Removing Barriers to Sustainable Waste Management in India

Adapted from a joint publication by Clarke Energy and the UK India Business Council

India is the 5th largest economy in the world today with an ambition to become a US$3 trillion economy by 2025, climbing to a position of the 3 rd largest economy in the world. Accompanied by this ambitious target is the fact that by 2022 India will be the most populous nation with its urban population increasing at a rate of 3-3.5% per annum.

Nonetheless, this surge brings about an increase in urbanization, industrialization, and demand across utilities such as food, water, energy, housing, and sanitation. These multifaceted requirements are crucial for economic growth, but what must be ensured is that the economic growth is backed by sustainabile and judicious utilization of natural resources.

As we see today, with the rapid increase in India’s industrial landscape and population, and Government of India’s vision for “Power for All”, the energy demands have grown manifold and the energy consumption for India is expected to surge from the present 6 percent to 11 percent by 2040, while power generation is expected to increase by 207% to 4781 TWh by 2040. To ensure fulfilment of these demands, inevitable pressure will be put on natural resources. Though there is growth in the usage of renewable sources to cater to the growing energy demands, there still will be dependence on coal to a very large extent to be the primary energy source, almost accounting for 80% of the total output by 2040.

It is no doubt that usage of coal to this large extent will only add to India’s growing environmental concerns and augmenting CO2 emissions. Being a signatory to the Paris Agreement and adopting the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India, today must adopt alternative means of energy generation – and one of the key resources here would be “Waste” – the municipal solid waste (MSW) that India generates.

Waste – A Key Resource

Waste management holds an important key to India’s economic development in a sustainable and environment-friendly manner, while also provides a means to effectively utilize the 62 million tons of waste that are annually generated in India. Presently, waste contributes to 0.17% of energy generation from the total capacity of 80 GW, and this presents a huge opportunity for India, where otherwise the waste is largely disposed of in a non-environment-friendly manner in landfills.

Not only from the environmental point of view, waste management and utilization of waste as a sustainable energy resource will lead to preservation of finite natural resources, reduced influence of volatility on electricity charges, and reduced dependence on imports. In parallel it will support India’s technology and innovation space, create opportunities for direct and indirect employment, and augment the clean water and air sanitization efforts in a cost effective and sustainable manner.

Presently methods being used for waste-to-energy (WtE) conversion, work best with dry organic waste. But in a country such as India, where segregation of waste is a challenge and with the presence of mixed waste, technologies such as anaerobic digestion and composting are also gradually gaining ground and should be considered as positive alternatives to achieve the 5,690 MW of energy potential from waste.

The optimal technological solution is one that has the lowest carbon emissions and maximizes recycling and energy recovery. Source-segregation of recyclable materials should be maximized at households and through the engagement of the informal sector. Food waste and readily biodegradable waste should be sent to localized distributed anaerobic digestion facilities, either with renewable electricity, heat and cooling generation facilities, or the production of biomethane for grid injection or vehicles. Composting is optimal for green waste streams that cannot be digested. The remaining stream, subject to having high calorific value, can then be used in smaller efficient WtE (incineration) facilities that can be linked to district cooling schemes.

Also, our learnings from the recent situation of the COVID-19 pandemic showcases the utmost requirement attached to proper hygiene and a sanitized environment as an imperative for the economic environment to remain stable and functional, thus mandating the requirement of environment-friendly solutions and technologies to be used for managing waste and generating energy from waste.

Biowaste Treatment Technology Options

Anaerobic digestion is a biochemical process that utilizes anaerobic bacteria to degrade the organic fraction of waste in the absence of oxygen. This method is very useful for wastes containing a high percentage of moisture (>50%). After digestion, two end-products are released, namely biogas (mainly consisting of methane 55–60% and carbon dioxide 30–45% having energy content of about 20-25 MJ/m3) and a bio-slurry that can be utilized as organic fertilizer. Biomethanation is a solution for processing biodegradable waste, which remains underexploited.

