utilize expertise from these Indians.

from:  K.V.Ramadoss
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 05:24 IST

Indian companies, government and scientists have to move quickly and educate citizens about the dangers this pose to the generations. Corruption might be in play here but we need to do right thing for country's future.

from:  Amol
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 00:57 IST

An eye opener article by a writer concerned about humanity #Respect

from:  Siddharth Goel
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 00:42 IST

Gasification sounds like a great way to dispose off the garbage. Govt
needs to study this method with its pros and cons in an urgent manner.
Invite private sector to set up plants if they turn out to better option
than incineration.

from:  Suvojit Dutta
Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 00:06 IST

There is a better alternative to incineration and gasification called "anaerobic
digestion" which is significantly better for the environment. In this case the organic
waste is digested without air to produce natural gas/methane which in turn is used
to produce electricity. There are virtually no air emissions except for low levels of
sulfur dioxide and the solids waste can be used as a fertilizer. This is quite common
in Europe and in some locations in the U.S. The waste can be sorted before
"anaerobic digestion" to remove any valuable components. My company has tested
this technology successfully in a dairy farm in the U.S.

from:  Ravi Jain
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 23:39 IST

The gasification project should definitely be tried.Can the writer share more articles/knowledge in terms of costs,hurdles of implementing,Technology required etc.
There should be a study carried out before setting up of the incineration plant in Delhi with the pros and cons published.Definitely we will face a political hurdle from the Oil mafias and the companies who are benefiting from gas price hikes if such a project can solve the energy needs of the country.Its worth spending few thousand crores rather than giving tax exemptions/subsidies in the name of setting up of companies and partnering with them for gas prodcution.

from:  Pradeep
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 19:51 IST

It is not just that the amount of garbage is increasing, it is actually channels that actually existed for recycling are being closed. Gasificantion can be good for some fraction of the waste, but it is important that we allow sorting of this waste and take out more useful part out of it. Segregation of waste at household and institutional level is a important step which needs to be promoted first before such technologies can be successful.

from:  Ankush
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 19:34 IST

If above claims are true, then it can be a game changer for India.

from:  dalchand agrawal
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 17:47 IST

Still we lack in basic things like proper segregation of waste.
Classification of waste even before collection will make the process
more simple. Also we should prioritize the various process available in
the market with the most priority for gasification and least priority
for landfill, because each category of waste need different methods to

from:  Cherian E Paul
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 17:24 IST

As the other commentators have opined I too think it is too good to be true. Is it a proven technology? Even taking the current high price of oil and gas, it is relatively cheap since infrastructure to produce them is already there and additional investments for adding capacities will not be too expensive. It is also a fuel where the ratio of potential energy of the available product to the energy spent in extraction and refining is the least among all fuels. Therefore, we must know for each KW we can get from the output gas how much energy the gassification process will consume by itself. I am skeptical about the economics of its utility as transport fuel.

from:  R.Sundaram
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 16:51 IST


Research for this article is very much appreciable, after reading this article my level of respect towards a journalist has been multiplied.
Moreover, for the efforts taken to produce the essential information to public; shows degree of the responsibility a journalist should have for our India.
I respect your recommendation to HEMALATA JENA comment as her post is inspiring and positive.
I also request you to please write on Mehul Kamdar comment to me..
“Combusting Syngas is much cleaner than burning solid waste using Plasma Arc systems” as we are all here to draw a collective solution for the problems of India.
I am requesting you to write on this comment because I believe India’s strength like you are capable of sorting out the correct solution to India.

I do not have contact of Mehul Kamdar, if you have access to this contact, please request him to elaborate his idea by supporting your initiation. <

from:  SivaRamakrishna
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 16:26 IST

India with a population of above 121 billion can not stop producing
incineration waste,may be for curbing this few states has banned PVC
baggage etc.But really India is a cross road at one side we need to
dispose the waste and on the other side the production of dioxin type
extremely poisonous material need to be controlled.But the advantages
of waste disposal by incineration are numerous only if we are able to
decompose the byproducts. Gasification is one of that method.Globally
this technology is adopted and we can also try our hand in
this,otherwise we are left with very few options to handle such a huge
quantity of waste with such a rising rate of urbanization in our
country.Also my conception is that government should also take hard
steps to control the use of chlorine products as they are the root
cause for dioxins type material.The petrochemical advantages of waste
disposal by gasification mentioned by author can not be neglected in
the perspective of country like India

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 14:42 IST

And if gasification is easily possible, why aren't other countries
doing it? Presumably the costs outweigh the benefits when compared to
easy availability of other biofuels. However, we must think of costs
in terms of long term costs - yes, from an instant gratification
perhaps petrol/diesel might be ideal, but if we continue to incinerate
and generate all the toxic stuff, we probably will be only spending
our wealth driving (with the petrol/diesel) to the hospitals, morgues
and to attend funerals.
Perhaps we ought to read Dr. Seuss' 'The Lorax'.

from:  sriram
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 14:06 IST

Someone should tell us what is being done in countries like Japan and China. If they are able to manage, then there is no need for us to keep dumping waste on the roadsie. Delhi has had its "mountain" of grabage for decades. If gas can be made out of it to save not just precious fuel but to provide a healthy environment for the citizens, that would be good. In a State like Kerala, garbage dumping has become impossible. People burn grabage including plastic. Market places are full of it. There is no system to clear garbage in smaller towns and villages. The enormous amount of construction has aggravated the situation because of the additional waste created. There is no place to dump them.

from:  K. Radhakrishnan
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 14:04 IST

Sounds too good to be true.

