[Burning issue] Landfill fires and Their Management



  • The towering Brahmapuram landfill in Kerala state is the country’s latest trash mountain to catch fire, causing dangerous heat and methane emissions.
  • Landfill fires are becoming common in India with multiple incidents being reported increasing on yearly basis. In this context, this edition of the burning issue will expand on this issue. The topic is relevant for the GS-3 under environmental issues and urbanization.

What is the issue?

  • Firefighters in the southern Indian city of Kochi were toiling to control toxic fumes from spreading after a landfill burst into flames for 5 days cloaking the area in a thick haze and choking residents.
  • Authorities advised residents in the city of more than 600,000 to remain indoors or wear N95 face masks if they head outside. Schools were forced to close as a result of the pollution.
  • While the fire has been largely put out, a thick cloud of smoke and methane gas continues to cover the area, reducing visibility and the city’s air quality while emitting a lingering, pungent odor.
  • The matter even reached law corridors. Kerala High court also listed the case for hearing.

Brief about landfills

  • Definition: A landfill is a site designated for the disposal of waste materials by burying them underground. The waste materials can include household and commercial garbage, industrial waste, and construction debris. Landfills are designed to contain waste and prevent it from contaminating the surrounding environment.
  • History: The history of landfills dates back thousands of years to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans who used open dumps to dispose of their waste. However, the modern landfill as we know it today began to emerge in the late 19th century when cities started to grow and produce more waste. At that time, waste was often dumped in rivers or burned in open pits, leading to pollution and health hazards.
  • Modern landfills: The first modern landfill was established in 1937 in Fresno, California, USA. It was a sanitary landfill designed to minimize the impact on the environment and protect public health. Since then, landfills have become the primary method of waste disposal in most developed countries, and their design and management have become more sophisticated to reduce their environmental impact.

Some recent landfill fire incidents

  • Bhalswa landfill fire
  • Perungudi dump yard fire
  • Dadumajra landfill fire
  • Ghazipur landfill fire

Waste generation in India

  • Every year, 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal waste is generated. India produces 277 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year, according to a 2016 estimate.
  • Waste accumulation in Delhi and Bangalore has risen dramatically, by 1,850% and 2,175%, respectively, between 1999 and 2016.
  • In India, 77% of waste is disposed of in open dumps, 18% is composted and just 5% is recycled.

Landfills in India: The ‘Man Made Mountains”

  • Brahmapuram is just one of some 3,000 Indian landfills overflowing with decaying waste and emitting toxic gases. Most dumpsites are two to three decades old and currently receive 2,000 (Bhalswa) to 9,000 (Deonar) metric ton of solid waste daily.
  • Landfill fires are becoming a big challenge for India’s urban civic bodies. In late April 2022, fires broke out in landfills in Chennai, Delhi and Chandigarh. Since 2015, the number of landfill fires in metropolitan cities has surged across India.
  • Every Indian city has at least one man-made mountain where ‘waste’ generated in our homes and businesses ends up. About 90% of the staggering 150,000 metric ton of urban solid wastes generated every day make their way to such locations.
  • These toxic sites are the dark underbelly of India’s bustling, glittering cities and are home and workplace for tens of thousands of people.

Causes of landfill fire

  • Spontaneous Combustion: As organic waste decomposes, it generates heat, and if the temperature is not controlled, it can ignite the waste and start a fire.
  • Lack of modern technologies: Only a few areas on large landfills have new and advanced waste management technology (like waste-to-energy, composting and refuse-derived fuel systems).
  • Legacy dumps: remain problematic as the decomposition of decades-old mixed waste causes extreme water and air pollution.
  • Chemical Reactions: Some waste materials, such as batteries or chemicals, can react with other waste materials, generating heat or flammable gases that can ignite.
  • Landfill Gas Ignition: Landfill gas, which is produced by the decomposition of organic materials in the landfill, can be flammable and can ignite if exposed to a source of ignition such as a spark.
  • Arson: Unfortunately, some people intentionally set fires at landfill sites, either for personal gain or as an act of vandalism.
  • Electrical Faults: Electrical equipment used at landfill sites, such as machinery or lighting, can malfunction or short-circuit, causing a fire.

