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)


  1. Green energy from residual municipal and commercial waste can be generated, Teesside energy-from-waste plant is an best example to look at.

  2. Hi Ranjith,
    This is Dr Prashanth from Bangalore.
    I had the opportunity to read thru your thesis report on the web.
    This is quite an impactful analysis and paints the reality in grim colors.
    I share your belief that handling municipal waste is daunting but still possible.
    A few of us with the same shared belief are keen to set up a plant for processing municipal waste.

    we were wondering if you would be able to guide us given the enormous amount of work and research done by you over the years.

    My email ID:

    Looking forward to connect to you..

    Warm regards

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  4. Hi..
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  6. I think small businesses operate out of small buildings, and manage a smaller plant, as a result, the building itself might be dated, which can compromise energy efficiency and lead to an increase in costs over the long run. Luckily, there are various resources, technology, and software available that can help plant and facility project managers and teams monitor overall energy usage. Energy management system Colorado

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  8. Recycling, then conversion of the remaining waste to fuels, energy and raw materials is cheaper than the disaster going on now.Plastics can be converted nearly lb for lb into diesel oil. It’s even DIY. Search it.
    You can pyrolyze mixed wastes to generate liquid and gas fuels. The gas fuels can be burned much more cleanly than an incinerator. (that’s heat them without air or oxygen)
    You can store the fuels and run them in generators to back up solar and wind. Cheaper than fossils, and a whole lot cleaner than coal.With clean agriculture wastes, they can be pryolyzed till only charcoal is left. That charcoal than works in steel mills or to double the productivity of poor soils.

  9. The problem with the introduction of advanced WTE projects in India and indeed Asia is the lack of funding local municipal authorities have in paying a viable waste gate fee, and the reluctance of the Power Regulatory Authorities to agree a higher PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) tariff, above what is considered to be already a high PPA per kwh for standard old fashion incineration technology RDF plants, to make high technology WTE plants economically viable to investors.

    With the reluctance to pay a viable gate waste fee, the cost of the projects fall on the PPA rate.

    High tech plants are expensive, whether constructed in Assia of Europe etc, and there is no technology categorisation yet in place in India to encourage large scale Plasma Arc, Pyrolysis or our own Ultra High Temperature Hydrology (UHTH) Reaction technology NCE Ltd constructs.

    Also it's an economics of scale problem as there are three main drivers in setting up a large scale WTE plant.

    1) Guarantee of volume of unpicked MSW waste (the MSW needs to be unpicked to retain high kcal/kg values)
    2) Land allocated
    3) A viable PPA Tariff agreement in place with escalation clauses set in stone

    Until the issues are sorted, large scale WTE Plant sin India just won't happen.

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