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400 million Maggi packets are to be burnt: will this pollute the air?

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 9 July 2015, 12:09 IST

Nestle India is destroying 27,420 tonnes of Maggi after the instant noodles were found to contain lead beyond permissible levels.

Nearly 400 million packets are to be burnt in 11 cement plants around the country. But will this add to air pollution?

The question is important, especially after reports on 7 July said a part of the Maggi stock will be burnt at Ambuja Cements' plant at Chandrapur - an area which is classified by the Central Pollution Control Board as one of the 'Critically Polluted Areas' of the country due to its high air and water pollution.

While some experts are of the opinion that burning Maggi packets in cement plants is a safe method, there are experiences from faraway Europe that may need to be taken note of.

Why cement companies?

The disposal is being carried out at cement companies using a method known as cement kiln incineration.

In this, the noodles are mixed with fuel and burnt at nearly 1,500 degrees Celsius. This has some advantages over burning it either in the open or in typical waste incinerators.

"The temperature in cement kilns is very high, which ensures that there is less pollution. There are CPCB norms for pollution from such kilns. If these are followed, then there is no problem," said Piyush Mohapatra, senior programme coordinator at Toxics Link, an organisation involved in research on pollution.

Because of the high temperature, no residue is left besides clinker, which is used in cement production.

Maybe burning Maggi in cement plants is the safest method, after all. But the picture isn't black and white.

European experience

The issue of cement kiln incineration has received much attention in Europe, where environmental justice organisations have flagged concerns about studies that show such incineration is safe.

Organisations such as Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Zero Waste Europe have flagged concerns about the release of heavy metals, including lead.

This is possible in two ways: into the air through emissions, and into cement from reintroduction of fly ash resulting from the waste burning.

400 million packets are to be burnt at 11 cement plants, but it is unknown if this adds to air pollution

The toxic emissions from such incineration include nanoparticles of toxins such as dioxins, furans and metals, which cannot be monitored or captured by standard pollution control equipment - a point raised by Paul Connett, professor emeritus at St Lawrence University in New York at a conference of these organisations in Barletta, Italy, in November 2014. These particles travel long distances and penetrate deep into the lungs, he pointed out.

Even the European Parliament had, in 2011, admitted questions from citizens from two towns in Italy complaining about high levels of pollution from cement plants that also performed such incineration.

"Burning it is making the problem invisible, so it is not a solution. The company should have approached a scientific agency such as NEERI or IISc, which has conducted research on alternate methods such as bioremediation," said Gopal Krishna of Toxic Watch Alliance. "The Maggi case will set a precedent."

The problem with Chandrapur

Chandrapur, where Nestle plans to destroy an unspecified amount of Maggi noodles, was flagged as one of the 'Critically Polluted Areas' of the country by the CPCB, with high levels of air pollution from coal mining and cement industries in the area.

The environment ministry had even placed a moratorium on environmental clearances in the area, owing to the high pollution levels.

It is not clear what alternatives Nestle India explored before settling on cement kiln incineration. In response to a questionnaire, the company pointed out that the method is an "an accepted practice in the FMCG industry for disposal of products".

It added: "The process has been approved by the Indian government, and in this case, the fact that the noodles are being used for fuel reduces the environmental impact. we are ensuring that (the cement companies) are providing us the required certificates for regulatory compliance as applicable."

Ambuja Cements did not respond to requests for a comment.

The jury is out on whether burning Maggi in cement kilns is the best idea. Maybe it is, but it's definitely not a two-minute answer.

First published: 8 July 2015, 21:46 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.