But this should be tried, even if half-true!!

from:  Sunil Lathwal
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 13:36 IST

I think the article has strong relevance to the article in The Hindu
dated 14 July 2013 wherein the Faculty of Engineering has managed to
produce fuel from waste successfully. Please read "Fuel from waste
becomes a reality now" on The Hindu dated 14.07.2013

from:  Devaraj Iyer
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 13:34 IST

When gasification have so many advantages over incineration(as supported
by facts),what is the reason we are still going for incineration??

from:  sarthak rai
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 13:13 IST

Why can't they put the garbage into a fusion reactor and it will burn it into carbon and hydrogen

from:  Partha
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 12:53 IST

Some back in Hindu itself, there was an article on ‘Eco Digester’ designed and developed by Eco Positive Solutions, that caters to small apartments, restaurants, schools and corporate canteens where generation of waste is not massive. Contact number of Eco Positive Solutions was also given - 98454 52542. That was meant for Kitchen waste.
If such solutions can be mandated in apartments , restaurants, hospitals , industries etc , solid waste management can be possible.

from:  Rajlakshmi
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 12:42 IST

Best described comparission between gasification and incineration.It would give better directions, if somebody can throw some light on costing part and its economic viability.

from:  Shiba Sundar Behera
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 12:40 IST

Is the solution so simple, somewhat difficult to believe.
How to find more reading on this?

from:  Pranav
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 12:22 IST

A very good article. Gasification not only removes garbage it generates fuel and removes the threat of dioxine. May authorities open their eyes.

from:  Abdul Majeed
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 12:12 IST

I would like to draw the attention of IIT/IIM Students,Alumni & Faculty.They are the talent bank of the present and future India.Let us have faith in them.A safe route is indeed in sight.

from:  S.Muthuswamy
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 11:47 IST

Very nice way of addressing the problem. But how this technology can be adopted at small scale.i think small scale implememtation would be more fruitful

from:  Amit
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 11:14 IST

Its easier said Dan done sir. In a country like hours where simple technologies take years to get d implementation nod, I would be surprised if dis proposal is given a green flag anytym soon.

from:  Vidur Kaushal
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 11:12 IST

Very good idea. What about the cost

from:  Mrinmoy
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 11:12 IST

I think gasification rather than incineration is the best way to utilize garbage in India as per author.Central as well as state government must emphasize such a way to meet energy requirements.Now we will have to opt these approaches to fulfill our needs as crude oil price is roaring continuously.

from:  Amit Agrawal
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 10:26 IST

The estimated generation potential of 35MMTPA transport fuel in gasification route is almost equal to our present Natural Gas production rate. Gasification Technology for domestic waste is currently being used in our country in small scale. Such large scale plants will be economically more attractive and will save lots of foreign exchange. The produced gas can very well be used as domestic cooking gas. As these plants will be located close to mega cities they can easily be connected to city domestic gas supply network. We need to give serious efforts to make the scheme fruitful.

Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 10:05 IST

very nice idea. seriously time has come for the Indian bureaucrats and politicians to think about the environment otherwise down the lane after 10 to 20 years all residents of large cities will be confronted with a very polluted environment, where difficult will be to survive. Many many thanks to the writer. Time has come to adopt the plasma gasification technology.

from:  Abhijit Banerjee
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 09:44 IST

Very clearly explained. Gasifixation seems to be the only alternative in the long run. I wish that the leadership shows long sightedness.

Thanks for the research work.


from:  Gurpreet
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 09:32 IST

Major energy requirements can also be met by collection and treatment of waste from railways. All the waste is dumped on the tracks. It can rather be sucked to a chamber at one end of the train which once filled can be unloaded at a station. Considering the vast stretch of the Indian railways.... This could prove to be a really good alternative.

from:  Shivam
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 07:31 IST

With a system of garbage separation at source and large scale Syngas generation using organic waste, it would be possible for Indian cities to use a lot of their garbage profitably. Several competing technologies exist for processing food waste into Syngas, and Indian engineers working both in India and overseas have more than a little experience in this field. If government incentives were available, more than a few companies might find it of interest to involve themselves in this business. Combusting Syngas is much cleaner than burning solid waste using Plasma Arc systems. Many of the technologies available allow for the remaining waste to be used as organic fertilizer.

All of the biofuels that Mr Jha talks about are significantly more expensive to produce than conventional crude derived fuels. Airlines and militaries support these industries in order to encourage research in the field. India may take the better option of using economical and proven methods of utilizing garbage.

from:  Mehul Kamdar
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 07:30 IST

The problem is the political space in India, in the Planning Commission in particular is occupied by economists, social activists and the like who have no inkling of science and technology. Many problems in India like energy shortage (with solar and wind) river disputes and flooding (river linking) have technical solutions. Waste management as Mr. Jha has so clearly explained is another. But this requires both political will and scientific thinking.
We can learn from history. Fifty years ago it was widely believed that India could never feed its people and famines were something the country had to live with. But using scientific methods and management the Green Revolution and the White Revolution (for milk) made India food abundant. Another revolution on the same scale is needed for energy, water and waste. The answer is science, not more politics.

from:  N.S. Rajaram
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 07:18 IST


This is smart and makes a lot of sense.

Lets do same for sewage, treated refuse, etc.

Lets borrow best practices from all around the World.


from:  Mahesh Kuthuru
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 05:47 IST

Great News. Hope some one who can do something about this will take
note and do the needful to save future generations and ultimately save

from:  Thomas Gnanasekaran
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 05:20 IST

Sounds like a dream project! Can you please collaborate with all our CMs and pitch the idea.

from:  bill
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 03:49 IST

A trly remarkable article !!!!!!!!! This should translated into all
Indian languages and distributed to youth, entrepreneurs and our
policymakers. Congrats!!!

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 02:43 IST
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