Waste to Energy Plants: Benefits and Concerns – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The Union Home Minister recently inaugurated a Waste to Energy Plant at Tughlakabad in New Delhi. The plant is expected to treat 2000 metric tonnes of waste in the national capital per day. The plant will generate 5 MegaWatts (MW) of energy. The Union Home Minister said the the plant is a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose plant that help clean the city and reduce burden of waste management. However, some environmental experts have expressed concerns regarding the effectiveness of waste to energy plants, and questioned their utility.

What is the status of Municipal waste generation in India?

Per Day Waste Generation: In the Budget Session (2022), the Government informed the Parliament that the total quantity of solid waste generated in the country was 150,761 tonnes per day in 2019-20. According to a World Bank report (2018), India’s per capita waste generation lies at 0.57 kg/day as compared to 0.52 kg in South Asia and 0.74 kg at the global level.

Compositional Characteristics of Waste: The Government informed the Parliament earlier this year, “The compositional characteristics of waste in India are very distinct compared to those in developed countries. Waste generated in the country has more organic components, more moisture content and low calorific value compared to waste generated in developed countries, which has direct influence on efficiency of electricity generation“.

A report titled “To Burn or Not To Burn”, by the Centre for Science and Environment (2019), 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%.

What are the Waste to Energy Plants?

Waste-to-energy (WtE), also known as energy-from-waste, is the process where energy (typically heat and electricity) is generated using waste as a fuel source. This is often done through direct combustion using waste incinerators – i.e. burning the waste – or the production of a combustible fuel from a gas such as methane. The latter method is less common and requires processes such as gasification  or anaerobic digestion.

Waste to Energy Plant Process UPSC

Source: USEIA

What is the status of Waste to Energy Plants in India?

Around 92 plants with aggregate capacity of around 250 MW have been set up in India for electricity generation from urban, agricultural and industrial waste.

According to a report, “Value of Waste”, by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, investors had valued WtE in India at ~US$ 1.5 billion in 2017 and expected it to grow to about US$ 11.7 billion by 2052.

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 MW.

The report “To Burn or Not To Burn”, says that plants of a combined capacity of 382.7 MW 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.

What are the benefits of Waste to Energy Plants?

Better than traditional incineration: Waste-to-energy is often promoted as “clean energy” when compared to wasteful incineration practices of the previous decades. In this regard, it is utilizing energy that would otherwise be wasted, while not technically increasing the amount of waste burned. (This argument only holds if incineration is the only option, whereas most responsible waste management plans are now looking toward less damaging, more circular solutions that contribute less to climate change).

Avoid landfilling: Landfills are the last resort when it comes to waste management, causing numerous issues such as the production of greenhouse gases, the usage of large pieces of land, the potential for pollutants to seep into the ground and groundwater etc.

Waste-to-energy processes at specialist incineration plants can greatly reduce the volume of waste that is landfilled.

Resource Recovery: Another benefit of waste-to-energy over landfilling is the opportunity to recover valuable resources such as metals post-incineration. They can then be sent for recycling and kept in the economy. This is even true of mixed materials, which are notoriously hard to recycle. Incineration burns away materials such as plastics leaving the metals behind, which can be considered better than landfills where recyclable materials are simply buried.

What are the challenges associated with Waste to Energy Plants?

Sustainability: There is no segregation of waste in WtE plants. The waste is burned in mixed form resulting in an increase in the amount of waste. This impacts the power generation by the plant and leads to pollutants. Moreover, the leftover burnt material is not suitable for brick making, which then has to be disposed off in landfills.

In India, capacity to manage waste has not grown with the pace of its capacity to generate waste. There is a huge gap between the quantity and quality of waste India are generating, and the capacity of the municipality to manage that waste.

Feasibility: WtE plants do not get many buyers for the power they generate due to cheaper alternatives being available. Maintenance costs are high. The tariff rates for these projects are very high at more than INR 6-7 per unit. This is because of a high capital cost, high O&M expenses, low calorific value of the fuel used and the additional fuel used to burn the waste. Additional fuel is required to burn unsegregated waste which makes the plant unviable. This is the reason why Waste to Energy plants in many cities are not functioning properly or were shut down.

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.

Environmental and Health Impacts: This is because of highly variable and poor quality of wastes that these plants are not able to burn properly. They have to reject about 30-40% of waste into landfills because they are either inert or too poor in quality to be combustible.

Because these plants have to handle a vast quantity of mixed waste, the housekeeping is extremely challenging leading to a lot of dour and visual pollution.

High CO2 Emissions: Almost all the carbon content in the waste that is burned for WtE is emitted as carbon dioxide, which is one of the most notable greenhouse gas.

Potential to destroy Recoverable Materials: While waste-to-energy gives the opportunity to recover some resources, such as metals, it tends to destroy resources that could otherwise have been recovered, including minerals, wood, plastics, and more. This is especially true if there is not a rigid separation process for municipal solid waste ahead of incineration.

WtE could Disincentivize Recycling: Waste-to-Energy has the potential to disincentivize recycling or other more sustainable waste management methods. If people, organizations, or governments believe that waste-to-energy is a viable sustainable energy source and waste management technique, they are less likely to engage with or invest in more impactful solutions, such as reduction, reuse, or recycling. This can already be seen with the classification of many WtE Plants as “renewable energy”.

What should be the approach going ahead?

Sustainable Approach: Composting, biogas installation and bio-methanation, and recycling of dry and electronic waste can help reduce waste sent to landfills by 80% to 90%. Rather than having a WtE plant in every city, WTE Plants can be installed for a cluster of a few cities or a larger area, which is a more sustainable approach. In the long term, the Government should promote more sustainable circular economy.

Read More: Circular Economy: Meaning, Benefits and Opportunities – Explained, pointwise

Rules and Regulations: WtE plants with a capacity of less than 15 MW do not require prior environmental clearance. Such cases, therefore, may not require public hearing. This must be reconsidered.

The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, have spelled-out that only segregated non-recyclable high-calorific fractions like used rubber tyre, multilayer plastics, discarded textile and paper are sent to WtE plants. This should be strictly implemented.

Need to stop waste trade: Today, many developed countries send their waste to developing countries for processing, often as part of a broader waste management plan that claims to improve recycling rates. In some cases, waste is recycled, but often it is simply incinerated or used in waste-to energy facilities. China’s National Sword Policy highlighted the scale of this practice. The unregulated nature of this trade means improper disposal. In fact, it has even been shown that hazardous wastes not meant for incineration are commonly shipped abroad where they are burned before being landfilled. This must be prohibited.

Conclusion

According to environmental experts, Waste to Energy Plants can address the problem of landfills but they by themselves are not the ideal solution. In this context, the approach towards Waste to Energy plants must be reconsidered. Experts have called them a short term solution. In the longer term, more sustainable solutions like Circular Economy Approach is the best way forward.

Syllabus: GS III, Conservation, Environment Pollution and Degradation.

Source: Economic Times, The Times of India, US Energy Information Administration, MNRE

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