Managing waste the right way - Hindustan Times

Managing waste the right way

ByPrashant Singh
Jun 25, 2024 11:14 AM IST

This article is authored by Prashant Singh, co-founder and CEO, Blue Planet Environmental Solutions Private Limited.

Recently the Supreme Court expressed concern over the massive amounts of untreated solid waste in the national Capital, noting that it violated the fundamental right of citizens to live in a pollution-free environment. The apex court directed the authorities to ensure that the quantity of waste does not increase until proper facilities are established for its treatment.

Waste (Gurpreet Singh/HT)
Waste (Gurpreet Singh/HT)

Untreated waste in dumpsites is an issue not just in Delhi but also in most parts of India. It causes environmental degradation, poses fire hazards, endangers public health, and reduces the already limited land space for an increasing population. There is a compelling case for looking at solutions, such as landfill bio-mining to address this growing menace. Importantly, an adequate and compliant way of bio-mining needs to be implemented in India’s waste management sector to ensure desired results. Currently, it is largely lacking.

95% of India’s landfills are dumpsites due to haphazard dumping of waste. There are currently over 3,100 dumpsites where about 29,427.2 TPD gets piled up over 15,000 acres of land.

A main problem of haphazard dumping is that organic matter, which can make up upto 60% of waste at the sites, generates leachate which contaminates soil and ground water.

Such waste also tends to generate methane, a gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing the ‘greenhouse effect’. Waste accounts for a fifth of India’s total methane emissions, as per the Global Methane Tracker 2022. Methane can cause easy fires at dumpsites – such as the one which occurred in Ghazipur on April 21 – which quickly engulfed the entire site and released toxins into the air, posing respiratory health risks for people living nearby. India witnessed over 1,000 such fires in 2022. Plastics are usually among the first to burn in such fires, further compounding the problem.

Even without the risk of fire, there are serious health risks for people living near dumpsites. Dumpsites also become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease-causing pests. Windblown litter can also harm marine environments near dumpsites.

Given the prevailing situation of India’s dumpsite, there is a strong push by the Centre to establish infrastructure for better waste management. However, land allocation for such a purpose often hits a roadblock, because communities are not open to having waste management infrastructure in their backyards, making the job of urban local bodies more challenging. Therefore, it is important to clear existing landfills to ensure the recovery of existing land/sites for further infrastructure development to handle fresh waste.

In addition, clearing dumpsites is essential not just for enhancing the urban landscape but also addressing concerns around public health and environmental degradation. This is where establishing integrated landfill bio mining plays a key role. The process involves bio-mining which removes waste from active or closed landfills, prestabilises the waste and segregates the fractions, some of which can then be used for purposes such as recycling or afforestation. Bio-mining transforms a dumpsite into reclaimed land, which can be used for productive, eco-friendly economic or civic purposes. While the process has been carried out at India’s landfills since the past few years, it has not been done in the scientific manner, often reducing recyclability to fuel circularity and progress of zero to landfill.

Bio-mining has ideally had three stages. The first is pre-stabilisation, wherein the solid waste is sprayed with bio-culture to trigger/accelerate biodegradation and minimises the generation of methane. The soil at the landfill is also tested for 75% successful germination of seeds, which indicates its readiness for bio-mining process.

The next stage involves processing and segregation, wherein organic, combustible, inert and recyclable items are segregated from the waste. There are machines that segregate items depending on their weight, size and characteristics. The last stage involves the aggregates being tested for purity and accordingly reused, recycled, or repurposed. In this way, it promotes a true circular economy.

For example, bio-mining uses discarded materials, such as rubber, non-recyclable plastic, and horticulture items, to produce refuse-derived fuel (RDF) – an alternative to fossil fuel such as coal in cement plants. This reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 16,800 tonnes per ton of RDF used. Bio-mining thus helps in conserving natural resources by reducing the need to extract and use virgin materials. Moreover, the process generates near-zero residues. Another repurposed material from bio-mining is fine soil which can be used for afforestation and as a topsoil replacement for any land.

Bio-mining improves air quality by eliminating the foul smell emanating from dumpsites. It also prevents the contamination of ground and surface water, and the soil. There is a compelling case for looking at solutions, such as bio-mining, to address this growing menace.

There are many examples of bio-mining in India that underline its effectiveness, if done the right way. In Vadodara, for instance, bio-mining successfully cleared the Atladara dumpsite from the banks of the Vishwamitra River. This helped in preserving the natural habitat of Indian crocodiles (gharials — an IUCN-protected species of crocodile). In Tamil Nadu, bio-mining eliminated a pollution source near Sembakkam lake, which served as a drainage outlet into the highly sensitive Pallikaranai marshland. It has improved the environmental and ecological balance in the region. In Kerala’s Kollam city, a dumpsite on the banks of the ecologically sensitive Ashtamudi Lake was cleared through a reclamation project. The segregated waste was used by cement plants, road construction firms, and furnace companies, and the water quality of Ashtamudi Lake improved manifold, thus a positive impact was created for Ramsar site.

There are a few of things to bear in mind. The first is that bio-mining requires specialised equipment and a thorough process to be followed for successful project execution. Monsoons further increase the time and the costs to process waste. Secondly, RDF is approved by the Central Pollution Control Board for use only in cement factories with prior consent, and currently about 55% of plants can process RDF. The upshot is that, instead of utilising RDF effectively, some agencies dump it back into the landfill or nearby areas, thus creating an environmental hazard. To prevent such risks, it is advisable to work only with reputable waste-management solutions providers who provide full transparency and trackability of the end-to-end process. Overall, the pros of bio-mining easily outweigh the cons.

Another ground reality in India’s waste management sector is that the critical step of pre-stabilisation is not carried out, as it often entails a good chunk of the overall project cost. Waste segregation is also usually done by inadequate number of machines and technology, leading to low recyclability, and dumping of hazardous material near the garbage site, adversely impacting the environment and residents.

There is a need for vigilance and accountability on players who are not following the laid down guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board and to ensure that competent entities who have a variety of experience and expertise are further engaged to deal with India’s growing waste management sector. Furthermore, misguided practices such as dumping waste in low-lying areas must be avoided if we are to make trash, a history. To move the needle on achieving the larger goal of effective waste management, the sector needs to be more transparent than it is at present. There is also a need for standardising and baselining frameworks for landfill mining and management. The industry must work in partnership with the Government to prevent India’s trash situation from worsening. Guidelines that the industry can use for developing sustainable, long-term solutions will assist the entire ecosystem in managing waste, getting established. Bio-mining solutions are crucial to this effort and will address end-to-end circularity. However, there is a caveat. If the scientific process and guidelines are not adhered to, it has the potential to create more unscientific dumpsites and negatively impact our future generation’s health and well-being.

Real-time monitoring systems and regulations will also help in preventing inadequate or ineffective waste management practices. The issue of waste management calls for the adoption of the right technologies, the enforcement of existing laws, and more importantly, a change among people to respect our planet.

This article is authored by Prashant Singh, co-founder and CEO, Blue Planet Environmental Solutions Private Limited.

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