"Future of solid waste management not in landfills", experts say

The article below has been published in The Times of India on June 13, 2017. IHE Delft experts Maarten Siebel and Eric Hullenbusch claim that such sites should be banned as the residue leeches into groundwater table which in turn leads to contamination of water.

At a time when Pune's solid waste management has caused much stink, set ting residents of Phur sungi and Urali Devachi -the two villages that have borne the brunt of the city's refuse since 1991-on a war path unwilling to take it anymore, here is an expert opinion that may be music to their ears. Two visiting scientists from the Netherlands-based UNESCO-IHE DELFT Institute for Water Education, say that landfills need to be banned and garbage recycling should be the way forward.

“Each landfill that is not engineered correctly is a case study, as the liquid residue ends up in the ground water. On the other hand, the greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and air pollution, and the gases pose as a fire hazard. Landfills should be banned. There is no need to hide the waste generated. Waste can be harnessed to produce biogas and for compost,“ pointed out Maarten Sie bel, associate professor of environmental biotechnology at the institute.

Reinforcing this contention, his colleague, Eric van Hullebusch, professor of environmental science and technology explained energy can be harnessed from the waste that fills the landfills. It is important to segregate and recycle. “It is possible to get back 70 percent of the waste (resource recovery) into the economy. It will take around 2 years for it to happen in Europe,“ he said.

The duo were in town as part of a solid waste management workshop being held for experts, environmentalists and entrepreneurs from East Africa and South East Asia by UNESCO-IHE DELFT (Netherlands) and Five Elements Environment Ventures (FEEV) a research organisation. Maarten has trained university staff in the area of waste management in India, China, Indonesia and Guatemala. He has also developed a sustainable water management system for the West Bank of Palestine and concentrating on cleaning up family-size tanneries that are discharging their toxic wastewater in the Bogota River. Hullebusch's area of interest is wastewater treatment for pollution control and resource recovery, investigation of the role of living organisms on the weath ering of materials and minerals and soil remediation.

“People need to understand that waste is a resource. An attitude of common responsibility towards resources is required and the law enforcement needs to have penalties and corrective measures. At the research level, solutions to over 90 percent of the several waste categories are present, but people's cooperation is required for applications to take off at the ground level,“ Siebel elaborated.

The Kyoto Protocol that allowed investors in developed countries to invest in developing nations, to earn emission credits was a move to steering things in this direction. However, Siebel bemoaned, “The system is almost dead, everyone was excited at the conference but it was a politically motivated strategy.“ Underscoring the advancements made by developed nations, Hallebusch illustrated how adoption of anaerobic ammonium oxidation -which is the biological process of turning nitrite and ammonia to di-nitrogen has been instrumental in getting clean water. “The process was adopted by North European, Scandinavian and parts of Europe around 15 years ago, the process requires less energy for purification of water,“ he explained.

Countries such as India are far from these pursuits. In fact, Siebel finds the quality of water in this country's waterways comparable to that in the canals and riverine system of Amsterdam, as it was in the 1950s. “In the Fifties and Sixties the canals of Amsterdam were filled with garbage and the low levels of oxygen depleted the population of salmon in them. The rising of population of this eco-sensitive fish is an indicator of the improved quality of water,“ he said.

Hullebusch suggested reusing treated waste water for irrigation instead of fresh water, which otherwise puts additional strain on the availability of the limited potable water. Limited access to natural resources makes for conflicts among neighbours in the fight for survival. Siebel pointed out that Palestine has one of the lowest per capita water available, yet its usage of the precious resource has made all the difference. “Wasting resources just because of abundant supply is not the way. In the global scenario, recycling holds the key to survival,“ he added.