When plastic waste is burnt, a complex weave of toxic chemicals is released. Breaking down polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — used for packaging, toys, and coating electrical wires — produces dioxin, an organochlorine that belongs to the family of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). A recent Dioxin Assessment Report brought out by the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) says the risk of getting cancer from dioxin is ten times higher than reported by the agency in 1994.
Yet the Delhi government is giving the green signal to a gasification project which will convert the garbage into energy without removing plastic waste. Former transport minister Rajendra Gupta, the promoter of this project, says this is not necessary.
He claims no air pollution will be caused and that the ash produced can be used as manure. An earlier waste-to-energy project set up in Timarpur failed. The new one, built with Australian assistance, will cost ₹ 200 crores. It will generate 25 megawatts of power and gobble 1,000 tonnes of garbage every day.
“Technologies like gasification are a form of incineration,” says Madhumita Dutta, a central coordinator with Toxics Link, New Delhi. Incineration merely transfers hazardous waste from a solid form to air, water, and ash, she points out.
Toxins produced during incineration include acidic gases, heavy metals as well as dioxins and furans. “The ‘manure’ will be hazardous and a problem to dispose of,” says Dutta.
Municipal solid waste contains a mix of plastics. Breaking down this waste emits hydrochloric acid which attacks the respiratory system, skin, and eyes, resulting in coughing, vomiting, and nausea.
Polyethylene generates volatile compounds like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both suspected carcinogenic. Breathing styrene from polystyrene can cause leukemia. Polyurethane is associated with asthma. Dioxin released by PVC is a powerful hormone disrupter and causes birth defects and reproductive problems. There is no threshold dose to prevent it and our bodies have no defense against it.
“Even the best run incinerators in the world have to deal with stringent norms, apart from contaminated filters and ash, making them hugely expensive to operate,” says Dutta. In Germany, air pollution devices accounted for two-thirds of the cost of incineration. Despite such efforts, the European Dioxin Inventory noted that the input of dioxin into the atmosphere was the highest from incineration.
“India does not have the facility to test dioxin and the cost of setting one up is prohibitively expensive,” says Dutta.
Besides, Indian garbage has a low calorific content of about 800 cal/kg, since it has high moisture and requires additional fuel to burn. Toxics Link calculates that the electricity generated from such technology will cost between ₹ 5-7 per unit, which is six times higher than conventional energy. India has chosen a dioxin preventive route and burning of chlorinated plastics is prohibited under Municipal Solid Waste and Biomedical Rules.
Nearly 80 percent of Indian garbage is recyclable or compostable. Resident associations, the informal sector, and the municipal corporation can make Delhi’s garbage disappear in a sustainable manner. “Instead, the government promotes the end of pipeline solutions,” says Dutta.