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Tackling India’s towering landfills takes cultural innovation

April 3, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
In Delhi, India, the capital of the world's fastest growing economy, there's a towering symbol of the environmental cost of development: tons of festering, toxic trash, piled up 10 stories high, with more and more added every day. Efforts have been made to turn that trash into energy-producing fuel, but cultural hurdles remain. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

JOHN YANG: Now: a look at how the world’s second most populous country is trying to deal with pollution.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro looks at how Delhi, India, is trying to cope with tons of municipal waste in a city of more than 20 million.

Fred’s report is part of our Breakthrough series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In India’s capital, new housing sprawls as far as the eye can see, a symbol of the world’s fastest growing major economy.

There also are towering symbols of the environmental cost of all this. Just look for the birds. Under thousands of hovering vultures are the city’s landfills. This is one of three covering some 70 acres in a low-income area called Ghazipur.

I’m standing near the top of the Ghazipur landfill site, an accumulation by now of more than 10 million tons of waste. It’s more than 10 stories high. Behind me, it towers over the surrounding skyline. And trucks are all around here, bringing in an additional 2,000 tons of unsorted garbage every day.

MAHESH BABU, Managing Director, IL & FS Company: You can’t dump more in that mountain there.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Mahesh Babu heads an infrastructure company that’s been contracted by Delhi’s government to tackle a trash problem that he says is a crisis at many levels.

MAHESH BABU: Keep in mind Delhi is on the seismic zone. So, you are really…

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: If you had an earthquake here, God forbid.

MAHESH BABU: Yes. You have an earthquake, you will have that mound just sliding down.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And even without an earthquake, he says the festering garbage is toxic. Methane from the dump explodes daily in dozens of spontaneous fires that spew toxins into the air, while a stew of heavy metals and organic and inorganic pollutants washes into the soil when it rains and into Delhi’s main river.

MAHESH BABU: Yes, the dark liquid right here is what we call leachate.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Babu showed me a sample of this so-called leachate.

MAHESH BABU: What we do is basically treat it, so that it removes all the toxic impurities.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But of the millions of tons that are not treated yet, this is the stuff that’s going into the Yamuna River.

MAHESH BABU: Especially during monsoon.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The centerpiece of his company’s approach is a year-old $60 million power plant that converts waste to energy, which is sent to the electric grid. It is ramping up to burn 2,000 tons of trash per day, which means the city may not need to add to the landfill, though it won’t immediately reduce its size.

MAHESH BABU: India has close to 50 cities which are more than a million people. So, waste energy of this kind makes a lot of sense in those kind of settings.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This isn’t the first attempt at creating energy from waste. And previous ones haven’t worked, says Delhi-based environmental activist Sunita Narain.

SUNITA NARAIN, Center for Science and Enviornment: The key reason for failure has been the inability to sort and segregate the waste which is then used for incineration. Now, if you don’t sort and segregate adequately, you both have very toxic emissions that come out of the plant, but you also have very poor quality of fuel that is generated.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ideally that kind of sorting should happen in homes, organics, metals, paper and plastics. But Narain says there’s a cultural hurdle. Waste has been the domain of people on the lowest rung of the age-old social hierarchy, or caste system, not the middle classes who generate most of it.

SUNITA NARAIN: We are a caste-ist society. And we would like to treat waste as somebody else’s problems. You get it out of your home, and then somebody else deals with it. The state is never asking us to segregate. And it doesn’t put the onus and the responsibility on households.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Instead, the government pays a higher rate for electricity coming out of the Ghazipur plant, so workers can be hired to segregate the refuse when it gets here. But once sorted, Babu says, there’s plenty of added value.

MAHESH BABU: We’re looking at converting biodegradables into organic fertilizer. The combustibles, we convert into energy. So the idea is really to glean as much value as possible from this.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In time, he says, there are plans by his company and others to chip away at the landfill and actually reduce its size, repurposing some of the waste as road construction material, for instance.

At the plant, combustible trash is dried and incinerated. Babu says the effluent passes through sophisticated filters and scrubbers.

MAHESH BABU: Our particulate matter is less than 10 parts per million, which is the standard in Europe. So, because we’re located so close to these houses here, the idea is to ensure that whatever comes out of our stack is absolutely clean and clear.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Neighbors invited to the power plant say they have already seen an improvement since it became operational, a massive buffer between their homes and the dump site.

MAN (through interpreter): Before, you got out of the house and looked at a huge pile of garbage. Now we look at this.

WOMAN (through interpreter): It really was unbearable during the rainy season. It was so smelly and dirty. Now we can even have the door open and sit outside.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But for another nearby community, the power plant represents a threat. Hundreds of so-called rag pickers forage for plastics, glass and any reusable items they can sell, risking their health and the wrath of authorities to eke out a livelihood. They’re not legally supposed to be here.

For them, the company has set up a preschool and an arts and craft center. The petals of discarded flowers from a nearby florist are used to create greeting cards and other artwork. Mahesh Babu hopes more rag pickers will choose the new alternative. He says helping these marginalized people is in his company’s interest.

MAHESH BABU: We believe that, unless they are mainstreamed, the profitability of the main project is always under a cloud. Everywhere possible, we have tried to integrate people into our mainstream project itself, so that then they have a sense of ownership.

Otherwise, we have a number of people who will and try to bring the project to a halt. But if they are part of the project, the chances of success increase exponentially.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the long term, he and environmentalists agree that projects like this have to succeed, and that will require a broad cultural shift. The country has no more room to bury its trash, Babu says, and runs of risk of being buried by it.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in New Delhi.

JOHN YANG: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.