INTERVIEW | N.B. NAIR Other States

‘Waste-to-energy not an acceptable waste disposal method or energy producing unit’

N.B. Nair,  

The proposal to set up a waste-to-energy plant at Bandhwari landfill off Gurugram-Faridabad road was strongly opposed by civil society groups, NGOs and individuals at a public hearing by the Haryana State Pollution Control Board a fortnight ago. N.B. Nair, Scientific Officer (Retd.), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, also the member of Citizens’ for Clean Air, one of the civil society groups at the forefront of the opposition to the project, speaks to The Hindu on his objections, the alternatives and measures to tackle air pollution in the NCR. Excerpts:

You have been strongly opposing the setting up of the proposed waste-to-energy plant at a landfill in Bandhwari village, as an individual and also as part of Citizens’ for Clean Air group. What are your main objections to it?

The very nomenclature, waste-to-energy plant, is wrong. It implies a false notion that a WtE unit solves the bothersome waste disposal problem and at the same time produces the ever-needed energy. In reality, it involves neither an acceptable waste disposal method nor an acceptable energy production process. A WtE unit actually converts the waste into invisible particulate and gaseous pollutants in the atmosphere leading to heightened inhalation hazards. The pollutants produced from the waste on the ground can enter the body through water and food and this pollution is limited to some specific areas. However, air pollution created by WtE plant can spread across many kilometres, depending on the prevailing wind patterns. It is a fact that pollution gets diluted as it spreads away from the plant. But, even after dilution, many of these pollutants, including many carcinogens, remain potentially dangerous. Also, their effects are cumulative, as the life of many of these pollutants are a few decades. The breathing in of pollutants is more than a thousand times harmful than their intake through water or food. The domestic and municipal waste is also the least efficient fuel-for-energy production, in terms of units of electricity produced per tonne of the fuel (in this case, the waste). The least efficient fuel means the most polluting process.

‘Waste-to-energy not an acceptable waste disposal method or energy producing unit’
 

Many countries across the world have adopted the waste-to-energy plant technology. What do you have to say about it?

The WtE proponents quote rosy pictures of a few WtE plants still working in Japan, Sweden and Amsterdam, etc. These WtE proponents simply ignore the fact that thousands and perhaps millions of WtE plants around the world, specifically including, the U.S., China, the U.K., and many European countries, were closed down during the past three to four decades. However, a few hundred WtE units are still operating around the world due to compelling geopolitical reasons, spending huge amounts of tax money to maintain their strict operating standards. Their performance reports for the past many years are well published. Whereas the performance records, rather, performance history of our WtE plants are simply horrible on all environmental aspects. There are many WtE plants working in India, some of them for more than a decade, but why does no one quote their performance reports? Show me a single satisfactory performance report on any of our WtE plants, even for a period of one year, by the Central Pollution Control Board, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The tonnes of untreated waste at Bandhwari landfill have been piling up causing a lot of environmental issues in the adjoining areas. If not a waste-to-energy plant, what could be its substitute to handle the solid municipal waste?

In the first place, no city should throw its garbage into any adjoining village and spoil its serene environment. It is a crime to do so. Such damages cannot be compensated by any amount of money. In Gurugram, the citizens’ groups have been insisting that the garbage produced in each of the municipal wards should be treated within the ward itself. This is possible by following segregation of the waste at source. The continued efforts by some citizens groups, like “Citizens’ for Clean Air” and “Why Waste Your Waste”, by spreading awareness around in many group housing societies has led to source segregation in these gated communities almost by up to 90%. The garbage is segregated into compostable, recyclable, rejects/ hazardous and e-wastes. This should be brought to ward-level Secondary Segregation Centres (yet to be established by the corporation ward units concerned). The compostable component should be used for composting, the recyclables and e-wastes can be sold to the recycling entrepreneurs concerned. The rejects can be sent to Corporation Common Centres within the limits of the corporation for further processing, along with other hazardous wastes, including hospital wastes.

This model will create employment opportunities for the unskilled and save national wealth. But this is not a quick-fix solution where the authorities can pay the tax money to an agency and wash hands off their responsibilities.

All through the year, the pollution level in the National Capital Region remains far higher than the permissible limits with just a few good air days. What could be the short-term and long-term solutions for this?

The air pollution situation in Delhi-NCR is a national shame threatening the health and well-being of the citizens, including the future generations. It should be tackled on war footing. As long-term measures, the running of hundreds of small and medium-scale industries already identified in the NCR, many of them clandestinely operating in residential areas, be stopped or strictly regulated. The existing pollution control norms for all major industries in and around the NCR, including building/ road construction/ renovation agencies, be strictly implemented. As an immediate step, the “eye washing and blame gaming projects” like smog towers, banning plastics of various grades, offering false hopes and wasting tax money should be stopped. Restart foliage washing that was introduced by the Delhi government a while ago and spread it across the NCR as a short-term measure. Photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves convert carbon-dioxide into oxygen, has been well known for ages. But the pollution abatement properties of leaves are greatly inhibited by the layers of dust getting accumulated on their surfaces, hence frequent washing of the foliage of trees and plants is an effective way of abating air pollution. Another short-term measure could be to strictly bring to an end all sorts of topiary activities in the NCR, both in government and private gardens.


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