Fig 1: Biogas & Anaerobic Digestion (Source: World Biogas Association)

In addition to the anaerobic digestion process being a net energy-producing process, wherein the renewable fuel can be used for electricity generation, heating purposes and/or biomethane, it also helps eliminates odour-producing, nutrient-rich organic fertilizer, helps maximize recycling, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The World Biogas Association recently published a report “The Global Potential of Biogas”, which highlights the potential of anaerobic digestion technology to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 10-13%.

In comparison to composting, biomethanation requires less land and reduces disposed waste volume to landfills.

Challenges with Biomethanation in Treating MSW

The process of biomethanation appears to be a more reliable and promising technology as it not only aims to solve the problem of organic solid waste, but also provides sustainable energy in the form of biogas. Moreover, it is eco-friendly and less labour intensive.

In India, the process of biomethanation is still unpopular due to lack of due consideration by the government. Of late, composition of the urban solid waste used as a feedstock is the most important determining factor in the process of biomethanation. The most significant types of solid wastes with considerable biomethanation potential are MSW, kitchen waste, garden waste, leave-aside energy crops (maize, grass, sugarcane, etc.), as it brings in discussions of food security over energy security.

Investors, policy makers, and the public could benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of the value of investing in biogas systems and a biogas industry. Greater public support for the adoption of biogas systems could result in more opportunity for biogas development. In addition to lack of awareness of biogas benefits, we share a few of the other challenges:

Policy & Regulatory Issues

In most Indian cities, MSW collection, segregation, transportation, processing and disposal are carried out by the respective municipal corporations, while state governments enforce regulatory policies. In some cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, garbage disposal is done by Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). The private sector has been involved in door-to-door collection of solid waste, street sweeping (in a limited way), secondary storage and transportation, and for treatment and disposal of waste. However, the regulatory framework for the sector has not been updated and equipped with the necessary execution plans or clauses, which mandate effective implementation.

Financial Issues

1. Heavy reliance on government subsidies. Also, Central Finance Assistance for MSW (in segregated form) biogas power plants is Rs. 3.0 crores/MW ($397K per MW) whereas that using incineration or any other thermal technology is Rs. 5.0 crores/MW ($662K per MW).

2. Lukewarm response of banks and financial institutions including weak supply chain.

3. Low level of private sector participation due to lack of market and debt finance for the projects.

4. Difficulties in obtaining long-term Power Purchase Agreement (PPAs) and reasonable tariff from state Discoms.

5. Government’s heavy focus on solar and wind has impacted development of the WtE sector, even though these projects aim to reduce the colossal amount of solid waste accumulating in cities and towns all over India.

Project & Structural Challenges

1. Lack of technical and financial feasibility of the projects – primarily due to improper revenue estimations, waste generator charge collection and estimating contingencies, for e.g. resistance from locals (all WtE technologies are not clean and green), antisocial elements creating hurdles in waste collection and transportation, and availability of realistic risk assessment models.

2. The scale of the problem is unclear, as there is no authentic and reliable data available for waste generation quantities and disposal. In unison, India lacks adequate environmental, technical, and economic performance data related to biogas-system production of energy, coproducts, greenhouse gas and other emissions, and water quality benefits, required market analysis standpoint.

3. Poor town planning and spatial framework to facilitate appropriate distributed waste treatment and energy generation facilities in urban areas.

4. Scarcity of land.

5. Quality of waste – The fundamental reason for the inefficiency of WtE plants is the quality and composition of waste. MSW in India has low calorific value and high moisture content. As most wastes sent to the WtE plants are unsegregated, they also have high inert content. These wastes are just not suitable for burning in the incineration technology driven plants. To burn them additional fuel is required which makes these plants expensive to run.

6. Non-integration of informal sector – One of the largest and most significant stakeholders in waste treatment is the informal or the unorganized sector involving waste pickers/informal rag pickers. They are also the first point of contact responsible for collection and segregation of waste as well. Low levels of awareness within this segment affect the quality of waste generated. Unfortunately, this sector is not managed or controlled by the ULBs or State or Central government, hence it becomes challenging to monitor and manage their activities.

7. Although many people are involved in this sector, solid waste management (SWM) has a lower priority than sanitation, health, and other issues.

