Sunday, March 30, 2014

Opportunities and Challenges for Waste-to-Energy in India

A version of this post first appeared on the Waste Management World Magazine's December, 2013 Issue under the title "A billion reasons for waste-to-energy in India".

Twenty three Indian cities will each generate more than 1,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste per day in the next five years. They will cumulatively generate 93,000 tonnes of MSW every day. (1) At this scale, solid waste management (SWM) systems without waste-to-energy (WTE) combustion technology will not be able to safely and economically treat and recover energy from post-recycled waste. 

In response to this need, the first among the third generation of WTE plants in India has started operations in December, 2011. Six more plants are in construction, 5 have been tendered and 3 projects are in conceptual phase. In the next five years, tens of projects are expected to complete conceptual planning and design phases.

Lack of data and awareness, and trained human resources are the biggest challenges to WTE in India. At some point, these challenges will be overcome. The question is when and who will take the initiative? The government, industry or public? If we wait until public demands reach the intensity that will move governments or the industry, we would have already impacted many lives adversely.

The large scale of the waste problem, a need for safe disposal, and availability of affordable technology are the three biggest opportunities for WTE. The Government of India, various ministries, supporting organizations and the solid waste management industry have an opportunity to improve public health and quality of life, conserve environmental resources, mitigate climate change, and generate energy with the aid of this technology. 


In my most recent publication, (2) I documented the social impact of India's recent waste crisis on its citizens. To solve the crisis, I suggested maintaining a holistic approach to meet social ends using appropriate means. I argued for the necessity to pay attention to short, medium and long-term local and national priorities. As an extension to that line of thought, this article will focus on waste-to-energy as a technology which can provide a major solution. I also discuss how the technology can help India achieve its national priorities - health and quality of life, environmental conservation, and resource efficiency.


Scale of the problem

Every day, urban India generates 188,500 tonnes of MSW (or 68.8 million tonnes per year) and the waste generation increases by 50% every decade. (1) Some of this waste will be recovered by an army of informal recyclers (20% in large cities, lesser in smaller cities (3)), leaving more than 80% to reach open dumpsites where it causes damaging public health, deteriorating the environment, and causes climate change.

Landfill space is hard to find in and around India's urban centers. Dumpsites in almost all cities are already handling more waste than they can hold. Finding new landfills near cities is nearly impossible due to the sheer lack of space for Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) like waste management because of the NIMBY phenomenon, the population density and the scale of increasing urban sprawl, and the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India. (2) Every municipal official who attended WTERT-India's International Brainstorming Session in 2012 asked for help with this issue. Therefore, reducing the amount of waste that goes to dumpsites at a scale that can make a difference is of a high priority.

From the experiences of second generation waste management facilities in India, built around the year 2000, the SWM industry learnt that the role of composting in reducing waste to landfill was overestimated. Composting was considered to be an obvious choice due to the high organic waste content (51%) in Indian MSW. (1) However, due to a lack of source separation, the yield of composting plants or mechanical biological treatment (MBT) was only 6-7% making them economically unfeasible. Rejects from these plants were more than 60% of the input stream (rest of the mass transfer was in the form of escaped water vapor and carbon dioxide during the process). (1)

For the next 20 years, the only way India's large quantities of post-recycled mixed municipal waste can be treated in India is through a combination of MBT, WTE and sanitary landfilling (SLF). This is not to discount other technologies which are effective at smaller scale, such as house-hold and institutional scale biomethanation, and kitchen waste composting. However, due to the number of these units that are required to make a significant impact, propagating these technologies takes decades. Until then, they will not be able to make much of a difference to the amount of untreated waste that will go to open dumps. However, with consistent support, these technologies will definitely improve the sustainability of India's waste management systems.

Gasification, Pyrolysis and Plasma Arc might become fierce contenders to WTE combustion in future, but they are still emerging technologies. Gasification has not yet been proven to work in India. Pyrolysis and Plasma Arc suffer a similar setback around most of the world.  India's only Pyrolysis plant in Pune recently came under scrutiny due to its failure to run at capacity. Studying the reasons for this failure, which are currently unknown can provide a better picture about the future of emerging technologies.

