Above: Smoke emanating from a firecracker burst/Photo: UNI
While the formula for making environment-friendly crackers has been successfully tested in labs, many in the industry feel that it may not be easy to replicate it in the factories
By Papia Samajdar
You can now make crackers a huge part of your celebrations without fear or guilt. The government has finally devised an environmentally-friendly formula for crackers—demystifying “green crackers”.
On March 5, 2019, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices AK Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer were informed about the finalisation of the formula of “green crackers”. According to the minutes of a meeting dated February 27, 2019, presented in the Court, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) have developed and tested two formulations—“improved” and “new” chemical compositions constituting green crackers.
The improved version follows the conventional composition with barium nitrate and potassium nitrate with additives provided by CSIR-NEERI. The new formulations were developed using new chemical additives, a formulation which is not in use. Both were tested for performance, efficiency and improvement. The formulations were tested in CSIR labs as well as at fireworks manufacturing units.
The Supreme Court bench was hearing a writ petition filed in 2015 which had stated that the chemical composition of the crackers significantly added to the already polluted air quality and therefore sought a total ban on them. Chemicals like barium salts, sulphides and lithium compounds present in the crackers are known to cause serious damage to health.
On October 23, 2018, two weeks before Diwali, the apex court had ordered a conditional ban on firecrackers, allowing only crackers with reduced emissions and “green crackers”. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) was directed to finalise the chemical composition of the latter.
The order sent the Rs 6,000-crore fireworks industry into a tizzy. They had no time to develop and implement an environmentally-friendly formula just before the festive and wedding seasons.
The firecracker manufacturers, along with the government, were completely in the dark as the test results by CSIR-NEERI had not been finalised.
According to PCA Asaithambi, president of the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association (TANFAMA), the development of less polluting crackers would take at least a couple of years.
What are green crackers? On October 29, 2018, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister of Science and Technology, Earth Sciences, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, had announced the development of less polluting crackers. SWAS (safe water releaser), SAFAL (safe minimal aluminium) and STAR (safe thermite cracker) are the names of the green crackers developed by CSIR-NEERI.
The initial testing of these fireworks showed a PM reduction of up to 30-40 percent in all the three variants. According to a press release, these crackers released water vapour and diluent with matching sound performance as conventional crackers.
SWAS crackers eliminate the use of potassium nitrate and sulphur and have a consistent performance though the shelf life is three weeks. According to Sadhana Rayalu, a scientist with NEERI, “green crackers” constitute reactants which absorb water-generating heat to enable explosion. This water is then released which acts as a dust suppressant. CSIR-NEERI worked together to develop and test these formulations at the PESO-approved laboratories, apart from CSIR labs.
TANFAMA, however, had started working with CSIR-NEERI to be able to develop “green crackers” even before the October 2018 order. Following the successful testing, PESO was approached for approvals.
PESO’s approval of the improved formulation is expected by March 21, 2019, and of new formulations by April 30, 2019. After that bulk production of crackers with improved formulation will be initiated from March 30, 2019, and largescale production of crackers with new formulation would start from May 10, 2019.
The industry, however, is a little sceptical of the laboratory results. It is well aware of the difference between laboratory testing and industrial manufacture, especially in dealing with inert chemicals. AP Selvarajan, a firecracker manufacturer in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, and an industry partner in this project indicated that chemicals available in laboratory grade cannot be always replicated at the industry grade.
The Supreme Court had banned the use of barium salts in firecrackers on the suggestions of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change in its October 2018 order. The industry, however, insists that barium is required to produce light and not colour. The ban on barium thus translated to a ban on flower pots, chakras, pencils and aerial fireworks. This automatically impacted 60 percent of the products manufactured by the fireworks industry. In October 2018, a week after the apex court banned barium, the Controller of Explosives, PESO, Haryana, in an affidavit stated that barium is required in the manufacture of light producing fireworks.
The improved formulation proposed by CSIR-NEERI and PESO contains barium nitrate, in spite of the ban.
The presence of barium nitrate and potassium nitrate as oxidisers in the improved formulations was objected to by the petitioners.
Gopal Shankarnarayanan, the advocate representing the three toddlers on whose behalf the writ petition had been filed, raised an objection, citing it as a violation of the Supreme Court order banning the use of noxious crackers. The bench agreed to his request to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to examine the samples containing barium nitrate and potassium nitrate.
Barium salts are not the only harmful chemical present in crackers. “Frankly, I do not know what can be truly called ‘green crackers’. It is not just about particulate matter. The formulations contain so many toxins and heavy metals. How will they be regulated?” says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, and campaign lead, air pollution, at the Centre for Science and Environment.
A facility to characterise raw materials is being set up in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu. This facility, in collaboration with the manufacturers’ association, with testing facilities would be used for raw material testing to ensure that the prescribed quality of raw materials is used.
Though this looks like an ideal example of a healthy and successful partnership between the government and the industry towards public good, making fireworks truly green depends on its implementation and regulation.