The tipping point: Where must our solid waste go?

A landfill collapses, another catches fire, and no one wants a dumpsite in the backyard. Where must our solid waste go?

Updated - September 16, 2017 10:59 pm IST

Published - September 16, 2017 04:28 pm IST

On September 2, an avalanche of garbage at Ghazipur keeled over killing two people

On September 2, an avalanche of garbage at Ghazipur keeled over killing two people

A defiant mound — lush with grass as on a golf course — rises amidst 150-feet-high mountains of rotting garbage that constitute Delhi’s most infamous landfill, in Ghazipur. At the foot of the mound is a stout, rectangular transformer — a ‘demonstration project’ — meant to show that landfill gas (a mix of methane and carbon dioxide) can be squeezed out of the garbage and be used to produce electricity.

For decades now, commuters on the highway connecting Delhi to Meerut would have been forgiven for mistaking the giant brown heaps for a mountain range. But locals know that it is a hulk of trash that grew at an average of about 3,000 tonnes a day every year — until this month, that is.

On September 2, an avalanche of garbage keeled over onto a road and with its momentum broke through a boundary wall pushing cars and motorcycles into an adjoining drain. Two people died and at least seven were injured in this accident.

“It was a massive sound, like an explosion,” said Ram Manohar, who works at one of the effluent treatment plants built to convert some of the waste into biogas, “I ran to see what happened and the next thing I saw was a car floating in the drain.”

To Shanta Kumari, who lives in the nearby slum, the disaster was imminent. She and her three sons have lived in one of the slums surrounding the landfill for several years. They have now got used to the stench, says Shanta, although it can get particularly overwhelming during the rains. “The stench apart there have been several fires that billow out during the summer. We’ve lodged several complaints but nothing has happened and we now accept it as a part of our life.”

The bulk of the waste in the landfill being organic means that it’s a potent source of methane and is inflammable, a fact that’s well known to everyone — from government authorities to activists.

Delhi has other landfill sites at Bhaswal, northwest of the city, and it’s so prone to fires that the Delhi Fire Services has engines on standby and positioned close enough to quickly douse it. Delhi isn’t the only city that hosts deadly landfills.

Deonar, Mumbai’s largest and oldest dumpyard, caught fire multiple times last year and required firemen for weeks; it spiked pollution levels to nearly twice that of Delhi. The Central Pollution Control Board has reported that waste from India’s cities has crossed 1,42,870 (1.43 lakh) tonnes per day, of which a substantial 12,858 tonnes is not even collected. Of the 91% (1.3 lakh tonnes) collected, around 65,000 tonnes is dumped or disposed off in the most unscientific and unhygienic manner. Only 23% is being treated while 27% is dumped in landfills.

Energy from waste

A waste-to-energy plant commissioned in Ghazipur works sub-optimally because it requires that there be no solid waste in the refuse before treatment.

In an earlier interview, Ravi Agarwal, Director, Toxics Link, an organisation that works on waste management problems, had said that unless basic steps such as segregating waste at source were undertaken, it would be impossible to deal with Delhi’s garbage woes. Professor Manoj Datta of the Department of Civil Engineering, IIT-Delhi, in the aftermath of the recent disaster said that the ‘stability of the landfill’ could be increased by flattening the slopes, strengthening the top and removing leachate and gas.

Thirty-five years ago, this 80-acre shrine to garbage was an empty, featureless outback of Delhi. A fish and poultry market, a slaughterhouse, a vegetable and flower market predate the dumpsite and in the eyes of the municipal corporations, was a logical dumping ground for a rapidly-consumerising Delhi. In the late 1980s, as the trucks started to stream in — with piles of refuse from the markets as well as residential colonies of east Delhi — Mohammed Nazir and his schoolmates discovered that it became increasingly hard to host a decent game of cricket here.

“The ball would always get stuck in the trash and after a while it became impossible to ignore the stench,” said Nazir, who’s now a 45-year-old fish retailer at Murga Mandi, the generic name for the assortment of sprawling retailers that dominate the area.

As Nazir grew, so did the line up of trucks and eventually the landfill, which was stipulated to grow no more than 70 feet, but breached the limit in 2004. There’s also an informal economy that subsists around the landfill: waste collectors, operators of trash-skimming equipments, truck drivers who ferry the trash.

For Kumari, living near a dumpsite that receives nearly a third of the city’s garbage is a small price to pay because it pays her bills. Her sons climb the mounds of trash everyday for the slightest object of value — iron parts, electronic scrap, plastic — that are then sold for recycling. “Were this to go away, how will we eat?” she asks.

Foiled plan

After the accident, Anil Baijal, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor decreed that no more fresh garbage was to be dumped at the Ghazipur landfill; the convoy of trucks has slowed down to a trickle. Mirza, who works as a watchman at the Ghazipur dump, says that a handful of trucks continue to come in because the government’s plans to have garbage dumped in an alternate location has run into stiff opposition from locals.

When disaster strikes

A waste-to-energy plant by the Jindal group in south-east Delhi’s Okhla belt was stalled for years because residents in the vicinity complained that it wasn’t using proper incineration technology and that the fumes were triggering illnesses.

Even as Delhi’s waste management problems balloon, Delhi denizens’ protests against any waste-to-energy plant or landfill coming within sniffing distance of their homes, has meant that authorities only firefight when a disaster strikes rather than implement long-term garbage-management plans.

The government amended solid waste management rules last year, mandating that all establishments take charge of ensuring that waste is segregated and waste collectors be absorbed into formal networks. “This requires a concerted government effort but given that different political parties control different wings of government, and Delhi’s unique statehood means that it’s extremely hard to work on long-term solutions,” said a top official at the CPCB, who didn’t want to be named.

The green mound was also once part of the dump that has now been flattened out and has its waste dredged to make landfill gas and run a micro power plant. In November, the government will begin an attempt to use the solid waste from the landfill as filler in the construction of a highway connecting Delhi and Meerut, a plan that was made public in the aftermath of the accident. But “it’s too expensive and I doubt that this mountain heap will go away,” said Anoop Kumar, an engineer who works at the treatment plants.

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