Just a day before this interview with The Free Press Journal, Masood Mallick, Joint Managing Director of Ramky Enviro (REEL), had gone to check on REEL’s Hyderabad waste management plant. He explains how he is amazed and proud every time he sees that plant as the plant is running at a 90 per cent load factor from the first month of operation.
In his 25 years of working in in the field of environment management services, he has seen hundreds of plants fail but very few run successfully. But he thinks every plant that failed in the country taught him a lot and helped him understand more about waste management and its nitty-gritty.
In an interview with The Free Press Journal’s Jescilia Karayamparambil and R N Bhaskar, Mallick talks about the industry and the work his company has done despite many failures that came in their way.
Given below are edited excerpts:
What has been REEL’s journey in the waste-to-energy front?
Waste to energy is not new to India. For the last 30 years and longer, efforts have been made to make waste-to-energy opportunities into a viable and scalable model both from the waste management and energy recovery standpoint.
Waste to energy is not really about making power but it is about management of waste. It is about recovering value from its energy potential.
Over the last decade, I have tracked around 100 waste-to-energy projects in India. I have also worked on India’s first Municipal waste-to-energy project in New Delhi (in the 1990’s). It was one of the high-profile failures on the waste-to-energy front. This was an internationally-funded project. Some lessons were learnt through this failure like putting silt or dirt which has no calorific value (calling it waste) will not generate energy; that one cannot import technology directly from overseas and execute it in the country and other such lessons. These failures have been a tipping point.
There are only five operational waste to energy plants in India as on date.
Of these, only three facilities have achieved steady state operation, i.e. are operating on a daily basis, in line with design capacity.
Two out of these three have been developed by REEL, including the 24 MW plant in Bawana, Delhi, which is largest in the country and the recently commissioned plant at Hyderabad.
In addition to these operational facilities, REEL has a number of other waste to energy projects in development stage in southern, central and northern India, with a combined capacity of close to 150MW.
Today, we are managing 6.5 million tonnes of waste across the country. This is by far the largest any agency is managing in the country.
How are these waste-to-energy plants viable for institutions like you?
Waste to energy in the waste management ecosystem could be the most sustainable solution but not necessarily the cheapest solution. To look at waste-to-energy solely as a power generation utility is incorrect. This is one reason why many plants that made it on paper could not make it on the ground. Then some plants have been built, but only a few have seen the light of the day in terms of commissioning.
A waste-to-energy project has to be an integrated part of municipal solid waste management of a city or a catchment. Another reason for supporting waste management is to conserve land by preventing more and more use of land as landfill sites.
For us at Ramky, our aim through waste management is to make the minimal amount of landfill residue.
So, waste management needs to be looked at primarily as a means to manage waste, looking at waste to generate energy should be secondary.
Thus, without a tipping fee as part of the value chain, a project cannot survive.
Is the zero landfill policy possible for India?
It is absolutely possible for India.
This is possible for a country like India, where the population is large and which has a high population density.
As the population continues to grow and the land availability shrinks, we have to find a solution where there is no further need for landfills.
I believe that these decades of learning and trying to find a sustainable model, can allow us to move to zero landfill future. I am optimistic about that future.
The future where the segregation is taking place at the source. While people blame plastics, there are large quantities of construction debris which also make it to the landfills. There is a need to make debris and all the other components of solid waste a part of the circular economy.
The zero landfill policy is possible in India but again you need to have the right policies, technologies that are specific to the country, various collaborations etc. You also need a policy which gets the waste generator to pay for the waste generated. That is the polluter pays principle. The policy should include encouraging the waste generators to segregate waste at the source, and for which the municipal corporations will have to give them incentives.
What makes India unique in the waste it produces?
India is a unique society.
Firstly, in Indian culture, we do not throw away anything if it is reusable. Secondly, after the first round of recovery which takes place at home, the other set of recovery is conducted by others in the ecosystem, before it reaches our facilities.
Thus, Indian waste is unique in a sense that it is picked of potential value by everyone in the supply chain. So, usually, we get no-value waste and waste that has tough-to-manage residues.
