India is all set to convert its trash to treasure as it gears up, albeit a bit slowly, to strengthen its waste-to-energy sector and boost recycling and reuse - with one expert estimating the annual earnings from biofuel alone at Rs 50,000 crore ($11 billion).
Aiding India's transition to green technology are a host of European and American consultants with economically viable and eco-friendly solutions.
"There will be three-fold benefits in terms of environment protection, economy and optimising use of space," Amiya Kumar Sahu, president of the National Solid Waste Association of India, told IANS at the recently concluded IFAT here - India's leading trade fair for water, sewage, refuse and recycling.
IFAT India hosted more than 100 exhibitors with 56 percent participation from abroad, including European nations like Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands and representatives from the US.
Cappozzo Filippo, owner of the Italian recycling solution provider EcoStar Recycling Technologies - that is in use in seven Indian states - pointed out India's advantageous position in terms of procuring state-of-the art environmental engineering technology.
"You need not invest so much in research and development...you can benefit by directly getting the best available systems. You are starting at the highest level in terms of technology...no going through trial and error. Besides most of India's waste treatment is not designed for municipal solid waste (MSW)," Filippo pointed out.
Atul Narayan Vaidya, senior principal scientist with the solid and hazardous waste management unit of Nagpur's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) agreed.
"It's not that indigenous technologies are not there, but most of them are of the old-school variety and cannot be applied to MSW which is the primary waste in our country. The foreign companies have been doing this for years and are superior," Vaidya told IANS over the phone.
As per a World Bank report, India generates 110,000 tonnes of MSW per day and the numbers are only increasing.
This translates into a potent revenue source, said Ranabir Das, chief executive, Cogen Systems, which represents the US-based Green Power Inc (GPI) in India.
The company has developed a technique for converting MSW into clean fossil-free fuel (a type of synthetic diesel) and operates not by selling technology but builds plants for investors or municipal waste processors.
"This amount of MSW is equivalent to 30 million litres of diesel fuel per day. Therefore, per year it will be 10,000 million litres approximately. In rupee terms, at around Rs.50 per litre, gross earnings in sale of fuel to the central government would be approximately Rs.50,000 crores per year."
Although the Indian government has recognised the waste-to-energy sector as a renewable technology and has allocated nearly Rs 200 crore ($44.5 million), it's still in the nascent stage but things are slowly picking up, Sahu pointed out.
"What countries like Germany did 10 to 20 years ago we are doing now. There is enormous potential in waste being converted to power to fulfil the energy deficit. Advanced technology from abroad has a big role to play in taking it forward in India. The Indian government also needs to push it more," he added.
According to Jens-Jakob Vahl, project director of Nuremberg's Envi Con and Plant Engineering consultancy, it's a "win-win situation" for India, taking environmental concerns and paucity of space into consideration.
Dumping of garbage in landfills pollutes the air and results in the run-off of toxic materials into the groundwater. Instead of letting it sit, occupy precious space and wreak health havoc, the waste can be converted to biogas for fuel and energy in special plants like those built by Vahl's company.
But can India really afford to support such ambitious projects with its shaky economy?
"Yes, it can, because you need not buy all the parts of the plant from us. Certain components are manufactured indigenously in India...for example the boilers are of good quality. You can use your own components in the waste treatment plants. The ones that are not produced here can be sourced from us," Vahl explained.
Vaidya said it will take "substantial amount of time" before India can augment its solid waste disposal technology and till then, to drive its alternative energy initiatives, sourcing tried and tested products from abroad is the way to go.
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