Issues with Indian landfills

  • Unhygienic disposal: In India, more than 90% of the MSW generated finds its way to landfill sites, often in the most unhygienic manner possible. The landfilling process of the municipalities is the most unorganized one.
  • Large methane emission: India creates more methane from landfill sites than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors emissions via satellites. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide — but it is a more potent contributor to the climate crisis because it traps more heat.
  • Not scientifically planned: In India, the meaning of landfilling process has changed to simply dumping the waste in areas outside the city without taking any kind of sanitary measures.
  • Causes environmental problems: The landfills are meant for reducing the exposure between humans and the environment from toxic waste but it takes a toll on humans as we are exposed to the problems associated with the waste directly i.e from the soil and groundwater pollution. There are concerns regarding the flow of toxins in the food chain of birds and animals, fires and explosions, vegetation damage, unpleasant odor, landfill settlement, groundwater pollution, air pollution and global warming.
  • The improper segregation: or lack of segregation facility at the waste generation site causes the accumulation of toxic waste mixture in landfills.
  • Most fatal for ragpickers: The disposal of these toxic chemicals leads to the exposure of rag pickers to these chemicals. The rag picker’s only means of income is by collecting waste but they are not aware of the fact that this waste will be toxic for them, their health as well as their surrounding.
  • Catches fire: The chaotic landfills act as a ticking bomb and could create havoc by catching fire anytime. The mountain of waste catches fire when it surmounts the saturation point and no longer withstands the heat due to the pilling up of waste.
  • Causes of health problems: The health problems related to various emissions from landfills include high PM10 exposure, breathing problems, bacterial infections, asthma, elevated cardiovascular risk, and other infections.
  • Source of diseases: In India scenario, open dumps are highly prevailing which causes the breeding of mosquitoes, flies, rats, cockroaches, and other pests. Some diseases are very common in the population living near the landfill site such as plague, histoplasmosis, murine typhus, malaria, dengue, West Nile fever, etc. as they are caused by the pests breeding in the landfills.

Challenges faced while addressing the problem of MSW in India:

  • Lack of Funding to address the MSW problem
  • The communication gap between central and state government
  • Failure of waste-to-energy recovery
  • Implementation of rules and regulations
  • There is a prevalence of loopholes in the municipal corporations at every stage of waste management i.e from source to disposal
  • There is a lack of manpower and an insufficient number of professionals in the waste management technology field.
  • Lack of research and development for new technological practices

Rules related to landfills

  • The Solid Waste Management Rules issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2016 state that only non-recyclable, non-biodegradable and non-combustible waste should go to a sanitary landfill.

SWM Rules, 2016 mandates:

  • setting up solid waste processing facilities by all local bodies having a population of 1 lakh or more within two years.
  • census towns and local bodies with a population of less than 1 lakh have to set up a common or stand-alone sanitary landfill within three years. Also, common, or regional sanitary landfills will have to be set up by all local bodies and census towns with a population under 0.5 million within the timespan of three years.
  • bio‐remediation or capping of old and abandoned dumpsites within five years. Bio-remediation or capping involves treating organic waste and spreading the remaining waste uniformly, over the land. It is then covered with a geo-textile layer, a geo-membrane and one-metre of soil so that grass can be grown on it.
  • As per the new rules, the landfill site should be 100 metres away from a river, 200 metres from a pond, 500 metres away from highways, habitations, public parks and water supply wells and 20 km away from airports or airbases. The guidelines recommend that the construction of landfills on hills should be avoided.

How to better manage landfills in India? Way forward

  • Dedicated solid waste management cell: Each city needs a dedicated solid waste management cell with appropriately qualified and trained professionals who come with varied backgrounds ranging from social work, science, engineering, and public health.
  • Waste management audits: Understanding the challenges in the implementation of SWM Rules are equally important, for the administration to take appropriate corrective actions.
  • Reduce Waste Generation: The most effective way to manage landfills is to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place. This can be achieved through reducing, reusing, and recycling.
  • Separation of Waste: Separating waste at the source can help reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in landfills, as organic waste can be composted instead. This separation can be achieved through education and awareness programs, as well as through the implementation of separate waste collection systems.
  • Landfill Design and Construction: Landfills should be designed and constructed to minimize their environmental impact. This includes lining the landfill with impermeable barriers to prevent leachate from contaminating the surrounding environment and installing systems to collect and control landfill gas.
  • Monitoring and Maintenance: Regular monitoring and maintenance of landfills are necessary to ensure that they are operating effectively and to identify and address any issues promptly.
  • Waste-to-Energy Technologies: Waste-to-energy technologies, such as incineration or gasification, can be used to convert waste into energy, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.
  • Education and Awareness Programs: Education and awareness programs can help to encourage individuals and businesses to adopt waste reduction and separation practices and promote responsible waste management.
  • Proper implementation of schemes: Initiatives such as the Jal Jivan Mission-Urban, Swacch Bharat Mission-Urban whose objectives include universal coverage of water supply and sanitation and waste management should be implemented properly.
  • The emerging ‘new waste economy’: focused on circular practices and resource recovery offers livelihood and entrepreneurial opportunities if waste sector workers are formally integrated into waste management services, as in the case of Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Pune.


  • Urban solid waste management must be reimagined to eliminate such toxic garbage mountains in the future and existing sites must be remediated. Indian cities from Bengaluru to Alappuzha are slowly shifting to decentralized solid waste management approaches with household and community-level waste segregation and resource recovery solutions being implemented successfully.
  • We need to understand, that we cannot get rid of waste or landfills until and unless we start source segregation, which is also one of the mandates and one of the first rules of solid waste management rules. A landfill will still be required but firstly, we need to build it in a scientific way and secondly, only inert waste should go to landfills. Even in the waste management pyramid, the top options are reusing and recycling. Landfills and waste-to-energy plants are the last options.
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