Waste burning is not renewable energy!

It is alarming to note that at a time when the Ministry of Commerce and Industry is taking a progressive stance, the Ministry of Science and Technology is promoting the use of incinerators.

Quite contrary to what Vilas Muttemwar, the Minister for Non-conventional Energy Sources said today at the National Conference on Renewable Energy for Urban Affairs with a view to demonstrate the waste-to-energy (WTE) projects in Hyderabad, Vijaywada and Lucknow for treatment of urban waste, "Municipal solid waste is not considered to be a renewable energy source since it tends to be a mixture of fuels that can be traced back to renewable and non-renewable sources," says Energy Program Coordinator Mark Radka for the UN Environment Program. Energy generated from waste by burning is highly polluting. Attempts are under way by vested interests to promote non-renewable energy sources as renewable energy sources.

Burning of waste transfers the hazardous characteristics of waste from solid form to air, water and ash. It also releases new toxins, which were not present in the original waste stream, besides generating heavy metals.

Incineration is unambiguously polluting, the suggestions of there being good incinerators and bad incinerators are ridiculous. There is a need for greater circumspection within the sub-sectors of "environmental" services because notorious attempts to encourage incineration of municipal waste to produce energy and treating it as a "renewable energy" projects is fraught with disastrous consequences.

The fact that these are attracting favourable terms from the Indian environment ministry and Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES) through the misuse of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of Kyoto Protocol sets a bad precedent as is happening in the case of Chennai, Bhopal, and Jaipur. In Chennai, Energy Developments Limited (EDL), an Australian company, is dumping its untried and untested technology which has been deemed redundant in Australia. The plant is proposed on the Pallikarni wetland known for 26 species of birds in Perengudi, Chennai, where residents are being used as guinea pigs for its experiment. The mothers’ milk over there has already been tested and it contains high amount of dioxins due to exposure to waste burning. Municipal Corporations of Delhi and Kanpur have withdrawn from the agreements with EDL.

But the way Ministry of Science and Technology’s agency Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) is promoting SELCO International Limited’s pelletisation based waste-to-energy plant perverts waste management because it encourages waste maximisation, which is contrary to the basic tenet of waste management -- that, is reduce, reuse and recycle. Villagers from the Gandamguda, Perencheru panchayat of Ranga Reddy district, Andhra Pradesh and Elikatta village, Shadnagar where SELCO’s installation are located are complaining of pollution and unbearable stink from it. Similar plants have been installed in Vijaywada and several others are proposed in the state.

Pelletisation is a process of making fuel pellets out of the combustible part of waste after mixing with binders and additives. The electricity generation involves burning of pellets, which are also referred as refuse derived fuel in the plant’s furnace, this releases heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants like dioxins. These toxins are building up in the environment, especially the aquatic ecosystem of the villages such as Osman Sagar and Himayatsagar drinking water bodies in its vicinity. The emission of the notorious pollutants in Gandamguda is linked to cancer, immune and reproductive system disorders, birth defects, and other health threats.

Besides environmental groups, the villagers have sought removal of the dumpsite and the plant. Residents of Gandamguda and nearby villages and colonies are showing evidence corroborated by the findings of Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, which indicate that the chemicals leeching out of dumpsites and the air pollution because of open burning is entering the food chain.

After the Doha round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations, trade and environment are being looked at simultaneously. But trade in environmental goods and services, which are under negotiation, is worrisome since besides other inherent inequities built into the framework, it is pushing incinerator technologies in the list of environmental goods and services.

In India the campaign against such technologies has been purposeful in so far as the Indian Commerce and Industry Ministry has categorically termed incinerators as a polluting technology, which is being thrust upon developing countries. Apparently it has fine-tuned itself with the obsolete nature of these outdated technologies. Waste burning and combustion technologies violate Kyoto Protocol, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and recommendations of the Global Mercury Assessment Report. The rationale for trade in goods, which violate environmental international treaties and attempt to promote them as environmental goods and services, is questionable.

Garbage starts off composed of fairly large items (organic matter, plastics, sand, building material, heavy metals and so forth). Inside the combustion chamber, the garbage is broken down and transformed into small pieces, called ash.

Turning waste into ash by processing it inside an incinerator vastly increases the surface area of the garbage and thus makes it leach much more rapidly. What you get at the bottom is not a thin, weak leachate but a rich, strong leachate that is more toxic than the leachate which would have been if it had leached raw garbage instead of ash.

The advocates of the project claim that no segregation of the plastics from the garbage is required. This not only violates the letter and spirit of the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management Handling) Rules 2000, which stipulates segregation and promotes recycling of "recoverable resources" but also pre-empts segregation and recycling efforts being made by municipalities and communities around the country.

Therefore, environmental groups welcomed the views of Indian Economic Advisor to Ministry of Commerce and Industry, S. Nigam, who said, solid waste incinerators, which are considered environmental goods by some, are considered as polluters by others. Such goods also should not be included in the list, he added.

Even as the debate about the definition of environmental good and services continues, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation of industrialised countries, based in Paris, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a 21-nation group and Japan have come up with their own list. Waste incinerators are being promoted for supposed pollution protection and dubious renewable energy in these lists. Burn technologies like incinerators and gasifiers cannot be included in the list of environmental goods and services.

At a time when our Ministry of Commerce and Industry is taking a progressive stance it is alarming to note that our Ministry of Science and Technology is promoting the use of incinerators. MNES is subsidising hazardous technologies like combustion and gasification in total disregard of its Timarpur waste-to-energy blunder in Delhi. The MNES and Ministry of Science and Technology are zealously providing technological solutions to management problems.

The MNES has issued an executive order to all the state chief secretaries and the administrators of Union Territories asking them to promote such WTE projects. As a consequence, agreements for many such toxic projects have been signed and are being signed around the country. Surprisingly, these projects have undergone no environment impact assessment and public hearing process. The approval from the Technical Appraisal Committee has not even been sought.

The statement from Mark Radka of the UN Environment Program about the non-renewable status of energy from MSW clears the confusion created by the toxic technology vendors. The Indian Environment Ministry, MNES and Ministry of Science and Technology should take a lesson from our Commerce and Industry ministry, which opposes inclusion of incinerators in the WTO's list of environmental goods and services in the name of renewable energy technology and for waste management. But it is appalling to note that instead of eliminating hazardous technologies in keeping with our international commitments, our ministries are advocating waste management processes contrary to sustainable practices world-wide.

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