On June 13, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Haryana government regarding inaction over hazardous waste contaminating the groundwater near the Bandhwari landfill.

The waste dumping site, located near the Delhi and Haryana border, has been in the news for many years now. To deal with the many health, environmental, and waste management challenges, the Haryana government has proposed a waste-to-energy plant.

In 2018, Haryana’s Chief Minister ML Khattar laid the foundation stone for a 15-megawatt capacity plant. Later, when a proposal was mooted to increase its capacity from 15 megawatts to 25 megawatts, it received intense opposition from the local people.

Neelam Ahulawalia from Aravalli Bachao Citizens Group, which has run an online campaign against the proposed waste-to-energy plant that has received support from more than 34,000 people, said, “On August 31 last year, a public hearing was organised regarding the increase of the capacity of the proposed waste-to-energy plants. Around 300 people were present there. Everyone opposed the plan vehemently.”

In their petition, they have argued, Despite the fact that waste incineration is a completely failed model in India, the Haryana government is in the process of setting up a waste-to-energy plant in our Aravalli Forest at the Bandhwari landfill site, which is not only a complete waste of huge amount of money but is another environmental disaster in the making.”

Their fear seems reasonable when one looks at the history of waste-to-energy plants in India. The first waste-to-energy plant was set up in Timarpur in Delhi in 1987. Built by a company from Denmark, the plant was supposed to incinerate 300 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day to generate 3.75 megawatts of electricity.

Established with the cost of Rs 20 crore, the plant survived for only around 20 days. The reason for its failure was the poor quality of waste coming to the plant, states Dharmesh Shah, a technical advisor with Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a non-governmental organisation.

This waste-to-energy plant failure story has continued since then. “A total of 14 waste-to-energy plants have been installed in India, out of which seven plants were closed,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management and circular economy expert.


Burgeoning waste

Landfills have become a common feature of the landscape in many Indian cities. Increasing population, urbanisation and industrialisation are some of the main reasons for increased waste generation. A 2018 World Bank report also underlined the connection between economic development and waste generation.

During the budget session in 2022, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change informed that the total quantity of solid waste generated in the country was 1,50,761 tonnes per day in 2019-’20. The same World Bank report from 2018 states that India’s per capita waste generation lies at 0.57 kg per day as compared to 0.52 kg in South Asia and 0.74 kg at the global level. India, however, is yet to find a sustainable way to deal with this burgeoning waste in every city.

Talking to Mongabay-India, founder and CEO of iForest, Chandra Bhushan said, “Our capacity to manage waste has not grown with the pace of our capacity to generate waste. There is a huge gap between the quantity and quality of waste we are generating, and the capacity of the municipality to manage that waste.” iForest is a Delhi-based think-tank.

To deal with these challenges, state governments are relying on waste-to-energy plants. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s website says that the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5,690 megawatts.

A report titled “To Burn or Not To Burn”, by the Centre for Science and Environment that was published in 2019, says that plants of a combined capacity of 382.7 megawatts are proposed in India. According to the report, the plants with a capacity of 69.2 megawatts are operational, the ones with a capacity of 84.3 megawatts are under construction and 66.35 megawatts plants are non-functional. Sambyal is one of the authors of this report.

Timarpur-Okhla waste-to-energy plant in New Delhi. Photo credit: Kundan Pandey/ Mongabay

Waste not fit

The proposed Bandhwari waste-to-energy plant is one among these plants and the Aravali Bachao Citizens Group opposes the plant on various grounds including a Central Pollution Control Board report, which says that the waste dumped at the Bandhwari site is not fit for incineration.

“This is true for almost all the waste-to-energy plants,” Sambyal said, adding that most of the waste sent to waste-to-energy plants is unsegregated and has inert content which is not suitable for burning in waste-to-energy plants.

“Additional fuel is required to burn this waste which makes the plant unviable,” She said. “This is the reason why waste-to-energy plants in many cities are not functioning properly or were shut down.”

The quality of waste suitable for the waste-to-energy plant is decided based on its composition, calorific value, and moisture content. The existing waste going to waste-to-energy plants is majorly organic waste.

To Burn or Not to Burn” says that organic waste is around 40%-70% of the total waste, paper and cardboard contribute about 6% to 7%, and then come recyclable plastic (6% to 10%), and non-recyclable plastic (5%-10%). Other than this, metal, glass and domestic hazardous waste contribute around 1%- 3%.

“Indian waste has low calorific value and high moisture content,” Sambyal explained. “The calorific value of waste in India ranges from 1,411 kcal/kg to 2,150 kcal/kg. If it is compared to the calorific value of garbage in Sweden, Norway, Germany and United States ranges between 1,900 kcal/kg and 3,800 kcal/kg. India’s is too low to burn. In this case, these plants need supplementary energy to burn the waste.”

