Rising Frequency of Landfill Fires – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The massive fire that broke out at the Bhalswa landfill site in Delhi on April 26 has not been completely dozed off yet. The residents, staying near the landfill have informed the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) that poisonous fumes are entering their homes which are causing breathing problems. A police complaint has also been filed by those residing near the Bhalswa landfill site. The Delhi Government has directed the Delhi Pollution Control Board (DPCC) to impose a 50 lakh rupees fine on North Delhi’s civic body for being negligent and not taking proper steps to prevent the fire at the Bhalswa landfill. This is only a short term measure while a long term remedy demands that the nation reduces the size and number of landfills. 

What is a Landfill?

A landfill site, also known as rubbish dump, garbage dump, or dumping ground, is a site for the disposal of waste materials. It is the oldest and most common form of waste disposal. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established specific guidelines regarding creation and management of the Landfills. In India, landfills are managed under the new Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM), 2016. However, many of the guidelines are not adhered to. e.g., Bhalswa landfill is right next to the Bhalswa lake. However, the SWM Rules 2016 mandate that the landfill site shall be 100 metres away from a river, 200 metres from a pond, 500 metres away from highways, habitations, public parks and water supply wells and 20 km away from airports/airbase. 

What are some of the recent incidents of fire in Landfills?

Ghazipur landfill fire: Three incidents of fire have been reported this year at east Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill site, including one on March 28 which was doused after over 50 hours.

Bhalswa landfill fire: The massive fire that broke out at the Bhalswa landfill began on April 26 evening.

Perungudi dump yard fire: A major fire broke out at Perungudi dump (Chennai) on April 27 afternoon.

Dadumajra landfill fire: A fire also broke out at Chandigarh’s Dadumajra dumping ground on April 5.

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What are the reasons behind frequent landfill fires?

First, Landfills are the largest source of methane emissions which are highly flammable in nature and play a large role in the ignition of landfill fires. The decomposition of waste is largely anaerobic in a landfill, which results in the production of large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide.

Second, surface fires at dumpsites are also caused by equipment related factors. This includes debris trapped under machines, heat from equipment (exhaust pipes) and welding.

Third, fires are also a result of human factors. Waste pickers who scavenge the waste may inadvertently start a fire by smoking in the landfill.

Fourth, the temperature of a region also aids in fire generation. For instance, the ongoing heat wave in Delhi enhanced the probability of fire in a landfill. 

What are the problems caused by landfill fires?

Environmental impact: Fire at the Bhalswa landfill site churned out dense plumes of smoke and turned the sky hazy grey leading to air pollution. Further, there is a release of large amount of GHG gasses.

Health impact: It causes health ailments in residents living nearby the landfill like sore throat, itchy eyes and breathing problems.

Transportation: A thick layer of smoke caused by fire impairs the visibility of commuters. For instance, Vehicles traveling on the Pallavaram–Thoraipakkam 200 feet radial road (near Perungudi dumpyard) have been experiencing poor visibility since the onset of fire.

School Closure: It also impacts the nearby schools in the vicinity which are forced to shut temporarily in wake of children’s health.

Why is it difficult to douse off a landfill fire?

The unscientific construction of a landfill site and their mammoth size makes it very difficult for the firemen to douse off fire quickly.

Further, multiple ignition points, lack of constant water supply, and the danger involved in climbing steep garbage mounds enhances the total time to extinguish a landfill fire.

What is the need to recover Landfills?

Economic benefits: At present there are 48 recognised landfills in India. They collectively occupy nearly 5000 acres of land (few of them are in prime locations) and are worth about Rs 100,000 Crore.

Overcapacity of Landfills: It is also important to note that most of the landfills of megacities have already reached their maximum capacity and permissible height limit of 20 meters. For example, Delhi’s oldest Ghazipur landfill and Asia’s largest dumping ground, Deonar in Mumbai, continues to accumulate waste despite the Supreme Court’s order regarding closure of these landfills.

Source for Pollution: The untreated waste is the source of environmental pollution. For example, Leachate (black liquid oozing out from the waste) contaminates soil and groundwater.

Disasters: The release of methane from the decomposition of biodegradable waste under anaerobic conditions can cause fires and explosions. The incidence of fire is particularly high during summers. For example, frequent fires in the Deonar landfill in Mumbai and the Bhalswa landfill in Delhi.

Health Impacts of landfills: Uncontrolled burning of waste releases fine particles which are a major cause of respiratory disease and cause smog. Dumping sites provide breeding sites for mosquitoes thus increasing the risk of diseases such as malaria and dengue.

What are the reasons for growth of landfills in India?

Rising demand for Plastic: The rising urbanization and growing consumer culture in cities has enhanced the demand of packaged goods that has resulted in more plastic usage. This plastic gets dumped in landfills and increases their height. For instance, the landfill in Bhalswa in the city’s north is taller than a 17-storey building and covers an area bigger than 50 football fields.  

Lack of Capacity: At present, India only has 1604 solid waste treatment plants to treat waste. capacity. These plants are not enough to treat the huge quantum of waste generated in the country which in turn leads to landfill creation.

Corruption: There exists a substantial degree of corruption in Municipal bodies and in many places a nexus between garbage mafia and government officials is also witnessed.

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What corrective steps can be undertaken?

First, proper disciplinary action should be taken against officials who are responsible for management of municipal waste in the area. This will set a good precedent for future.

Second, State governments should provide adequate funds to local bodies so that they can take requisite measures to tackle the creation of giant landfills. 

Third, States must also learn from good practices of each other to tackle the menace of landfills. For instance, the Delhi Government has agreed to study a system installed in Mumbai to capture methane from the rotting waste and replicate it in the national capital to prevent fires at the landfill site.

Fourth,  India also has to develop skilled and trained professionals to operate and maintain the entire waste management chain. Right from the collection, operation and maintenance of waste-handling plants.

Fifth, there should be proper implementation of Solid Waste Management and Plastic Waste Management Rules so that less waste flows into landfills.

Sixth, the idea of a circular economy should be promoted in masses. Further, the government should do greater procurement of recycled goods for itself in order to incentivise the private sector.

Conclusion

The menace of landfills is a result of decades of poor solid waste management practices adopted by the Governments and the masses. The rising number of landfill fires is a testimony to the huge magnitude of damage that a big landfill site can cause to the citizens. It is therefore imperative to take proactive measures towards their reduction and help in achievement of SDG 15 i.e Life on Land.

Source: Mint, Mint

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