Burning of biomass and organic waste, like garden waste, dried leaves and twigs, has become a huge problem and is contributing heavily to air pollution. All major cities are suffering as we saw recently in Mumbai and Delhi. Most often, the waste is burnt by municipal workers to avoid having to clear them in a scientific manner. Smoke is very harmful to us, as particles from smoke tend to be very small – less than one micrometre in diametre, and it can easily go through to our lungs and cause breathing-related conditions like asthma.
Smoke from burning biomass is also a greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change. Smoke is a complex mixture of many chemicals including carbon dioxide, water vapour, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and thousands of other compounds. While the actual composition of smoke depends on the type of wood and vegetation being burnt, suffice to say here carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide are greenhouse gases. A substantial amount of nitrous oxide is caused by biomass burning, which accounts for 10% of human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.
As a nation, we have our problems. One of them is to get clean fuel for the masses to cook. Unfortunately this is still a distant dream as India is the world's largest consumer of fuel wood, agricultural waste and biomass for energy purposes. It is estimated that India used 148.7 million tonnes coal replacement worth of fuel wood and biomass annually for domestic energy use.
India's national average annual per capita consumption of fuel wood, agri waste and biomass cakes was 206 kg coal equivalent. In 2010, the country burned over 200 million tonnes of coal replacement worth of fuel wood and biomass to meet its energy needs.
A study conducted by IIT Kanpur in 2015 to assess aspects of air pollution in Delhi recommended measures to improve air quality. The study estimated that 190 to 246 tonnes of municipal solid waste is burnt every day. This emission, it says, is expected to be large in regions of economically lower strata of society, which do not have the infrastructure for collection and disposal of MSW. Add to this the need for cheap fuel for cooking, and we have more and more smoke clogging the atmosphere and our lungs.
There is a cultural component to this discussion. Most municipal workers do not think that burning organic waste is bad, because traditionally wood ash has played a positive role in their lives. Farmers use wood ash as a useful additive to a compost heap or apply it directly to the ground, as it is a natural source of potassium and trace elements. This old practice is contributing to biomass burning.
How do we solve this issue? It is only through awareness building. We should spread this knowledge to our household helps, cooks, maids and drivers who have an influence in the lower socio-economic sections of society.
This effort to stop burning of bio mass, leaves, and garbage can be achieved if all of us participate, practice, and educate. If we choose to do nothing, then this smoke filled atmosphere will eventually lead us into the fire.
(The writer is an author, speaker, trainer, consultant, an entrepreneur and an expert in applied sustainability. Visit: www.CBRamkumar.com)