Waste to Energy : Is this a viable project?

By Carmo Noronha

The Social Media Post of the Chief Minister of Meghalaya regarding the INR 14 Crore #WastetoEnergy Project in the Garo Hills is disconcerting. While congratulating our Chief Minister on the transparency regarding the project amount and the title of the Project, I would like to share a few thoughts for consideration of decision makers and the community.

While I do not know the exact nature of the project, nor its location, yet there are a few general principles that apply to all Waste to Energy projects and which need to be shared widely, especially with local communities,whose present and future could be compromised. Across the world Waste to Energy Projects are being questioned by local communities since they promote environmental racism. This is because waste generated by urban populations is collected and is either dumped in landfills or sent to Waste to Energy Projects.

The way forward regarding waste,( also promoted by the SWACHH BHARAT Mission) is to align with the principles of ZERO WASTE and CIRCULAR ECONOMY.What is not required in one system can become the resource for another system.. as happens naturally in our forests.Thus source segregation becomes the non-negotiable!! The forests which have sustained our communities are our ultimate teachers and will continue to sustain us, if we are ready to reflect and learn on how nature works. For any environmental project the three basic principles are ETHICS, EFFICIENCY and ECONOMICS all seen through the eyes of the present and the future and all three working together. At no point can any one of them be compromised. If source segregation becomes the norm then there IS NO WASTE!!

For more detailed information on the subject and for those who are interested,kindly visitwww.no-burn.org from where I have summarised the following:

  1. At each stage of the process of Waste to Energy there are pollution and health hazards and impacts: Emissions from hauling waste, Emissions from burning trash in incinerators, Generation of ash and waste waterresidue disposal at landfills.
  2. Waste to Energy projects put up by private enterprise depend on volumes, while the focus of ZERO WASTE is to segregate at source so that waste is reduced and eliminated. Waste to Energy encourages people to go back to the “shop till you drop”, “use and throw,” culture since huge volumes of waste are required for the project.
  3. Most waste is generated in urban areas and this must be hauled to the plant which is generally in rural areas and hence one can question the efficiency of this system, which will require the use of fossil fuels for haulage and thus cause air pollution
  4. Burning trash in incinerators releases various types of emissions including lead, mercury, dioxins and furans, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, acidic gases etc. Direct exposure to such toxins risks the health of facility workers and residents in nearby communities while indirect exposure, through the food chain, poses global risks. The link between cancer caused through various types of pollution is well established particularly through particulate matter and leaching into water and soil.
  5. While companies may promise that they use advanced pollution control systems – the more pollutants an air pollution control system removes, the more toxic its fly ash and waste water is. Incineration also generates new toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, which can leach into soil and groundwater and accumulate in food chains.
  6. Residues require special treatment and separate disposal but are mostly sent to landfills where the ash can spread via wind and air. Some ash is mixed into concrete to make blocks, mixed into asphalt for roads, or even spread on agricultural lands.

While these may or may not apply to the present project, it is important that they be discussed as they do impact the lives of people. Further, so called “success” of the project may be used to start similar projects in other towns of the State and also in Shillong. I do remember distinctly that a similar project was mooted for Shillong by the earlier Government, but was for some reason shelved.

Environment and development is always the dilemma for the Government and its people especially for a State like Meghalaya with rich natural resources, where extracting resources generates so much revenue. Let us choose wisely for today and tomorrow! To quote Herman Hesse, “For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.

(Carmo Noronha is Director, Bethany Society. Email [email protected])

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