It is said that if we can manage waste in India, then we can go to any part of the world and rock. It is with this confidence that we have entered South-East Asia and the Middle East.
Do you support decentralised systems?
We support decentralised systems. The reason is there is no one size fits all. If we are serving a catchment, then we need to serve it uniquely. In terms of catchments and components of waste, the decentralisation system is the right thing to do.
In India, we have to look for the future that is 'bin-less' as every bin is an opportunity for spillage, for the stink to happen, and for public health and hygiene to get compromised.
The bulk transfer stations have to be decentralised. So that there is a collection point in each area. The collection point has to be enclosed and equipped to allow for compaction of waste.
The aggregation of waste has to be a decentralised solution. A large number of collection points which are technology-enabled are needed in large cities.
The decentralisation of waste transfer points is an answer. I will not take vegetable waste to an energy plant, it is the best feedstock for bio-methanation. So, rather use in bio-digesters.
Large cities where there are traffic constraints, there is a need to have multiple collection and transfer points where compaction happens.
Large cities require four-five waste processing facilities in different directions. So, the cost of transport is also optimised. It is estimated around 75 per cent of the municipality bill goes in transferring the waste. There is a need to decentralise some components and yet centralise some components — and they have to work together.
Land is an issue in this system. How do you address it?
There are two acronyms that are governing this whole issue — NIMBY (not in my backyard) and NIMET (not in my elected term). One is a social response and the other one is the political response to waste management. These two terms regulate the waste management industry in India today.
In every city, there is something called garbage vulnerable points (GVPs). It is usually a small parcel of land that is government land that exists between two buildings where people dump waste or at street corners that become accumulation points for waste. These points are everywhere in every city. So, we propose to authorities that do not give us land but give us those GVPs. There we can create bright little facilities where there is no visible waste, smell, spillage etc and we will use that for decentralised compaction of waste.
So by giving those small parcels, I will try and ensure that waste does not go into landfill. The more recycling takes place the less the need for landfill.
How did COVID-19 impact you?
It is a seminal event for everyone.
In March when the lockdown happened, we had to enable 20,000 of Ramky employees to start operations. It took us 48 hours to reach 90 per cent of employee mobilisation across the country. All our employees came forward on their own. As an organisation, we had to look at the mandate first and the contract or commercials later.
We do not just collect municipal waste, but we are the largest bio-medical waste managers, and industrial waste managers in India. We mobilised all our divisions during the lockdown.
We provided transport, accommodation, insurance cover and allowance to our employees.
In places, where our people wanted to come to work and could not come, we provided transport. There were cases where people who came to work but were worried that their communities would not allow them back home. So, we gave them accommodation. We gave insurance cover to our team and provided an allowance to make their life easy.
Society appreciated the efforts of our people on their own even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s call asking citizens to celebrate sanitation's workers.
We had to locally and internationally source the PPE. At that point in time, there was no ecosystem in the country for the kit.
The impact of COVID-19 was severe from a financial standpoint but we are proud of the efforts our team undertook. COVID-19 has been economically and commercially difficult for us as cost went off the roof but we had to continue with the services. Our industry changed forever due to COVID-19 as people now respected our employees and their efforts.
How much percent rise did you witness in bio-medical waste?
The increase was significant. However, waste characteristic changed gradually.
We have around 21 operating bio-medical waste facilities. As COVID-19 waste quantities went up, the smaller healthcare clinics, nursing homes etc were closed and that waste stopped coming to us. So initially, there was no problem.
In the beginning, COVID-19 waste generation was only 30 per cent higher and there was a drop of 30 per cent of waste generated by the small healthcare facilities that were not operating. As the number of COVID-19 patients increased — large facilities and quarantine facilities came up — waste started to increase astronomically. However, the efforts of the central and state governments helped us explore various options.
As we are into industrial waste management, we were able to process bio-medical waste in our industrial waste facilities as the government allowed the use of industrial facilities for managing bio-medical waste.
We are not facing an issue meeting that demand. A large number of facilities that are unable to handle their waste are using our facilities today. In the waste management field, there are very few large players like us, so we are helping smaller facilities by taking their waste. We are supporting our competition basically. We have kept aside commerce during COVID-19 period.