Need for Safe Disposal

Nationwide protests against the present situation of waste management and demands environmental justice through safer waste management practices (2) are also one of the greatest opportunities for WTE.
Disease, air pollution due to landfill fires and water pollution due to leachate from dumpsites happen due to the presence of organic waste and carbon compounds in the waste. They can all be avoided by achieving near complete combustion of waste inside WTE plants that are well regulated. In the city of Mumbai alone, open burning of MSW and landfill fires emit an estimated 10,000 TEQ grams of dioxins/furans and contributes to 20% of the city's air pollution due to particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HCs). In comparison, landfill fires emit 35,200 nanograms (ng) toxic equivalents (TEQ) of dioxins/furans per kilogram (kg) of waste burnt in comparison to 0.25*10-9 nanograms TEQ/kg combusted in 127 WTE facilities in France, which together emitted 4 grams TEQ of dioxins from the combustion of 16 million tonnes per year of waste. The difference between these sources is in the order of magnitude of 1014. (1)

Technology availability

India now has access to affordable WTE technology, thanks to numerous Chinese and South East Asian companies with operational plants. A European WTE company has also recently established its office in India. They are able to provide their technology at prices affordable by Indian cities by sourcing their components indigenously, and by standardizing plant design. (4) The above technologies are available at one-third the price of WTE technology in the U.S. or Europe. 

As more successful WTE companies establish their presence in India, the country's access to the technology will increase along with our knowledge and expertise. 

Integrable Informal Recycling Sector

In India, one of the reasons for employing MBT technology before WTE is to make waste input into WTE homogenous. (1) Increasing source separation through door-to-door collection employing the informal sector will make waste homogenous, which will avoid the need for MBT before WTE. More importantly, inclusion of the informal recycling system will improve sustainability of the system in terms of resource efficiency, and climate change mitigation while providing livelihood to urban poor. (1)

An underutilized opportunity in India, the informal recycling sector can be integrated into the formal system by training and employing waste pickers to conduct door-to-door collection of wastes and allowing them to sell the recyclables they collected. When properly managed and monitored, the informal sector along with mechanical biological treatment and WTE can achieve landfill diversion rates of up to 93.5% in a short span of time. In some Indian cities, informal recycling sector is the first readily available tool if the city decides to improve SWM. (1)

The role of the informal sector in SWM in developing nations is increasingly being recognized, and there is growing consensus that the informal sector should be integrated into the formal system. (1) India is at the forefront of organizing the informal sector, as a result of which, we have an informal recycling sector that can conform to reliable work and schedules. 


There are a handful of local governments which are leading the way in improving waste management. The steps taken to solve New Delhi’s waste management problem is laudable. India would not have had its only operating WTE plant without the kind of leadership and determination showcased in Delhi. This plant was built in 2011, at a time when the need for WTE plants was felt all over India. 1,700 tonnes of Delhi’s waste enters this facility every day to generate about 18 MW of electricity. The successful operation of this facility reinvigorated dormant projects across the nation. (2)

An announcement on granting viability-gap-funding for WTE projects made by India's Finance Minister in his 2013 budget speech catalyzed action towards developing a promotional framework for WTE. India's Planning Commission and the Ministry of Urban Development organized meetings with private stakeholders to understand their needs. The results of these meetings are currently unknown.


Lack of Data and Awareness

Lack of data and awareness impacts every aspect of India's waste management industry in general, not just WTE. Other than the National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute's (NEERI) survey performed eight years ago about waste composition and generation in 59 cities, there is no other reliable data available. The data generated as part of my research (1) is only the best estimate, but not the measured value. 

Owing to the lack of reliable data about quantity, composition, calorific value and seasonal variations of MSW, municipalities are struggling to come up with a structured and a well-moderated response to their own needs (5). Lack of data decreases the clarity in tender requirements put forth by municipalities and leads to miscalculations on the part of private parties. It was also one of the main reasons for the failures of many first generation (built between 1960s and 1990s) and second generation waste management facilities (built around 2000), regardless of whether they employed composting or WTE. 

Lack of operational data from the first and second generation WTE facilities, all of which failed, continues to impact the scope of current projects and the financing and regulatory policy. Lack of consistent operational data is the reason for improperly conceived projects whether it is regarding negotiations about preferential tariffs, tipping fees, or risk and profit sharing. 

Due to a lack of awareness about the technology landscape and best practices, municipalities expect magic wand solutions. This is also because of technology salesmen who promise zero residue, zero emissions, and zero leachate (5). Such false promises can be counteracted by information dissemination through training and education. 

Lack of Consultants and Trained Professionals

Tender documents are often not clearly scoped, are not thorough or are just copied from existing tenders from other cities and do not consider local requirements. This is mainly due to the lack of consultants and professionals who have expertise in designing WTE projects. This leads to the stipulation of unreasonable eligibility criteria, one-sided agreements and choosing the wrong partners. (5)

Improper finances

Many first and second generation WTE projects failed because of irregularity in payments. Payments from most municipalities are delayed by 3 - 4 months due to various reasons. Some are even delayed for more than 6 months. (5) This puts enormous pressure on the liquid cash reserves of private stakeholders who have to continue providing services and paying their employees. 

