Could A Waste-To-Charcoal Plant In Uttar Pradesh Make India’s Garbage Mountains Disappear?

One fine morning in April, three middle-aged men stood in a circle at the lobby of the Radisson Blu in Ghaziabad, chatting. Two of them had distinct NRI accents. The third complained about Delhi’s spring and pollen irritating his nose. Had you overheard their gripes, you could have never guessed that these urbane men were in the business of processing municipal waste in a small, nondescript town in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

But soon, their drivers arrived, and the trio set off for Gangoh. This is where their company, Cogo Eco-Tech, runs one of its plants that converts solid, unsegregated municipal waste into charcoal. Since it started operating in August 2022, the founders said, the plant has processed around 25,000 tonnes of waste to produce 6,000 tonnes of charcoal. On the way to the plant, Naresh Eyani, one of the four directors of Cogo, claimed that what they were doing in Gangoh was quite “unprecedented.”

“We’re not burning the waste. We’re not melting it either. Rather, we’re converting it into a valuable fuel,” Eyani said. 

Accompanied by three of Cogo’s directors, Eyani, Alok Kant and Pravin Kurishingal, The Core visited the waste-to-fuel plant in Gangoh. The fourth director, Rajesh Chaudhary, travelled separately. 

India has a waste management problem, producing 62 million tonnes of solid waste each year, of which 42 million tonnes come from its cities. India’s overflowing landfills, with towering mounds of garbage, are a telltale sign of the size of the problem. If successful, Cogo’s plant could address this pressing challenge.

How Does It Work? 

While Cogo had submitted applications to various other municipalities when they had advertised their tender, it was the executive officer at Gangoh’s municipal office who took a chance with them. 

On average, according to the plant’s manager Ayub Khan, they receive 25 tonnes of solid waste daily from Gangoh’s municipality. The waste at the plant appeared mostly unsegregated. 

Before waste is sent for processing, the machines filter out stones and dust from the waste, Khan explained. “In every 100 tonnes of waste that comes in, almost half is mud and dust.”

Once the mud is filtered out, the waste is put into Cogo’s proprietary transformer, which looks somewhat like a genset. The company has applied for a patent on the transformer in the United States, so Eyani refused to divulge details about what actually happens inside the box-like machine placed on a raised platform. But, seemingly, this is the most crucial stage. 

From what could be observed, the transformer sucked out moisture from the waste and shredded it, leaving behind a dry material that resembled the fabric scraps and trimmings found in a tailor’s shop. Cogo calls it “fluff”, for it apparently resembles cotton, albeit a bit smokier in colour. In waste processing parlance, it is simply called “refuse derived fuel”, which is then taken to reactors where it is torrefied and converted into charcoal, Chaudhary explained.

This entire process takes about 8 to 12 hours. Chaudhary said,  “We are taking waste that nobody wants, which keeps stacking up in landfills, and converting it into coal. It solves two problems. The waste is processed. The dust filtered out can be used to fill low-lying areas. So the volume of waste, which would have otherwise grown into a mountain as we see in Gazipur [in Delhi], is gone. And, of course, the coal can be sold commercially.”

Cogo is now looking for external funding so that they can take this waste-processing model to other cities. Their next destination is Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, where Cogo is in talks with the municipality to set up a plant. 

Effective But Expensive

Suneel Pandey, director at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a policy research organisation, told The Core that in the absence of waste segregation at source, most of the waste that cities produce ends up in landfills and dumping sites. “And those cities which have enough money have propped up waste to energy plants,” he added.

Waste-to-energy plants burn refuse to produce electricity, but they aren’t a perfect solution. They’ve lately come under fire for releasing toxins into the air. They also produce ash, which is tough to dispose of. 

The growing number of garbage hills on the outskirts — sometimes within — of Indian towns and cities is a contentious issue, particularly for their methane emissions. 

Purva Jain, a consultant with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Core that landfills accounted for about 14% to 20% of the total methane emissions of India. The looming threat of climate change has created immense pressure globally to reduce methane emissions, as it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over 100 years. 

In the 28th annual United Nations (UN) climate meeting, or COP28, 50 oil companies representing nearly half of global production pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions in their operations by 2030. The COP28 text also pledged to reduce methane pollution to near zero by the end of this decade. 

Bharti Chaturvedi, who is the founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, told The Core that “methane emission is a big problem for India, too. There is literally no landfill in India that doesn’t emit methane”.

Could Cogo’s technology solve India’s perennial solid waste crisis? Eyani said a waste-to-charcoal plant eats up the waste and converts it into fuel, thus reducing the pressure on India’s landfills.  

While Cogo’s plants are a good way to get rid of solid waste, it’s still quite expensive. Pandey said, “The technology providers have so far not been able to show it on a commercial scale. The other thing is that it actually works on a very specific kind of waste. In a small town, the proportion of organic waste is higher and you don’t get much inert waste like glass or metal. I am not sure if it’d work in a city like Delhi.”   

As with waste-to-energy plants, the experts The Core spoke to had concerns over emissions from Cogo’s plants. Chaturvedi said, “So, whenever I read about this, my only concern is how do you make sure that you don’t have heavy metals and acids in waste. What forms of chloride are escaping in the process? Because that is my concern. Then it becomes a question of worrying about air pollution.” 

Cogo claimed that emissions from its plants were within “permissible limits”, but refused to divulge the details. 

Processing Instead Of Managing Waste

Having worked on designing the plant for almost a decade, Chaudhary is confident of his solution. He said that his motivation was to design a process which could solve India’s waste crisis, where waste isn’t segregated and most of it ends up stacked up in landfills. 

Once he perfected the transformer, he started looking for partners. He first met Delhi-based businessman Kant in 2019, who later introduced them to seasoned investors Eyani and Kurishinghal in 2021. Eyani is based out of London, while Kurishinghal lives in Dallas.

What is Cogo’s end goal though?

Chaudhary said that his plant in Gangoh has demonstrated that there is a way to process unsegregated waste and turn it into something with economic value.  “Now I want a chance to demonstrate it on a bigger level. When we’ll get the tender of a bigger city, and have more waste to convert into charcoal, we’ll be able to break even in a period of 5 to 6 years.”

Currently, the Gangoh municipality provides the land as well as supplies the waste in exchange for processing it, while the company has invested Rs 18 crores to set up the plant and sell charcoal commercially. “I’ve been selling our charcoal to boiler companies, cement plants, paper and plywood industry. In solidified form, it goes for 22-25 Rs per kg.”  

“You know how it is in India — most players are just managing waste. They pick out the good stuff and then just dump the rest wherever. But we’re trying to actually process the entire junk, and make something valuable out of it,” he said with conviction. 

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