Landfill Fires

Landfill Fires

News: The Kochi landfill site around Brahmapuram that caught fire was a stark reminder that Indian cities need to be prepared for more such incidents as summer approaches.

What are landfills?
 Landfills are sites where waste materials are deposited, compacted, and covered with soil for long-term storage.
 These sites are designed to prevent contamination of the surrounding environment by isolating the waste from groundwater, surface water, and air.

What causes landfill fires?
 The landfill sites in India are not scientifically planned. The efficiency of waste processing is only 30-40%, while India’s municipalities are collecting over 95% of the waste generated in cities.
 The wastes are not segregated due to which the landfill sites receive mixed wastes which include organic waste/ignitable material/plastics. Higher temperature + flammable material = a chance for the landfill to catch fire.
 The anaerobic decomposition (breakdown of organic waste in the absence of oxygen) generates methane gas and heat.
 As soon as the methane gas comes in contact with oxygen, the combustible materials at the dumping site catch fire easily.

What are consequences of landfill fires?
 When a landfill fire burns, it releases harmful gases and particles into the air, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, exacerbate asthma and other lung conditions, and contribute to smog and acid rain.
 Landfill fires can release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the groundwater, which can contaminate nearby water sources and potentially harm aquatic ecosystems.
 Landfill fires can also release harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the soil, which can harm plant growth and contaminate crops.
 They result in significant cleanup costs for local governments, as well as economic losses for nearby businesses and property owners.

Is there any permanent solution?
 Closing landfills in a scientific manner (SoPs including managing the methane emissions). This solution is unsuitable in the Indian context as the land can’t be used again for other purposes.
 Clear the piles of waste through bioremediation, i.e., excavate old waste and use automated sieving machines to segregate the flammable refuse-derived fuel (RDF) from biodegradable material. The recovered RDF (plastics, rags, and clothing) can be used as fuel in cement kilns, and the biosoil can be given to farmers to improve their soil.
 There will be a need to landfill the harmless portion.

What is immediate solution?
 The first immediate action is to divide a site into blocks depending on the nature of the waste.
 At each site, blocks with fresh waste should be separated from blocks with flammable material. Blocks that have been capped using soil are less likely to catch fire, so portions like these should also be separated out, The different blocks should ideally be separated using a drain or soil bund and a layer of soil should cap each block. This reduces the chance of fires spreading across blocks within the same landfill.
 Next, the most vulnerable part of the landfill, the portion with lots of plastics and cloth, should be capped with soil. The fresh waste block shouldn’t be capped but enough moisture should be provided by sprinkling water which will help cool the waste heap.
 Once a site has been divided into blocks, the landfill operator should classify incoming waste on arrival to the site and dispose of it in designated blocks rather than dumping mixed fractions.
 Already segregated non-recyclable and non¬biodegradable waste should be sent to cement kilns instead of being allowed to accumulate. Dry grass material and dry trees from the site should also be cleared immediately.

Way Forward
 The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 state that only non-recyclable, non-biodegradable and noncombustible waste should go to a sanitary landfill.
 The problem needs to be addressed at two levels – at the level of public policy (domain of the government), and of the public itself (reducing waste generation/disposal, segregating waste).

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