8. In India, WtE projects are extremely complicated and expensive to build. In addition to other economic streams, such projects usually require high tipping fees. A tipping fee is what the trash hauler must pay to dump the trash at the facility. With WtE projects, the tipping fee can end up being 50-60% of the overall revenue stack and this money needs to come from municipalities, all of which are not financially selfsufficient.

Technology Challenges

1. Appropriate technology solutions, which are environment-friendly and can treat the quality of mixed waste generated in India, are not economical. The treatment technologies that are available require mechanical separation using trommels, screens air density separators or else manual separation in smaller plants. This adds to project costs.

2. The technology options for WtE are not yet established thus leading to uncertainty with the implementing agencies about the suitability of technologies and preparedness of ULBs for managing these projects.

3. There has been a failure in the incineration plants due to their inability to handle mixed waste. The WtE plants have also triggered widespread criticism among citizens on account of the environmental impact it has.

4. The PPP options that can sustain such technology solutions are insufficient due to lack of funds.


Failure of WtE projects is mainly attributed to non-economic feasibility, lack of sustainable planning, high-cost technologies, non-availability of the required segregated waste, and lack of coordination between the stakeholders.


Central government should evaluate the potential of a tax on the dumping of waste to make sustainable waste treatment technologies more commercially viable.

All the states should have a SWM authority with experts on various aspects of MSW, including selection of appropriate WtE technology suitable for the different types of waste composition, contracting, financial management, along with the overall long-term carbon emission reduction potential of a given scheme.

This authority may be made responsible for the following:

  • Document the status of SWM and create a mechanism for continuous update of the status.
  • Assess the correct situation of MSW in the municipal areas within a state and identify the gaps that need to be bridged.
  • Prepare norms for assessing the requirement of tools, equipment, vehicle, manpower for collection and transportation of waste, and for setting up processing and disposal facilities as per guidelines outlined.

All municipal corporations should have MSW Management Departments alongside minimum technical and supervisory staff to ensure efficient MSW service delivery and strengthen ULBs to enter contracts. At their level:

  • Efforts should be made to educate the waste generators to minimize the waste and segregate the waste at source.
  • Informal and unorganized sector should be assimilated in this process and awareness amongst them should be created on proper waste collection and segregation methodology. They play an important role in SWM within the country.
  • Separate arrangements for collection, transportation of domestic, trade, institutional and market waste should be made to ensure that such waste is directly delivered at the waste processing facility meant for biodegradable and recyclable waste.
  • Improvements to be made to town planning. Suitable sites should be earmarked at local level for the development of sustainable waste treatment infrastructure.


  • Different technologies for treating different kinds of waste are available in the market. Applying all the possible technologies in an integrated way can help to reach the goals of sustainability. Therefore, open dumping and unsanitary landfilling are not sustainable options and cannot be recommended for treating waste.
  • Increase in quantum and complexity of waste with increase in population, economy of the country and fluctuations in crude prices have demanded serious consideration of biomethanation technology implementation, wherein high calorific value biogas generated can be used for electricity and/or as transportation fuel.

With proper MSW management facilities, the Government of India, other ministries and nodal agencies involved in this sector have the opportunity to improve the living condition of urban people, improve public health, conserve resources, mitigate GHG emissions and generate energy by adopting appropriate technology.

Also, rapid depletion of non-renewable energy resources and the threat of global climate change have forced the energy sector in India to look for alternative sources of energy to generate enough energy and preserve the environment at the same time. Unfortunately, the technology for utilization of green energy remains very expensive or unable to satisfy India’s need for energy, or both. There is, however, one alternative source of energy which has great potential when it comes to efficient power generation at acceptable cost – biogas.

Utilization of biogas for electricity and/or biomethane will bring in various other stakeholders into consideration and other challenges, an aspect not covered under this article.

For detailed data and references, please refer to the White Paper titled “Removing Barriers to Sustainable Municipal Solid Waste Management Using Anaerobic Digestion” available on link



Abhijit Rajguru, Clarke Energy

Alex Marshall, Clarke Energy

Surbhi Mathur, UK India Business Council




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