Lack of Industry Coordination

The SWM industry in India is young and growing, with a significant influx of new players from other sectors. They all face similar challenges while developing projects, but do not have mechanisms to achieve consensus on their basic requirements, so that those can be communicated to decision makers. WTERT-India was formed to become a community of practitioners which can mediate between industry and governments.


A clear trend observed during India's recent waste crisis is that the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. (2) When we look at converging factors such as improving public health, scale of the problem and time at hand, there is no confusion about WTE being the solution.

WTE is expected to be a major waste treatment option for many Indian cities. While self-reporting and regulating emissions is a must, WTE will become the right choice for India when it becomes more inclusive, and can increase public understanding of the technology.

Municipal governments should practice caution in scoping projects, choosing private partners, and carry out transparent tendering processes by hiring reputed and knowledgeable consultants.

Meanwhile, the national government must design reasonable and strong regulatory framework for emissions monitoring, and policy for integrating the informal recycling sector. It should not hesitate to seek guidance from other Asian countries which have already passed through this phase of WTE development.


1. Annepu, Ranjith Kharvel. Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India. January 10, 2012.
2. Observations from India's Waste Crisis. Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT)- India. November 2012.
5. Sastry, D. B. S. S. R., K., Sreenivasa Rao and Annepu, Ranjith Kharvel. (link not working)

Monday, June 17, 2013

UK Waste management: Growing old or growing clean?


UK Waste Management: Growing old or growing clean?
Image Credit: Viridor
Recycling, composting and waste to energy go hand in hand in the UK, which strives for sustainable waste management. In order to assess what the best alternatives are, it's important to first understand the generation and composition of municipal solid waste. A recent academic study by Columbia University set out to do just that.
By Nickolas Themelis and Athanasios Bourtsalas
As the UK strives to achieve its obligations under the EU Landfill Directive, it has turned increasingly to a range of alternative disposal options. These include increased recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion and the use of thermal treatment facilities to recover energy from waste.
Many new facilities have entered service over recent years and several others are in the pipeline. But to ensure the correct mix of technologies are deployed, it is impostant to first understand the composition of the waste to be treated.
With this in mind the objective of the recent study was to carry out a critical analysis and cross check various sets of data - either already available in current literature or solicited from various government agencies - and develop information which can guide the future research of the Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council UK (WTERT-UK) - headquartered at Imperial College London.
The research presents a detailed analysis of the current management of municipal solid wastes (MSW) in the UK and future challenges. It includes characterisation of the generation and disposition of MSW at the national and regional levels.

MSW Production & Composition

Recycling, changing habits due to the economic slump and the successful application of sustainable waste management programmes have resulted in a reduction to the generation of MSW in the UK.
According to figures published by the UK government's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), in 2012 the UK produced about 31 million tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). The figures show that this MSW consists mostly of residential, commercial and market wastes, with the reported 31.1 million tonnes generated in 2012 representing an 11% decrease compared to 2007, and 13.1%, decrease from 2002. The per capita generation was 0.49 tonnes, and ranged from a high of 0.60 in Scotland to a low of 0.48 tonnes per capita in England.
The generation of MSW is predicted to continue to decrease over the next 20 years from 32.3 million tonnes in 2010 to 29.5 million tonnes in 2030. This forecast is based on the Bogner and Matthews model, which shows a linear relationship between the energy consumption of a nation and its generation of MSW, as well as on an energy consumption forecast published by the UK government's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
The average composition and calorific value of MSW in the UK is calculated to be 12 MJ/kg. This value corresponds to an equivalent of 3.3 MW per tonne of waste per hour. Plastics have the highest calorific value, contributing 8.8% to the total calorific value of MSW. Waste paper and cardboard reperesent the highest percentage in the total composition of the UK MSW, while also contributing a large fraction of the calorific value of MSW (Table 1).
table 1
In recent years, a combination of recycling and composting has become the largest means of managing wastes, accounting for 26.7% and 15.5%, respectively, of the total MSW generated. A total of 73% of the composted waste is treated in open air windrows . However, 40.3% is still sent to landfill while only 16% is combusted in 24 waste to energy facilities which recover 1594 GWh of electricity annually - this equates to som 0.41 MWh of electricity generated for every tonne of MSW combusted.

