Disposal of waste from hospitals and health care centres is an issue that is confronting every nation. In India, the Central Government is actively promoting a burn technology called pyrolysis for disposal of medical waste. The technology has not been proven yet and is being questioned the world over due to concerns over emissions of toxic pollutants. Emission norms have also not been developed for pyrolysis. It has yet to receive a nod from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Even though safer non-burn technologies exist, the pursuance of a potentially harmful incineration based technology is baffling.

Pyrolysis primer : Pyrolysis, also sometimes referred to as thermolysis, is defined as the thermal degradation of a substance in the absence or with a limited supply of oxygen. Thermal (burn) waste treatment technologies fall into two broad categories: 1) those in which wastes are combusted – burned in the presence of oxygen, i.e., incineration technologies; and 2) those in which wastes are heated in the presence of little or no oxygen so that there is no direct combustion , i.e., pyrolysis (sometimes referred to as thermolysis) and gasification. When oxygen levels in an incinerator are reduced to levels below the optimum for combustion, the incinerator is said to operate in a “starved air”, or “pyrolytic” mode. (Source: Health Care Without Harm, Washington DC, www.noharm.org)

The Department of Science and Technology is pursuing the development of a plasma based pyrolysis system. This system, the prototype of which is under trial, is being developed by the Gujarat-based Institute of Plasma Research. The Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technology (FCIPT is a unit of the Institute) claims that the technology is eco-friendly. The FCIPT is dedicated to the research on the industrial applications of plasma technologies. Also, with the support of Technology Information, Forecasting & Assessment Council (TIFAC)’s Home Grown Technology Programme, FCIPT has developed a new Hospital Waste Incinerator that can handle all types of hospital waste and eliminates the need for segregation of waste into different categories. TIFAC is autonomous body under Department of Science & Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Clearly, the DST is invested in this process.

Proponents of the pyrolytic systems maintain that the systems are not incinerators and do not generate hazardous by-products such as dioxins. But with medical wastes, and other similar materials, a complete absence of oxygen is unachievable. As a result, some oxidation is bound to occur during pyrolysis, leading to the formation of dioxins and related products of incomplete combustion.

Pyrolysis has not been given the clean chit in nations that have adopted more advanced medical waste treatment systems.
According to Health Care Without Harm, a Washington DC based international coalition of 431 organizations in 52 countries working to transform the health care industry, research conducted in the UK and Germany is showing that pyrolysis and gasification systems, while being promoted as clean non-incineration alternatives, are still capable of generating dioxins, furans and other pollutants of concern, despite marketing and promotional claims to the contrary.

The Gujarat based Plasma centre’s proposal for pyrolysis will deal with 15-100 kg of unsegregated waste per hour, at an investment of 30,000 USD. The Institute had proposed its trial installation in five key hospitals in Delhi and other places. Fortunately, this has been put on hold due to uncertainties regarding emissions, segregation, costs, level of pollution, etc. A pilot plant was however set up at the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Cancer Research Institute in 2001. The development of a commercial prototype (research) system was completed in July 2003. The first such plant will soon be set-up at the Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad. The centre has transferred the technology to Ahmedabad-based M/s Bhagawati Pyrotech Limited, which will market the system.

Still, in spite of repeated requests, the government has not provided any emissions related data from the pilot plant at Ahmedabad.

Recently, the Chief Minister of Goa declared (in the legislative assembly) that a plasma pyrolysis plant would be set up at the Goa Medical College to treat its bio-medical waste. Sharing the Chief Minister’s enthusiasm, or perhaps inspired by it, the Goa State Pollution Control Board has also authorised the setting up of 69 new incinerators. (This is in complete violation of the guidelines issued by the CPCB which state that installation of an incineration facility by a healthcare unit shall be disallowed.)

The central government through DST has invested in pyrolysis technology and holds a stake in it being adopted. But it is overlooking is the fact that there are safer ways of solving the problem, which are already being implemented. Technologies such as autoclave, microwave, hydroclave, which basically disinfect waste without disturbing the chemical form of the material have been proven successful in treating medical waste.*

India must learn from other countries which are managing their waste by adopting ‘non-burn’ options. Being a signatory of the Stockholm Convention, it must start phasing out dioxin and furan producing technologies. If plasma pyrolysis is promoted, it would be a step in the opposite direction.