'India way ahead in tackling waste'

PAUL CONNET, professor at the Chemistry department, St Lawrence University, New York, has toured 29 countries in the last 11 years, educating and assisting communities in waste disposal systems, while warning them of the ills of incineration. He was in India recently, on this self-propelled mission, and spoke to RAJAT BANERJI

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On what brought him to India:
The stimulus to visit India was an advertisement in the local papers: a global invitation on waste disposal systems (read incineration) by the government of India. I just couldn't believe it' Incineration is an incredibly expensive method of waste disposal and is the most harmful one, too. India already has an ideal situation and system of waste recycling, that is, the separation of different kinds of wastes (by rag-pickers). Going in for incineration would undo whatever good exists here, and also repeat one of the West's most tragic mistakes.

Being from North America one feels responsible for the rape earth is subjected to by multinational corporations (MNCS), mostly American. But while 20 per cent of the world's population h brought the planet to its knees, it is even more scary that the remaining 80 per cent is being seduced into adopting the same philosophy.

On his perception the part IVINCS have played in 'bringing the planet to its knees':
The mindless greed of NINCS seem to be plundering the planet as if we had another one to go to when this was exhausted. The worldwide rise in expenditure on advertisement is an indication of how they are expanding business, leading to a corresponding rise in consumption. This further stretches the worlds fast depleting resources. If it were true that consumption makes people happy, we would should have been very happy people in the West, But that is not true. Consumption and happiness are not related.

On why incineration is bad:
Incinerators are bad as they are (i) a major threat to public health, (ii) they destroy resources (which can be recycled and reused), and (iii) they are the most expensive method of waste disposal. Toxic metals are liberated from incinerated garbage at inhalable levels; lead, cadmium and mercury being the most dangerous of these. Also, dioxins and furans get released when a chlorine-based substance is burnt. These two are growth disregulators and can lead to hormonal imbalances, damaging the immune, neurological and reproductive systems. They are absorbed into the human body through the food chain. Women pass them onto the baby they bear.

Experiments have proved that upto 85 per cent of wastes need not even reach the landfill or incinerators. Bio-degradables and organic matter can be used to make compost, and waste in India has a very high content of this type; then there are the recyclables. What is left can be compacted and put into landfills. If you have incinerators, waste managers would want everything to be burnt, destroying valuable resources. Cost-wise, one incinerator used in an American city initially cost us $60 million. Eventually, the government had to spend an additional us $250 million on pollution control devices for the same incinerator!

On the options, apart from incinerators, that India has:
Since the government obviously has at its disposal vast resources, it would be a better idea to get the rag-pickers organised into cooperatives. By spending a fraction of what an incinerator would cost, you could have chambers at the mouth of the landfill, where the waste enters in a conveyor belt. With adequate protection for the rag-pickers and also an exhaust fan system to pull out the vapours, the ragpickers could sort out the waste, putting recyclables into one set of boxes, toxins into another, and, what is left, on the conveyor belt, which could then be used in the compost pits. India is one step ahead of the west when it comes to recycling wastes. With incinerators, you are taking a leap backwards.

On the myth of waste being turned into domestic fuel:
A professor from a premier engineering institute in Delhi put forth the proposal for making fuel pellets out of wastes by pyrolysis. This would be a disaster! And on a much larger magnitude as compared to even incinerators. Imagine 10 or 20 million households burning these pellets. This would lead to pollution of such a magnitude that right from the pollution monitoring agencies to those in prevention, no one would even know where to start its control. That is the tyranny of small decisions. They add up to a big problem, as users would not feel that they are in any way threatening the health of their children.

On the anti-incinerator campaign in the US; given its high consumption levels, how this is being tackled:
The movement took off in about three years in the early '80s, coinciding with the peaking of incinerator building. By 11, most major environmental groups had rined in making it a national issue. 6allenging over-consumption, however, is not so easy. It is much more difficult to get across to people who are not threatened, as against communities which are. But the ball has started rolling. Earlier, the average person bn the streets had not much idea of recycling resources. Now, recycling is the most respectable thing to talk about. We are making some inroads in industry regarding cleaner technology and production. May be the environmental disaster China is headed for, due to adopting Western, consumerism will open the eyes of us policymakers.

On the chances of an anti-incineration movement in India:
There is a very good chance of it succeeding. You have the added advantage of learning from the West's mistakes and know the existing alternatives. The Indian NGOS I have interacted with seem to have done their homework well, and that is a good sign. If the NGOs network well and exchange information and ideas freely, you could pressurise politicians, and eventually the government, to reconsider the decision on incinerators. Part of the battle is to mobilise the opinion of the local people and bring them into the global network of citizens who want to ensure that the planet is hospitable in the next century.

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