Nine incinerators planned for city; it’s time to pause and rethink

Civic bodies are on a spree to set up incineration plants to dispose of non-recyclable waste. Chennai's first, operational for eight months, hasn't been a positive experience though.

The inauguration of Chennai’s first incinerator in February by the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) at Manali has paved the way for many more in and around the city. The civic body has, in quick succession to Manali, floated tenders to set up six more incinerators at Pallikaranai, Mylapore, Ambattur, Sathankadu, Kodungaiyur and Aynavaram zones. 

In the suburbs, the Tambaram Municipality has floated tenders for two incinerators at Venkatamangalam, while Chitlapakkam Town Panchayat has floated for one in that area.

The rationale behind setting up incinerators

First things first; what is an incinerator and why is it used? To put simply, it is the process of burning waste. The original waste is converted to ash (it is about 30-40% of the waste). 

The segregated waste (which happens to some extent at the source level) is collected by the conservancy workers. The dry recyclable waste is taken to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where the waste is once again segregated. From there, the dry non-recyclable segregated waste is sent to the incinerators.

Of the 5,400 million tonnes of garbage generated in Chennai everyday, 1,050 MT is segregated. About 2600-2800 MT unsegregated waste gets dumped at the Kodungaiyur site and 2400-2600 MT at the Perungudi site. Around 204.31 MT/day waste is processed through ordinary composting, vermicomposting, bio-gas, etc.

The civic body has identified the potential of incineration technology to handle non-recyclable plastic waste such as plastic covers, wrappers, bubble wraps, etc. According to officials from the Greater Chennai Corporation, incinerating the waste can potentially reduce 600 tonnes of waste being dumped in landfills.

The first incinerator at Manali, built at a cost of Rs 65 crore in 2019, processes 10 tonnes of dry waste in 20 hours. The upcoming six plants at different zones in the city are expected to process 100 MT per day.

The Manali example

Although the plant is set-up with the aim to handle the non-recyclable wastes, it spells doom for residents living in the locality. The pandemic has added the existing problems.

“A few weeks ago, at least 100 lorries were offloading biomedical waste from COVID patients every day, due to which, the plant constantly emits toxic smoke. Many elderly citizens living in the locality suffer from breathing issues and burning throats,” said a resident, who did not wish to be named.

The plant emits thick, black semi-solid waste through the outlets that has led to the formation of a pond-like structure behind the incinerator. As a result of this, plants do not survive in the locality and groundwater resources are also contaminated.

Do we really need incinerators?

Although a definite solution is needed for better management of non-recyclable segregated dry waste, we should answer two questions here:

  • How safe are incinerators?
  • Are there alternatives for non-recyclable dry waste management?
Packaging of products can provide various kinds of information on the plastic used, such as whether it is single or multilayer plastic and whether it is recyclable. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

The first rule of incinerating dry waste is that it should be segregated. The city’s efforts to enforce source segregation has not borne fruits so far, which is evident from the amount of waste that is dumped in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. 

While incinerating plastic waste, toxic smoke is emitted into the atmosphere. When the smoke is not filtered, it potentially damages the environment and adds to the pollution levels. 

It is clear that the motive behind the installation of incinerators is to eliminate landfills. But at what cost? It is important to understand how incineration damages the environment:

  • About 30% of pollutants still remain as fly ash, bottom ash, boiler ash, slag and wastewater treatment sludge, gets deposited in landfills.
  • Residual ash contains a wide variety of toxic compounds and elements like heavy metals and dioxins and these toxic pollutants can leach into the groundwater, rivers and soil.
  • Indian waste has high moisture content that makes it unfit for incineration.
  • Vamsi Shankar Kapilavai, Senior Researcher at Citizen consumer & civic Action Group (CAG), feels that the burning technology may actually disincentivise recycling, as it provides an easy way to dispose of the waste. With incineration, the city may give up on segregating waste, which will be unsustainable in the long run.
  • “Non-recyclable waste that the city generates is roughly about 15-20% and some of it is inert, with no calorific value. Hence it is not justifiable to set up incinerators for managing this small quantity of inert matter. There seems to be very little application of mind behind this largely technocratic proposition,” says Dharmesh Shah, Public Policy Analyst.

The civic body states that the incineration plant at Manali, maintained by MAK Incinerators, is eco-friendly. However, the website of the company states that extracted carbon and furnace ash are a few of the byproducts. How does the Corporation plan to handle this toxic waste?

The incinerator has been operational for eight months now, but a concrete solution for managing the byproducts is absent and has not been given enough thought.

“Incineration yields furnace ash as a by-product, to the tune of 3- 4% of the total volume of waste burnt; this is used to make flower blocks for flooring, made in Manali. But in general, we are yet to finalise what could be done with the by-products,” said an official from GCC.

Alternative methods to handle non-recyclable waste

The drawback of using incinerators is that there is no option to uninstall these plants.

Additionally, the Solid Waste Management rules clearly define how various categories of waste are to be handled. If the norms are followed to the T, incinerators would not be required at all. 

“Source separation, decentralised waste management and composting are the paths to sustainable waste management. If the SWM rules are implemented, all the recyclables can be recycled. The remaining inert waste can be scientifically landfilled in such a way that it does not harm the environment,” adds Dharmesh.

It should be noted that plastic items like biscuit wrappers are hard to recycle as they are made of multi-layered polymer and the only option is incineration. CAG has been advocating the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as mentioned in the Solid Waste Management (SWM) and Plastic Waste Management (PWM) rules. 

The EPR rules place the responsibility on the manufacturers and brand owners who use packaging products such as plastic, tin, glass, etc., for managing the packaging materials until the end of life. The SWM by-laws suggest initiatives to collect the packaging materials from the consumer, arrange waste collections, recycle and design products for reuse or recyclability. 

According to EPR, it is the responsibility of any producer of packaging products such as plastic, tin, glass and corrugated boxes, etc. for environmentally sound management, till the end-of-life of these products.

Lessons from Okhla

In 2005, an incineration plant was set-up in a densely-populated Okhla, in New Delhi, for managing 2,050 TPD of mixed municipal waste.

Firstly, the project violates the city zoning rules that do not permit the use of the allotted land for purposes other than composting. The New Delhi Municipal Solid Waste Act of 2000 requires waste processing facilities to be located in close proximity to landfills or as an integral part of a landfill. Despite the absence of landfill in the site, an incinerator was set up close to human settlements. 

Ever since the plant began operating, several conflicting reports and changes in power generation and distribution arrangements in the project have been reported. There was also heavy public opposition for the project due to which judicial intervention was sought.

An inspection by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2013 exposed that the emission of toxic substances such as dioxins, furans and particulate matter were higher than the permitted levels. The plant has created a multipronged impact on the environment and residents living in the vicinity.

Comments:

  1. TC A Gopalakrishnan says:

    Almost all products relating to beauty and health come in sealed tubes.such as tooth pastes,shaving creams,other beauty products .They themselves contain all details such as price, manufactured and expiry dates,product details etc,etc.These things can be sold as it is as these products come sealed. Unnecessarily they are packed in cartons and sold. A small beginning can be made if manufacturers discontinued this. citizens matter can bring this to notice of the concerned.

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