Pollution coming from waste-to-energy plants is another issue and the poor quality of waste put into the plants is making them unviable. Bhushan explains that most of these plants are established at competitive bidding, which means they have to provide energy at Rs 5 or Rs 7 per unit. If supplementary energy is needed, they are not economically viable and get closed down.

More than half of the waste-to-energy plants have shut down today, which says that technology improvements do not work with the quality of waste that is being generated today. To add a comparative perspective, solar and wind energy cost somewhere between Rs 2 and Rs 3 per unit while the tariff of thermal energy is in the range of Rs 4.5 to Rs 6.

However, Shah has a completely different take on the factor about energy. He said that the energy part of this project is negligible. “Waste-to-energy is just a waste management tool,” he told Mongabay-India. “The Waste-to-Energy was brought in because ‘incineration’ got a very bad name in the Global North.”

“A lot of the communities were protesting it because the plants were polluting a lot,” he told Mongabay-India. “The industry then came up with a new idea and named it waste-to-energy, adding an energy component to it. Energy is negligible and it can never be competitive unless it gets a huge subsidy.”

An interim dump site at Sikanderpur where garbage is brought from various parts of Gurugram before it is sent to Bandhwari landfill. Photo credit: Shaz Syed/ Mongabay

Controversies over plants

Bandhwari is not the only place where people are protesting against waste-to-energy plants. The proposals of installing such plants in Mumbai, Bengaluru and even Delhi for Okhla plants, have been met with protests. The residents and environmental activists are concerned about the impact of waste-to-energy plants on their health.

A resident of Sukhdev Vihar in Delhi said that this fear is not without any reason. “We are concerned about our health,” he claims. “Earlier, the National Green Tribunal fined the Okhla waste-to-energy plant for violating pollution norms. The plant is set up at a 40-metre distance from Sukhdev Vihar, violating all the norms.” Similar fear prevails among citizens in other cities as well.

Responding to a question relating to the health concerns of citizens, Shah claims that there is ample evidence globally that talks about the health impact of waste-to-energy plants.

“A report from Zero Waste Europe funded by the European Commission has a compilation of case studies of incineration and its impact on human health,” Shah told Mongabay-India. “Where waste-to-energy plants are running in western Europe and the United States, investments are way high. We spend a fraction of that.”

“I have compared the Okhla incinerator, which costs Rs 200 crore, at least 10 times less than any incinerator running in West Europe,” he added. “That itself is a big concern because most of the plants are under pollution control. They are inherently polluting.”

“So, they invest the most amount of money in the pollution control component,” he said. “Here they cut the cost, so pollution control is substandard. In urban areas, burning waste is one major reason for air pollution. Now, you are legitimising it by burning substandard waste in an incinerator.”

“Europe has some of the most advanced burning facilities, still, the sub-continent has taken the first step to phase out incinerators and pushing for a circular economy,” he said.

Since 1997, the United States has not seen a single new incinerator due to people’s resistance, health-related risk and high cost. The European Union is facing another challenge. Due to better waste management strategies in the European Union, incinerators are not getting sufficient waste for burning. There are more incinerators than the waste available for burning. This has led countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Spain to import trash from elsewhere.

Hundreds of municipalities around Europe have now set Zero Waste as their new goal. The Philippines has officially banned incineration and few other countries have expressed a desire to phase it out, he adds.

The Bandhwari garbage landfill towering at over 40 metres visible at a distance from Gurugram city. Photo credit: Shaz Syed/ Mongabay

Way forward

Despite all these facts, Indian authorities seem dedicated to waste-to-energy plants as a solution to India’s waste management problems. When asked why, Chandra Bhushan says that the easy way to handle waste is driving towards waste-to-energy. “Other solutions need hard work which includes convincing people to segregate waste at source, taking the community together, decentralising waste management,” he added.

Sambyal added that there are flaws in the execution of existing policies. “We have to understand the composition of waste,” she added. “Only 10% to 15% of total waste is incinerable. Without understanding this, people are considering waste-to-energy plants as the ultimate solution to waste management.”

“For instance, in Delhi, around 80% of the processing is happening via incineration, which is not sustainable,” she added. “Based on the total waste production, we do not need waste-to-energy plants in each and every city. We may need it regionally or state-wise.”

Shah stressed that many developed countries are moving towards reducing waste. “You have waste management rules which clearly say that waste should be segregated at source, and you have to decentralise waste management,” he said. “This is the reason Bengaluru is doing far better than Delhi.”

“In Bengaluru, they have managed to set up a waste management centre in each ward, what we call a dry waste collection centre and waste collection centre,” he concluded. “So waste is segregated at home and then only it is collected, and each set of waste is going to a different centre as per its nature.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.