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What do Waste-to-Energy Projects Do?

Mar 26, 2023

Waste-to-Energy Projects Do

Today’s edition of our Current Affairs will comprise a discussion on What do waste-to-energy projects do. Read further to upgrade your UPSC CSE knowledge and also understand the topic’s relevance to the UPSC syllabus.

For Prelims: General Science

Solid waste management, Waste-to-energy projects, non-recyclable dry waste, biodegradable organic waste, non-biodegradable dry waste

For Mains: GS Paper III (Science and Technology- developments and their application and effects in everyday life.)

What do waste-to-energy projects do?, Various waste-to-energy systems, Disadvantages of waste-to-energy plants, Why do waste-to-energy plants often fail?, How can these plants overcome these challenges?


The state of Kerala recently announced the first waste-to-energy project, which will be located in Kozhikode.

Probable Question

Waste-to-energy plants can be the panacea for solid waste management. Comment.  (150 words, 10 marks)

About the Waste-to-Energy Projects

  • Non-recyclable dry waste is used in waste-to-energy projects to produce electricity. 
  • Significance: The process increases the State’s power generation capacity and eases the solid waste management (SWM) burden.
  • In India, solid waste is typically composed of 15% silt, stones, and drain waste, and 55–60% biodegradable organic waste that can be turned into organic compost or biogas.
  • Only 2-3% of the dry non-biodegradable waste, which includes hard plastics, metals, and e-waste, can be recycled.  
  • The remainder is made up of non-recyclable materials like low-grade plastic, rags, and cloth. The most difficult part of the current SWM system is this portion of non-recyclable dry waste; the presence of these materials also lowers the efficacy of recycling other dry and wet waste.
  • This portion is used to produce electricity by waste-to-energy plants. The heat produced by the combustion of the waste is then used to create electricity.
  • Major cities' waste-to-energy facilities might also use some of the nearby urban local bodies' (ULBs') non-recyclable dry waste produced.

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Various Waste-to-Energy Systems

  • Incineration: When hazardous materials are burned at temperatures high enough to kill contaminants, the process is known as incineration. In order to burn dangerous materials in a combustion chamber, a type of furnace called an "incinerator" is used for incineration.
  • Anaerobic digestion: In an oxygen-free environment, microorganisms break down biomass during anaerobic digestion. It generates methane-rich biogas that can be used as a fuel source to create electricity and other products.
  • Distillation and fermentation: Biomass can be fermented to produce ethanol. Then, you can use this as an alternative fuel for vehicles or other devices. This can only be applied to waste streams that are similar to organic waste.
  • Gasification: By processing biomass at extremely high temperatures without combustion, gasification—also known as syngas—produces combustible natural gas. The gas is then utilized as fuel.

Disadvantages of Waste-to-Energy Plants

  • High emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
  • There is less chance of recycling biodegradables because waste segregation is so low.
  • As the global north finds it more cost-effective to send its waste to the global south for processing, it encourages an unregulated waste trade.  

Why do Waste-to-Energy Plants Often Fail?

While waste-to-energy plants seem like a simple solution, they have several challenges before becoming feasible.

First: The Low Calorific Value of Solid Waste in India

  • This results from unequal segregation. Mixed Indian waste has a calorific value of roughly 1,500 kcal/kg, which makes it unsuitable for power production.  Around 8,000 kcal/kg is the calorific value of coal.  Due to its high moisture content, biodegradable waste should be composted rather than used for energy production.
  • Segregated and dried non-recyclable dry waste has a much higher calorific value, ranging from 2,800 to 3,000 kcal/kg, which is sufficient to produce electricity. To guarantee that the waste arriving at the facility has this calorific value, segregation should be streamlined—ideally at the source, if not at the processing plant.

Second: The High Costs of Energy Production

  • The price at which the States' electricity boards purchase electricity from coal, hydroelectric, and solar power plants is roughly Rs 3–4/unit, compared to the cost of producing power from waste, which is around Rs 7-8/unit. State electricity boards are considering buying energy from more renewable energy sources, such as waste-to-energy, but the cost of the power produced must be cut in half.

Third: Various Other Reasons

  • Numerous waste-to-energy projects have fallen short due to flawed analyses, unrealistic expectations, poor characterization studies, and other local circumstances.
  • Only non-recyclable dry waste, which makes up about 25% of all waste, can be used for waste-to-energy projects, and they are also expected to use only segregated non-recyclable dry waste, the only kind of waste with a high enough calorific value.
  • However, in practice, it is frequently required of these projects to manage all types of waste produced in the city, which is bad for the projects.

Also read: What are the Challenges of Adopting Green Hydrogen Technology?

How Can These Plants Overcome These Challenges?

  • Setting up waste-to-energy projects is difficult and requires the complete cooperation of the local government, the State, and the populace. 
  • The municipality must make sure that only non-biodegradable dry waste is delivered to the facility and must handle the other types of waste separately in order to meet its many challenges.
  • Due to the high cost of energy production, the municipality or the department in charge of SWM should be realistic and include the State electricity department, possibly through a tripartite agreement between the municipality, the plant operator, and the power distribution agency. Additionally essential are field studies and learning from past projects' mistakes.


Infrastructure for waste processing is a good way to handle the mountains of waste that Indian cities generate.  However, for such projects to be successful, the municipality, the people who live there, and the State must all work together.

News Source: The Hindu


Frequently Asked Questions:

Which is India's first waste-to-energy plant?

India's first waste-to-energy facility is the Timarpur Okhla Municipal Solid Waste Management Plant, a project of the Jindal ITF Ecoplis and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

What are waste-to-energy conversion projects?

The phrase "waste to energy" (WTE) refers to a number of technologies that turn non-recyclable waste into usable energy sources, such as heat, fuels, and electricity. Numerous methods, including incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery, can result in WTE.

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