The incinerator is one of two projects in New Delhi aimed at turning the city’s trash into electricity and earning carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate pact designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Local politicians have hailed the projects for addressing the city’s chronic problems of excess untreated waste and a shortage of electric power.
But for almost 300,000 workers in the city engaged in waste collection, sorting and recycling, the plants mean the loss of their livelihood.
“If all the trash goes to the plants to be processed, how do we feed our stomachs?” Kumar said as foul-smelling fumes rose from the trash and dark-brown water trickled past him. “My work may look dirty, but it keeps my family alive.”
A worldwide campaign
Waste-worker communities have mobilized in Brazil, Colombia, South Africa and India to campaign on behalf of trash dumps and the livelihoods they provide, and against the idea of burning waste. The United Nations, however, has been encouraging incinerator projects that burn waste — rotting trash produces the potent greenhouse gas methane — to produce energy.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, nations can earn carbon credits for such projects; the credits can be used to offset the emissions of coal-fired power plants elsewhere.
This month, hundreds of waste workers gathered outside the U.N. office in New Delhi to protest 21 municipal waste projects for which India has applied for carbon credit. The projects, not all completed, use biodegradable, combustible and inert waste. They include trash-to-compost, incinerators and refuse-derived fuel.
Waste-worker groups appealed to climate negotiators when they met in Mexico, Germany and China in the past year, and they are preparing to protest at the climate meeting in Durban, South Africa, set to begin next week.
Waste workers want access to the United Nations’ $30 billion Green Climate Fund — the effort by developed countries to help the developing world prepare for climate change — for their role in mitigating climate change by recovering recyclable materials from waste.
But advocates of the trash-
to-energy projects say that India’s growing population, changing consumption patterns and urban boom have created a waste problem that must be addressed in a scientific manner.
“It is not an us-versus-them situation. We must frame the debate differently. Do we want the ragpickers to continue working in inhuman, hell-on-Earth, unhygienic conditions at these untreated dump sites? Should their sons and daughters do the same, too?” asked Mahesh Babu, chief executive of IL&FS Ecosmart, which heads several trash-to-energy projects across India, including the incinerator near Kumar’s neighborhood. “The solution lies in integrating some of the waste-workers into the processing activities of the plants.”