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OP-ED: Will waste-to-energy initiatives work in Bangladesh?

What works for developed countries may not be applicable here

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) or garbage generation is on the rise with the increasing population in developing countries. Sustainable waste management is a major challenge for Dhaka — with over 20 million people — as well as smaller cities/rural areas. 

The lack of availability of land/space for building waste management systems (landfills, composting, recycling, and/or waste to energy, WtE) can constrain the decision making. 

However, we need to pay special attention to (1) availability of land/space and (2) applicability of technology in a specific region (based on waste characteristics) — what works for developed countries like the US, Japan, or South Korea may not be applicable to Bangladesh. 

Waste-to-energy (WtE) or incineration can provide a lucrative solution to waste management as WtE plants may address the issue of land/space in both developed and developing countries. WtE requires less space and can process a large volume of waste in a single processing plant. 

It is an appropriate technology for waste management in developed countries as their waste is relatively dry, and the presence of a large amount of plastic, paper, and other combustible materials makes it a good source of energy. 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was given the UN Champions of the Earth award and, under her leadership, the Bangladesh constitution was amended in 2011 to include a constitutional directive to the state to protect the environment and natural resources for current and future generations.

The current decision of adopting waste management through WtE directly counters the policy of the PM’s vision and plan for a sustainable urban environment for Bangladesh. 

We highlighted major issues that need in-depth feasibility studies and evaluations when considering the WtE in developing economies below:

Applicability

Waste in developing countries like Bangladesh has a high amount of food waste and moisture content compared to similar waste in European countries. Generating power through WtE or incineration using this low calorific, highly wet waste is neither applicable nor cost-effective.

However, following the success of the WtE plant in Europe and intense lobbying from many WtE companies, many developing countries including Bangladesh are trying to use WtE technology without understanding its applicability or the serious environmental and public health consequences.

Cost

Both initial capital investment and operating cost of the WtE are very high. Moreover, the technology does not apply to the type of waste we are dealing with in Bangladesh and other developing countries.

Success in developing countries and neighbouring India

In 1987, the old Timarpur WtE plant in Delhi, India, had to shut down just 21 days after opening due to operational failure brought upon by the low calorific value of incoming waste. 

Since 1990, 14 WtE plants have been installed in India; however, half of them have already been closed, and the remaining ones are also under scrutiny. Along with the low calorific value and high moisture content of MSW, the presence of inert materials in MSW has also failed several projects in developing nations.  

Environment and public health concerns of WtE operation

A WtE plant generates 20% bottom ash from burning the waste. In most cases, there is no plan for managing the generated bottom ash. 

They end up in our water bodies, polluting the nearby rivers and creating a serious problem for clean water and agricultural lands. 

Air pollution

Difficulty in controlling air pollution from the toxic emission from WtE plants and, in many cases, enforcing air pollution regulations. Incinerator emissions are also a source of particulate matter (PM 2.5) — tiny particles of dust that can lead to decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and premature death. 

On March 23, 2019, South Delhi residents organized one of the largest open-chain rallies to protest the Okhla waste-to-energy (WtE) plant. Their complaint was that the plant, which generated electricity by burning waste, was spewing toxic fumes, filling the atmosphere with stench, and making people ill. 

“The number of asthma patients admitted to emergency and intensive care units has gone up since the plant was set up,” said Shailendra Bhadoriya, consultant cardiologist, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute. 

Covid-19 and WtE 

In Wuhan, North Italy, and New York, deaths from Covid-19 are higher than any other places in the world and all three places have a high number of WtE plants. Is this a coincidence? 

Beth Gardiner in the National Geographic reported that researchers from Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health analyzed data on PM2.5 levels and Covid-19 deaths from about 3,000 US counties covering 98% of the US population and found that counties with just one microgram per cubic metre more PM2.5 in the air increased Covid-19 death rate by 15%. 

Francesca Dominici, Harvard biostatistics professor and the study’s senior author, said: “If you’re getting Covid, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire.”

The major alternative solution to WtE is to consider waste as a resource and design “sustainable resource management facilities (SRMF).” SRMF includes maximum material recovery and diversion (through recycling, composting, cost-effective locality-based anaerobic digester, or AD) before the final disposal and processing of waste through perpetual landfill and/or WtE. 

Perpetual landfills, operating as a biocell and recycling landfill space, can continue operation in the same place for as much as 200 years. This addresses the issue of space availability for construction of new landfills every 20/30 years. 

Moreover, collection of generated gas through AD and biocell and conversion to electricity can provide access to electricity in remote areas where electric grids are not available.

The SRMF will create green jobs and become a perfect example of a circular economy in developing countries. WtE can also be used for metropolitan cities if waste characteristics are suitable for the technology. 

Md Sahadat Hossian, PhD, PE, is Director, Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability (SWIS), and Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Texas at Arlington. He can be reached at [email protected]

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