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Why India doesn’t burn plastic waste to produce energy?

The trash sector has quietly grown during the previous decade.

This comes as no surprise, given the rising rates of rubbish output. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid trash were generated in 2012. According to a World Bank research from 2018, this figure is expected to reach 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. To accommodate this need, the global waste management market is predicted to grow from $400 billion to $1,600 billion in 2020-2021 to $700 billion to $2,483 billion by 2030.

With its rising population and quick development, India has a $1.3 billion waste management sector (Rs 9,656 crore). According to estimations, the country handled around 0.15 million (1,50,000) tonnes of solid garbage as of January 2020. Plastic made up 3.3 million tonnes of the 54 million tonnes of solid garbage created this year (2019).

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s plastic waste management guidelines, all recyclable plastics must be separated from non-recyclable plastics and used in road construction, waste-to-energy projects, or conversion into refuse-derived fuels, with only a small fraction of non-recyclables being disposed of in sanitary landfills.

However, this is a rare occurrence. Only 60% of India’s plastic garbage was treated according to the standards of the Central Pollution Control Board in 2019-2020. The rest was most likely burned, lost in local bodies of water, or thrown as mixed rubbish into landfills, which are typically nothing more than large, badly kept, overflowing dumpsites.

Dumping in the open

Landfills, which are synonymous with open dumping in many nations across the world, are unquestionably the most cost-effective, short-term choice for managing solid waste in India, which typically contains approximately 6% plastic. Only 20% of collected waste is currently sorted and processed, while the remaining 80% is deposited as mixed rubbish in India’s 1,684 landfills. Most metropolitan local governments spend between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per tonne of rubbish in “tipping fees” for collecting, transporting, processing, and dumping waste in dumpsites.

According to a study conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology-Bombay in 2021, landfills are the most cost-effective waste management option for the 9,000 tonnes of solid garbage produced daily in Mumbai. It contrasted the costs of capital, operations, and maintenance of a material recovery facility (which sorts trash into recyclables and non-recyclables) against incineration, composting, and landfills.

Income from compost and electricity from waste incineration and biogas offset costs. Over a 20-year period, the data demonstrated that recovering recyclables and using landfills is the most cost-effective strategy to handle garbage. This technology is expected to cost $19 (Rs 1,400) per tonne, compared to $36-$38 per tonne for incineration (Rs 2,800 per ton).

Landfills, on the other hand, are unsustainable because mixed garbage has severe ecological consequences due to significant emissions of greenhouse gases like methane and the generation of leachates. When water seeps through waste piles, it creates leachate, a type of “liquid pollution” that contains many toxins and pathogens.

Most landfills in India are already overburdened, and new landfills are difficult to create due to strong local opposition and increasing land costs in urban and semi-urban areas. The system’s failure is exemplified by the state of Kanjurmarg, Mumbai’s newest waste management site with a material recovery facility and bioreactor landfill.

Over several decades, the costs of dumping mixed garbage have accumulated, ranging from large-scale fires caused by methane produced by biodegradable waste to leachates damaging local water sources. Locals’ life expectancies are being shortened due to toxic chemicals and microplastics leaking from untreated garbage piles.

According to a 2018 report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the Central Pollution Control Board, and the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, Delhi’s three landfills at Okhla, Bhalswa, and Ghazipur are collectively responsible for environmental damage of Rs 450 crore.

Only high-value plastics like polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polythethylene are recovered for recycling, therefore waste segregation does not prevent the majority of plastic trash from entering landfills or being dumped.

The great majority of single-use plastics, multilayer packaging, and polystyrene end up in open landfills, where they eventually leak into the environment. The National Productivity Council, in collaboration with the CounterMEASURE project, released a paper in 2020 that details how open dumping of mixed garbage in cities leads to plastics entering rivers and seas.

In many nations, incineration has been used to dispose of plastic garbage. Since 2017, Japan and Singapore have been incinerating 37% and 78 percent of their municipal solid trash, respectively. China’s waste-to-energy incineration business has exploded since 2017, with the country planning to build 600 more units by 2025. In 2016, Sweden started importing rubbish from other European countries to fuel its waste-to-energy plants. In India, however, waste-to-energy has had a rough history and is likely to have a difficult future.

The first waste-to-energy plant in India was built in Timarpur, Delhi, in 1987, and it produced 3.75 megawatts of electricity by incinerating 300 tonnes of waste each day. The plant was shut down 21 days after it began operations because it received low-calorie garbage (600 kcal-700 kcal/Kg) instead of high-calorie waste (>1,462 kcal/Kg). Since then, India has built 14 more waste-to-energy facilities with a total capacity of 130 megawatts, half of which have been shut down and the others are being investigated for environmental safety violations. The National Green Tribunal penalised the Okhla waste-to-energy plant Rs 25 lakhs in February 2017 for violating environmental safety regulations.