The waste-to-energy industry is trying to relocate itself in India and China taking advantage of lax regulations and low awareness of the hazards of incineration

Those thirsty for good news on the environmental front may have found some relief in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s pledge to double India’s renewable energy capacity by 2017. Fair enough. Renewable energy sources have a key role to play in the transition towards a sustainable and low-carbon economy worldwide. However, within the renewable energy debate there are several shades of green. Some technologies that are being pitched in the guise of renewable energy have the potential to cause even more harm than fossil fuel-based energy sources.

One such non-solution is Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration and its subspecies: gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc. These technologies are now being touted as “The Answer” to the twin problems of municipal waste (particularly in disproportionately expanding Indian cities) and climate change.

But what does that mean for our environment, the economy and sustainable growth?

Toxic

First, the green energy status enjoyed by the WtE incinerator industry is not only misplaced, but dangerous. It reflects a woefully inaccurate interpretation of what waste incineration actually is and what the impacts are on public health. Waste incinerators are a major source of toxic emissions that include volatile organic gases and heavy metals. They are also among the top five sources of dioxin emissions worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges dioxins as one of the “dirty dozen” — a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), where even in low does have the potential to cause cancers.

Independent air samples taken by the Central Pollution Control Board and the Chennai-based non-profit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in and around India’s celebrated incinerator in Okhla, New Delhi, have revealed life threatening levels of particulates and toxic chemicals including dioxins, which was 30-40 times above permissible limits. Moreover, epidemiological investigations in places where residents have been living close to incinerator facilities since 2009 have provided further evidence linking incidences of cancer and low birth weight to incinerator emissions.

Low generation

Second, power generation though mixed waste incineration has so far been a distant and rather unachievable dream given the nature of our waste. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s (MNRE) flagship programme on “energy recovery from urban and industrial waste” stands testament to this fact. When announced in May 2011, it aimed to generate nearly 84MW of power from waste by providing subsidies up to Rs.10 crore to developers. But as of today, only one of the seven proposed projects has managed to take off, and without contributing a single unit of power to the grid. This is primarily due to the failure of these technologies to process unsegregated waste.

Not climate friendly

Third, WtE incineration has been labelled as renewable and sustainable, but the technology is far from climate friendly. It is actually quite ironic that WtE incinerators are subsidised as a climate change mitigation strategy when they rely on burning high calorific recyclable materials such as paper and plastic. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the foremost environmental agency in the U.S., recognises that incinerators emit 2.5 times more carbon dioxide per MW than coal fired power plants.

Expensive

Fourth, when it comes to generating energy, incinerators are very expensive and inefficient. Their financial viability relies heavily on various fiscal and financial incentives from government such as capital subsidies, concessional customs duties on the import of machinery and components, excise duty exemptions, relief of taxes, etc.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2010, the projected capital cost of new waste incinerator facilities is $8,232 per kilowatt hour. It is twice the cost of coal-fired power and 60 per cent more than advanced nuclear energy. Despite this, the government is still determined to pursue WtE as a solution and has decided to divert huge amounts of public money to subsidise the WtE industry. In the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017), what the MNRE envisages includes substantial investments in WtE. Just a fraction of this money would be needed to set up systems that can efficiently recover valuable resources from waste, recycle them and create millions of jobs. Cities like Pune and Bangalore are already charting the way on such an approach.

Undermines other options

America’s largest WtE company, Covanta, recently announced its plan to conclude operations in the United Kingdom, after local residents strongly protested against their proposals. This announcement came around the same time that the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad announced its plans to construct India’s largest incinerator using Covanta technology. Clearly, the industry is hoping for a new lease on life through projects in China and India, where environmental regulations are lax and the populace is less aware of the negative impacts of waste incineration.

The costs that WtE incinerators impose on public health, local economies, and resource consumption can hardly be justified. Ultimately, WtE incinerators undermine the truly sustainable waste management options such as prevention, reuse, and recycling that correspond much better to the needs of India. This is at a time when Europe has committed to ending the landfilling and incineration of recyclable waste by 2020, aiming instead to implement a resource-efficiency strategy that will boost a circular economy — where, all waste is treated as a resource rather than requiring expensive infrastructure to dispose of it. The Indian government should be careful not to be fooled into making long-term commitments to old-fashioned and costly, false solutions proposed by an industry desperately trying to get a foothold in the country.

(Dharmesh Shah and Mariel Viella work with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives on issues of climate and waste.)

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