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Landfill Pollution and Fires: Fighting for a lost cause?

Landfill Pollution: India is grappling with a massive environmental crisis as its landfills overflow with waste, leading to a rise in pollution levels and landfill fires. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, India produces a staggering amount of waste, estimated to reach 165 million tonnes by 2030 (Central Pollution Control Board). This waste poses a threat to the environment and the health of the people living in and around these landfill sites.

Landfills in India are like “time bombs”, NGT

Recently, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) expressed serious concern over the fire incidents at landfill sites in the national capital and other cities. The tribunal termed these dumpsites as “time bombs”.

The decomposition of waste in landfills is mainly anaerobic, which produces large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide, making landfills the biggest source of methane emissions. Methane is a highly flammable gas and plays a significant role in the ignition of landfill fires. The presence of any ignitable material at the dumpsite, combined with the heat generated by the methane emissions, can result in massive landfill fires that are hard to control.

India is the largest producer of methane from landfill sites globally, according to GHGSat, which monitors emissions via satellites. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide but is a more potent contributor to the climate crisis because it traps more heat.

The Brahmpuram fire

The disastrous story of the Brahmapuram blaze is a clear indication of the dangerous consequences of a technologically-driven, centralized waste management system. The sprawling 110-acre dump yard in Kochi, Kerala, has been at the centre of controversy since its commencement in 2007. Its “waste-to-energy” avatar, which aimed to generate electricity from waste, has been plagued with problems such as mismanagement, corruption, and environmental degradation.

Moreover, several protests by the people against the Brahmapuram dumpsite have been ignored, resulting in the displacement of the well-established and successful model of local self-government in solid waste management. The dumpsite’s mismanagement and neglect by the government have led to periodic occurrences of massive fires, toxic fumes, and environmental hazards.

The recent fire at Brahmapuram was caused by thick layers of dry plastic waste heaped up for several years. The firefighters failed to contain it even after 12 days of continued efforts. Despite the annual burning incidents and repeated warnings, the Kochi Municipal Corporation (KMC) and surrounding local bodies continued to dump unsegregated waste at Brahmapuram without modernizing the waste treatment facility.
The state government and the corporation have remained tight-lipped over how the fire broke out in the waste management plant, further highlighting their negligence towards the hazardous effects of uncontrolled waste management practices. A decentralized waste management system, focusing on source segregation, recycling, and composting, could be the answer to sustainable waste management. The involvement of local self-government bodies and public participation could ensure effective implementation and monitoring of such initiatives.

Causes of landfill fires

Spontaneous combustion due to chemical oxidation and biological degradation is the primary cause of landfill fires. The heat generated by the decomposition of waste, combined with any flammable material, can lead to combustion. Moisture also plays a role in fast oxidation, and water is necessary for the biological decomposition of organic matter by bacteria present in the waste. In the presence of bacteria, organic matter and water react to produce methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases, along with degraded organic material.

Other causes of landfill fires include indiscriminate dumping of mixed municipal solid waste, hot weather conditions, and failure in dumpsite remediation work.

Delhi Government provisions for landfills in the budget: A step too late to address landfill pollution?

The Delhi Government has unveiled its 2023-24 budget, taking a bold step towards making the city a cleaner, more beautiful, and modern place to live. The Delhi Government’s budget also includes a scheme to clear the three landfills in the city. However, these landfills, have been a major source of pollution and health hazards for nearby residents, and will only the allocation of budget solve the problem, is a major question. The government’s plan also includes measures to promote waste segregation and recycling, which will help to reduce the amount of waste generated in the city.

India’s landfill problem has become a significant environmental issue, and the increasing number of landfill fires is a serious concern. The efficient management of landfills and effective waste management policies are essential to ensure the safe disposal of waste and prevent landfill fires, which pose a severe threat to human health and the environment.

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