Was Goa’s burning Sonsoddo landfill a stunt or something else?

Uncannily, the fire at the waste treatment plant came just a day before Malaysia announced it was giving plastic waste imports back to western nations

By Josephine Dias
Published: Monday 24 June 2019
The burning Sonsoddo landfill in Margao, Goa. Photo: Josephine Dias
The burning Sonsoddo landfill in Margao, Goa. Photo: Josephine Dias The burning Sonsoddo landfill in Margao, Goa. Photo: Josephine Dias

Goa, a state blessed by the patronage of the citizens of India and other countries of the world, has paid little or no heed to the ever-present menace of garbage.

This would not have been the state of affairs had the state government had implemented strict rules of zero garbage generation as has been followed in some of the pristine and fragile eco-sensitive areas in the world.

In the early hours of Monday, May 27, 2019, the Sonsoddo waste treatment plant and dump in the city of Margao, nearly as tall as an eight-storey building, started to emit smoke instead of stink.

As Sonsoddo continued to burn throughout the day on Tuesday, May 28, the Mumbai-based firm Tranquiil Speciality Products (TSP) Pvt Ltd stepped in to use an enzyme to stop methane formation at the site and control the fire.

Though the fire services had doused the fire at 3 am on Tuesday, at day break, it broke out again in small pockets and the whole area continued to be covered with smoke.

The spontaneous combustion at Sonsoddo was caused due to the continuous bacterial activity that was going on there, as wet waste was mixed with the dry at the site, due to non-segregation of waste at the source.

According to the Margao Fire Station officer, the fire was located deep inside the dump site and kept on erupting sporadically. Nearly one lakh litres of water was used by fire tenders to control the fire engulfing the whole area with smoke. By then, TSP had spread the Renerzyme to bring the fire under control.

Local people are facing the brunt of this problem, as the garbage keeps on moving in from the surrounding villages. The state government had handed the task of solid waste management to ‘Fomento Green’, a Pvt Ltd firm. However, fool-proof arrangements were still awaited to provide a solution to the garbage mount.

Close to the heels of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the inferno appears to be a stunt enacted to the enforce the long-pending demand by residents to the local MLAs to shift the dumping yard away from the city. However, there is more than what meets the eye.

The Malaysian experience

The Sonsoddo inferno comes close to the May 28, 2019 announcement by Malaysia that it would return nearly 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste to countries including the United States (US), Canada, Australia and Saudi Arabia, amidst an increasing clampdown on imports of plastic waste across Southeast Asia.

Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said the country would return the shipments of contaminated plastic rubbish — non-recyclable or low quality plastic — to avoid the ‘dumping’ of waste in Malaysia from the rest of the world.

“Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling,” she said. “Malaysians are forced to suffer poor air quality due to open burning of plastics which leads to health hazards, polluted rivers, illegal landfills and a host of other related problems”.

Southeast Asian countries vastly increased their share of plastic waste management after China, which had been the centre of the global recycling trade, abruptly halted the imports of recycled materials at the end of 2017.

Countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have reportedly been deluged with so much waste that their recycling systems have been overwhelmed. Due to this, rubbish has often been dumped or discarded, only to end up as marine litter.

Yeo further added that China’s ban has “opened our eyes to the problem” that existed but nobody was aware of, in Malaysia. The entire world just could not cope with the plastic waste that is generated and of course Malaysia is one of the victims in terms of influx.

The US exports about one-third of its recycling garbage and nearly half of it goes to China. For decades, China has used recyclables from around the world to supply its manufacturing boom.

But by 2018, it declared that this ‘foreign waste’ includes too many other non-recyclable materials that are ‘dirty’, even ‘hazardous’. In a filing with the World Trade Organization (WTO), the country has listed 24 kinds of solid wastes it has banned ‘to protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health’.

With China no longer wanting to take in the world’s waste, the materials sit in their home country, with no place to go. “What China’s move is doing is probably ushering in a new era of recycling,” says Adina Adler, a senior director with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, DC.

According to a report by The Guardian, President Xi Jinping had pledged a ‘Beautiful China’ during his 2017 speech at the Communist Party congress. In its WTO filing, Beijing declared it would no longer accept large amounts of mixed-in hazardous wastes.

In just under three weeks since the ban took effect, plastic was literally up around the world. This has led to the opening up of recycling backup centres as has been reported in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany and several other European nations.

Globally, since 1992, 72 per cent of plastic waste has ended up in China and Hong Kong, according to a study in the journal of science Advance. China says the policy changes are in line with a new push to protect the environment. They suggest Beijing no longer wants to be the world’s trash can or even its recycle bin.

Steve Frank of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon told The New York Times, “My inventory is out of control. China’s ban has caused a major upset to the flow of global recyclables”.

What is striking of this is that he is hoping to export waste to countries like Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia — anywhere the US can.

Now think of Sonsoddo and put two and two together. It is an alert for Goa and for India.

Josephine Dias is Associate Professor of Geography, Government College of Arts, Science, & Commerce, Quepem, Goa

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