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Issue 4
, 2007
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Waste-to-energy is no quick fix for Municipal Solid Waste Management

Prashant Pastore
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2007

The mismanagement of solid waste in urban areas poses a grave threat to public health and the quality of life of people living in those areas. Up to now there has been no comprehensive policy in India that deals with the whole cycle of waste management from production at household level to collection and disposal.

Existing policies are largely regulatory and fail to address wider environmental and public health concerns. Local authorities tend to see the problem of waste as one of cleaning and disposal rather than tackling the problem as a whole.

Picture of an incineration plantIt is almost seven years since rules on the management of household waste were first introduced in India. Those rules outlined steps to be taken for the management of household waste. They clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of those involved in dealing with the country’s waste disposal.

However, since then there has been little progress. Simple measures such as segregation of waste and door-to-door collection have not been implemented. Instead local authorities have tended to rely on expensive incineration and waste-to-energy (WTE) schemes.

Politicians appear to be committed to the idea that WTE technology is the best solution to the problem of waste management. However, these waste energy plants have been tried and tested in several major Indian cities and have been shown to fail.

Plants in Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Mumbai were built at enormous cost to the taxpayer. In Delhi, the plant, which was installed in 1984, functioned for a few days but was closed down soon afterwards because the waste being sent to the plant was not suitable to burn and so did not produce enough energy.

Since its closure the plant has stood idle but has swallowed up a huge amount of valuable public funds in maintenance costs. The plant in Lucknow also suffered similar problems and was subsequently closed down. In Hyderabad the plant is up and running but at a huge cost and is heavily subsidised.

What is clear from India’s experience of WTE technology is that it is not a viable option for the country. The reason these schemes failed is because the type of waste produced in India is unsuitable. Around 70%-80% of India’s municipal waste is organic, moist and low in calorific value and therefore difficult to burn. This failure has not stopped some people from advocating high-cost WTE technology as the best way to deal with India’s municipal waste.

One of the problems with WTE plants is that they require a massive financial investment. The average cost of running a 5-megawatt plant is Rs 40 crore. This means it costs on average Rs 8 crore to produce just one megawatt of energy. The plants also require 150 tonnes of urban waste to generate one megawatt of energy.

What message does the use of these plants send to the people of India? That it does not matter how much waste we produce or how we dispose of it?

So, if not WTE technology, what are the alternative solutions to India’s burgeoning waste problem? Much of India’s waste is biodegradable. Therefore segregating waste at its source, ie by individual households, and composting biodegradable garbage is one possibility. The Government needs to take active steps to encourage householders to segregate their waste. Instead of throwing money at expensive and inefficient WTE schemes, Government policy should focus on simple, low-cost solutions like composting and recycling.

Defence Colony, Delhi

A community-based waste management pilot scheme was set up by Toxics Link involving 1,000 households in A-block, in Delhi’s Defence Colony. Due to restrictions on the availability of land, wet waste for composting was collected from just 500 of the households. Teams of two workers collected waste from 250 households each, making a total of eight waste collectors for the whole of the block.

The trial revealed that each household generated an average of 0.85 – 1.05 kg of waste each day. The total amount of waste produced by the block and being sent to landfill sites was around one tonne per day.

Of that waste, around 600-700 g was wet waste. Therefore each team of two workers collected around 150-175 kg of wet waste per day, 350 kg of which was composted.

Table 1 – Amount of Wet Waste Generated:


WetWaste/HH/day (g)

Wet waste in Kg/day

Wet waste tonne/day

Wet waste in tonne/annum

Waste diverted from landfill/day






300-350 Kg






600-700 Kg




2.4 – 2.8


2400-2800 Kg


Each household produced an average of 250-350g of recyclable waste per day.

The total amount of recyclables collected from the block of 1,000 houses each day was 250-350kg.

Table 2 – Amount of Recyclables Generated:



Recyclables (Kg)/day

Recyclable (tonne)/day

Recyclable (tonne)/annum


250 –350











1000 - 1400

1.0 – 1.4


Total amount of waste diverted from landfill sites:

As a result of the scheme around 600-700 kg of waste that would have been sent to landfill sites each day was either composted or recycled. This amounts to a saving of 200 tonnes per year.

Table 3 – Details of Manageable Waste:


Wet waste/day (Kg)

Recyclable/day (Kg)

Waste/day (Kg)

Diverted from landfill/day

Approx. Waste/annum

Approx. waste diverted from landfill/annum


600 -700

250 – 350

850 - 1050

850 – 1050 Kg

346.75 tonnes

346.75 tonnes


2400 – 2800


3400 - 4200

3400 – 4200 Kg

1387.0 tonnes

1387.0 tonnes

If the waste management model was rolled out for all 4,000 houses in Defence Colony a total of 2,400- 2,800 kg or 2.4-2.8 tonnes of wet waste per day could be prevented from going to landfill sites. This, together with the recovery of recyclables, means a potential 2,650 – 3,150 kg or 2.6 – 3.0 tonnes of municipal solid waste could be saved from landfills on a daily basis.

Cost of recovery from recyclable waste:

Each waste collector can make around Rs 50-75 a day from the sale of recyclables. This is a potential income of Rs 400-600 per day from the sale of recyclables from 1,000 households involved in the study.

Table 4 – Revenue Generation from Sale of Recyclables:


No. of waste collectors (WC)


Total revenue/day



Rs.50 - 75

Rs. 400 – 600 for eight waste collectors

Long Term Impact of the Scheme:

  • Increased earning potential for waste collectors

  • Recognition of the important work done by waste collectors

  • Rolling out of the solid waste management model to other communities

  • Considerable reduction in amount of waste being sent to landfill through recycling and composting

  • Recovery of natural resources


  • Secure the active participation of Residents’ Welfare Associations

  • Introduce occupational safety measures for waste collectors and facilitate hygienic waste collection.

  • Use the skills and experience of A-block to roll out the programme to the rest of Defence Colony

  • Place the system of waste management in the hands of waste collectors

  • Launch an awareness campaign in schools and educate children in the best practices of solid waste management


  • RWA is active but very few residents take part in its activities

  • Lack of segregation of household waste

  • Poor relations between RWA and waste collectors

  • High turn-over of RWA members

  • Limited availability of land for segregation of waste and composting

  • Monitoring and supervision of the programme

  • Marketing of compost

  • Lack of RWA funding for solid waste management schemes


  • Encourage community participation in solid waste management to create a sense of ownership and sustainability

  • Involve local schools as pupils can have an important role to play in passing information on to parents

  • Formalise the links between the local authority and communities which is a necessary step for sustainability

  • Provide incentives for communities to sign up to the scheme

  • Encourage a sense of ownership among communities and waste collectors

  • Make waste management a health and hygiene issue