Reuse, Recycling & Composting

As noted, recycling/reuse together with composting have become the dominant methods of waste management in the UK, accounting for 42.2% of the total MSW. In 2012 a total of 13.1 million tonnes of MSW was recycled or composted in the UK, representing an increase of 27.3% since 2002. The per capita recycling and composting for UK residents is 0.21 tonnes. England recycles and composts the least with 0.20 tonnes per capita (42% of the total MSW produced in England) , followed by Northern Ireland (0.21; 39% of the total MSW produced in N. Ireland), Wales and Scotland (0.25 each; 50.1% and 42% of the total MSW produced in each country accordingly).
According to the Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association (ADBA) there are currently well over 100 operational anaerobic digesters, not counting those operating at water treatment facilities.
In 2012, there were also 203 composting sites (149 open windrow, 41 in-vessel and 13 combined open windrow and in-vessel), the majority of which are located in the east of England (38), followed by the south east (35) and north west (27).
In the same year, there were 2341 recycling facilities operating, 749 of which processed end-of-life vehicles (ELV), 761 were vehicle dismantling facilities, 60 vehicle de-pollution sites and 771 metal recycling plants.


The 40.3% of MSW landfilled in the UK is sent to the country's 725 active landfill sites; producing some 4979 GWh of electricity from the methane recovered. Notably, almost 1700 landfill sites have stopped operation since 2001, showing that the country is moving away from landfill as an option for waste management.
England is landfilling less with 0.18 tonnes per capita, followed by Wales (0.23), N. Ireland (0.32) and Scotland (0.33).

Energy Recovery

Of the total MSW produced in the UK in 2012 some 16.1% was processed in waste to energy plants. This accounted for some 5% of the country's total Renewable Energy Sources (RES) - an increase in the contribution of made by waste to energy plants of some 300% since 1996. A total of 1739 GWh electricity and heat combined.
There are 24 plants currently operating, while 14 new facilities are in various stages of construction. In England, 0.09 tonnes per capita were processed in Waste to Energy plants in 2011/12. In Scotland and Wales, however, only 0.02 tonnes per capita was sent to energy recovery facilities. There was no energy recovery at all in Northern Ireland.
Additionally, Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facilities in England processed 1.4% of the total MSW generated in the UK in 2012 to produce Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) or Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF). This percentage corresponds to only 0.008 tonnes per capita.
In Scotland and in Northern Ireland there are no MBT plants, while in Wales 0.005 tonnes per capita were processed into RDF. In total, there was an increase of 0.8% of MSW treated by MBT plants since 2002.
In total, there are about 19 facilities in the UK using various MBT processes with a production capacity of approximately one million tonnes of SRF, used mainly in the cement industry.
The total energy produced by bioenergy based technologies and waste treatment operation sites was 12,973 GWh. This represented an increase in energy production these sources of 620% from 1996.
The oil equivalent of the energy produced from wastes in 2011 was 750 thousand tonnes. Of this 717,300 tonnes equivalent was due to the production of electricity from waste – an increase of 928% since 1990. An additional 32,700 tonnes of oil equivalent came from the generation of heat from wastes.

The economics of Waste management in the Uk

The gate fee for landfilling lies between £73 and £127 per tonne, with the median fee paid by local authorities in 2012 being £85 per tonne. By contrast, the average gate fee paid at an MRF was just £9 per tonne of recyclable materials, or £26 per tonne at facilities which entered service after 2011.
table 2
Open air windrow composting sites averaged £24 per tonne, in-vessel composting and anaerobic digestions plants both charged £43 per tonne.
The gate fee paid by local authorities at waste to energy plants was £54 per tonne for those facilities built prior to 2000 and £73 per tonne of for plants built after the year 2000. The gate fees at MBT plants were £84 per tonne of waste. It is clear to see then, that the most economically viable form of waste management, other than prevention, is the reuse and recycling of materials, with an average gate fee of only £9 per tonne of waste.

Conclusions on the Global status of waste management in the uk

A Chinese proverb states: "The longest journey starts with a single step". This reflects the progress made towards improving the waste management situation in the UK.
The country has rapidly increased its sustainable waste management practices over recent years, and has achieved this by placing an emphasis on recycling and composting. This is while also significantly increasing its waste to energy capacity. Using statistics provided by Eurostat, the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP) and the published data of several other nations, the global waste management 'ladder' (p45), along with the position of UK on the ladder.
The concept is to show that nations that recycle more of their municipal solid waste, and process more of their residual MSW in waste to energy facilities, therefore less landfilling, are higher up the ladder of sustainable waste management.
The countries were ranked according to their result on the formula below, where waste to energy (WTE) includes MBT facilities:
r= 1.2*(Recycling + Composting) %+WtE%
Taking into account that the UK's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) is approximately 1.1 times higher than the European average, as well as its position on the global sustainable waste management ladder, the country is below several other European nations.
Therefore, while the UK has now taken several steps on its journey towards sustainable waste management practices, the road is long and there is considerable room for further advancement.
Professor Nickolas J. Themelis is director of the Earth Engineering Centre, Columbia University and chair of the global WTERT Council
Athanasios C. Bourtsalas is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London and is also a research associate at the Earth Engineering Centre, Columbia University.
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Original article on Waste Management World: