Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Is corporate hypocrisy fuelling plastic waste crime?



While you were quarantined, plastic waste piles have been growing exponentially around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment and a massive spike in the use of single-use plastics due to hygiene fears over reusable alternatives. Even before the pandemic, the global plastic waste production had steadily increased by 10 million metric tons every year in the 2010’s decade, to reach almost 360 million metric tons per year in 2018. Plastic waste is pouring out into the natural world at a rate of 8 million tonnes a year, or one garbage truck per minute.

A new report ‘Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions’ from The Changing Markets Foundation alleges that for decades the oil industry, consumer brands and retailers have proactively obstructed and undermined proven legislative solutions to the plastic crisis. The report points out that one of the key tactics of the corporations has been to saddle ‘litterbug’ consumers with most of the blame — and public authorities with most of the cost, even as they lobby at every level to fight against proven solutions, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that would drive mandatory collection of packaging, policies to increase reuse and phase out of certain problematic plastic types or products, as that would require them to take on the true costs of plastic pollution.

Even the much-touted voluntary initiatives and commitments are a farce and nothing but a tactic to delay and derail progressive legislation — all while distracting consumers and governments with empty promises and false solutions. The report has critically analysed voluntary commitments from the 10 biggest plastic polluters (Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever), who have a joint plastic footprint of almost 10 million tonnes per year.

All these companies are complicit in spreading the false narrative of recycling. For example, Coca-Cola, responsible for 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution per year, had committed to using at least 50 percent recycled material in its packaging by 2030. Currently, the company reports that recycled content makes up about 10 percent of its total plastic-packaging volume.

Meanwhile, our landfills are groaning under the weight of the plastic waste, our waterways are choked, dumpsites are burning relentlessly adding toxicity to our already polluted air and marginalised communities are left to deal with tonnes of waste that is not of their making.

Interestingly, a recent Interpol strategic report on global plastic waste management has found an alarming increase in illegal plastic pollution trade across the world since 2018. Difficulties in treating and monitoring the plastic waste surplus in both export and import countries have opened doors for opportunistic crime in the plastic waste sector, both in terms of illegal trade and of illegal waste treatment.

According to the Interpol report, plastic waste processing is a high-value market, providing business opportunities and revenue through energy recovery (via incineration) and raw material generation (via recycling). The global recycled plastics market alone was valued at $34.80 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $50.36 billion by 2022 — not counting the traditional waste processing market, including incineration and landfill.

The plastic waste market entails processing costs at different stages of the plastic waste value chain, notably infrastructure and labour costs, as well as taxation, especially taxes imposed on incineration and landfill in countries that encourage recycling. Plastic waste crime consists of efforts to reduce or circumvent those costs, or to make profit by charging those costs to clients.

The report goes on to say that waste criminals have proven to adapt their modus operandi to regulation changes fast and criminal trends have shown rapid evolutions in the past couple years. Moreover, when changes are not well regulated, they offer opportunities for new criminal businesses to grow.

Reading these two reports together paints a deadly picture of corporate irresponsibility on one hand and illegal waste trade on another that has almost certainly allowed illegal recycling facilities to thrive, that are profiting by circumventing license costs and environmentally sound treatment costs.

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at the Changing Markets Foundation, sums it up, “The voluntary initiatives and commitments by the industry have failed. Policymakers should look past the industry smokescreen and adopt proven, progressive legislation globally to create the systemic change that this crisis so urgently needs.”

Shailendra Yashwant is senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Views are personal.

First published on 23 September 2020 on MoneyControl

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Coal ash is a serious hazard to our health and the environment

 India has to strictly regulate the disposal of toxic fly ash from coal-fired power plants to minimise environmental and health risks to local communities

An earthmover levelling a fly ash pond in Korba, Chhattisgarh, to make way for more coal ash from power plants (Photo by Ishan Tankha/Clean Air Collective)

An earthmover levelling a fly ash pond in Korba, Chhattisgarh, to make way for more coal ash from power plants (Photo by Ishan Tankha/Clean Air Collective)

While a lot of attention is given to the mining and burning of coal that leads to huge carbon emissions, the dangers of fly ash, the residue left after coal is burnt in thermal power plants, have received less public attention, despite the risks to our health and to the environment.

A new report released last week — Coal Ash in India – A Compendium of Disasters, Environmental and Health Risks — seeks to remedy that. It shines a spotlight on 76 major coal ash pond accidents between 2010 and June 2020 that have caused deaths and loss of property and have resulted in extensive pollution of nearby water sources, air and soil.

Fly ash is left behind when coal is burnt. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of fly ash, which contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, nickel and lead, among others. These are known to cause cancer, lung and heart ailments and neurological damage, and contribute to premature mortality.

Published by Healthy Energy Initiative India and Community Environmental Monitoring, Chennai, the report claims that the accidents it has complied form just the tip of the iceberg as many incidents of fly ash spills go unreported, though they occur on a regular basis.

Despite several policy and regulatory interventions, coal ash management in India remains a challenge. Power utilities usually store the coal ash in landfills or unlined ponds close to water bodies and rivers. Breaches in the landfills and ash ponds frequently lead to environmental contamination, damaging local ecosystems and harming the health of local communities.

Unregulated disposal

Since coal ash is not classified as hazardous waste, there are no guidelines to regulate its disposal or measure the leaching of chemicals from it into water bodies and groundwater.

“In 2000, the classification of fly ash was shifted from the category of hazardous industrial waste to the category of waste material, without any supporting health-based scientific rationale for the re-categorisation,” said Dharmesh Shah, public policy analyst and co-author of the report.

Coal ash dumped by power plants on agricultural land in Gharghoda, Chhattisgarh (Photo by Manshi Asher)

Coal ash dumped by power plants on agricultural land in Gharghoda, Chhattisgarh (Photo by Manshi Asher)

India generated 217.04 million tonnes of ash in 2018-19, of which only 168 million tonnes (77.5%) was utilised, according to the Central Electricity Authority.

“The term utilisation is a misnomer for some of the uses like filling of low-lying area reclamation and mine void filling are means of disposal that are prohibited under the environment clearance conditions for power plants,” claimed Shah.

Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have the highest concentrations of coal-fired thermal power plants, and top the list of coal ash accidents, according to the report.

In the most recent incident in April 2020, a breach in the fly ash dyke of Reliance Power-owned Sasan plant in the Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh led to fly ash slurry entering nearby farms and villages, resulting in the death of six people. The Madhya Pradesh pollution watchdog sought an interim compensation of INR 100 million (USD 1.34 million) from the company and asked it to start remedial and restoration work within 14 days.

In July, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed a petitioner, who sought plant closure and cancellation of environmental clearance to the Sasan plant, to approach a monitoring committee on the issue.

Environmental harm

The report has many such incidents of environmental damage. In October 2019, a coal ash dyke breach in state-owned utility NTPC’s Vindhyachal thermal power plant in Madhya Pradesh led to more than 3.5 million tonnes of fly ash flowing into the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar, also known as the Rihand reservoir.

The reservoir, the only source of potable water for people in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, was contaminated, making the water unfit for drinking.

NGT asked NTPC to pay an interim compensation of INR 100 million and directed the Anpara and Lanco-Anpara power plants in the vicinity to stop ash pond overflow discharge into the Rihand reservoir.

“Coal ash ponds are (also) one of the biggest sources of air pollution,” said Shweta Narayan of Healthy Energy Initiative and co-author of the report. “Communities living close to coal ash ponds often experience coal ash storms during the dry seasons.”

When accidents involving fly ash are brought to the attention of NGT, it has penalised power plants and ordered them to pay compensation. For instance, on July 22, the tribunal directed three coal-fired power plants in Punjab to pay INR 15 million (approximately USD 200,000) as “environmental compensation” over their failure to scientifically dispose of fly ash.

Water bodies are regularly used as disposal sites for coal ash in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh (Photo by Amirtharaj Stephen/PEP Collective)

Water bodies are regularly used as disposal sites for coal ash in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh (Photo by Amirtharaj Stephen/PEP Collective)

The fly ash report tracks dilutions in the regulatory framework of coal ash management over the years, which has allowed power producers to flout environmental safeguards and public health protocols.

“A gazette notification on January 2, 2014 made coal washing mandatory, to reduce ash content, before supplying to all thermal units more than 500 km from the coal mine,” said Shah. “However, on May 21, 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change made coal washing optional through a controversial amendment based on economic rationale offered by India’s NITI Aayog and ministries of power and coal. This rationale, however, does not account for the resulting increase in the fly ash generation and pollution caused by it.”

“Heavy metals from coal ash affect the aquatic ecosystems adversely, which in turn impacts the livelihoods and nutrition security of fishermen,” said K. Sarvanan, a fisher associated with The Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai. “Fishing communities from Ennore told the NGT-appointed expert committee about the significant decline or even disappearance of many species of prawns, crabs and sea bass, among others. The expert committee found high levels of heavy metals in the fish, prawn and oyster from the Ennore river (due to fly ash contamination).”

Fly ash can be used to make bricks, as part of road building material and to make cement, but the utilisation has lagged far behind potential in India. Coal-fired power plants in West Bengal have been exporting their fly ash to Bangladesh for the purpose. The problem with that is that barges used to transport the ash have a high capsize rate. See: Barges carrying toxic ash from India to Bangladesh keep sinking

Impact of climate change

Climate change heightens the risk from coal ash ponds in areas prone to flooding. In addition to the increased risk of spills, scientists say the heavier rains expected to come from a warming planet also threaten to bring a more hidden peril — rising water tables that seep into the ash ponds, contaminating groundwater used for agriculture and drinking.

The report recommends that India should develop regulations for the scientific containment of pond ash. This would require retrofitting existing ash ponds with impermeable materials and linking the scientific landfilling of ash with environmental clearances.

This would also entail a rigorous environmental monitoring protocol around the fly ash dumps to check for leachate and contamination of groundwater, the report added.

The report also puts the onus of responsibility on power plants, which burn coal and generate ash, to ensure safe management and the environmental health impacts emerging out of its utilisation, disposal and reuse.

In the event that there is ash discharged in the environment or unaccounted for, the report suggests further defined mechanisms for remediation and payment for health and environmental damages under the polluter pays principle.


This article was first published on India Climate Dialogue.