Better think twice

Philippine Tribune
Philippine Tribune

Just recently, a bill that seeks to promote the use of waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies has advanced in the Senate after it was reported out for plenary approval.

The measure, sponsored by energy committee chairperson Sen. Raffy Tulfo and co-authored by Sen. Bong Revilla and Francis Tolentino, is meant to ease the environmental problem of unmanaged solid waste and to secure more energy sources.

As proposed, WTE would be part of the Philippine Energy Plan. Right now, there are currently 13 WTE plants in the country, only six of which are operational.

The bill noted that population increase has driven up the volume of solid waste. The Environmental Management Bureau estimates that from 2022 to 2025, the country’s generated waste will reach 92 million tons in total. Unfortunately, the existing solid waste disposal system cannot handle the continuously increasing amount of household and domestic wastes being produced, the bill added.

Tulfo noted that currently, sanitary landfills are the primary long-term method of solid waste disposal under Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. However, aside from requiring vast parcels of land, landfills also release methane gas as the organic mass in these landfills decompose. Methane, he said, absorbs the sun’s heat 80 times more than carbon dioxide, making it one of the most potent greenhouse gases and a huge contributor of climate change.

The measure seeks to help address these problems by encouraging the development of environmentally sustainable innovations in the recovery, conservation, processing, treatment, and disposal of solid waste through the use of WTE technologies which convert non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity or fuel through a variety of processes.

According to Tulfo, WTE technologies and systems have long been replied upon by many countries, including Japan, Sweden, South Korea and Singapore.

But the senator stressed that his bill explicitly prohibits the use of imported waste as feedstock for WTE facilities in order to safeguard the country from becoming a dumping ground for foreign waste.

Converting waste to energy, however, is not as simple.

To burn garbage to produce heat and electricity, the main equipment needed is an incinerator.

However, there are many versions of the incinerator that can be used for WTE purposes. Highly developed countries with advanced WTE technology have invested billions of dollars on facilities that turn waste into electricity with very minimal impact on the environment.

How sure are we that the incinerators that will be used are those that will do more good than harm? Are the prospective investors in WTE technologies willing to spend much more for sophisticated WTE equipment? One report from Bloomberg.com last year mentioned that a new and modern incinerator costs around $1 billion.

However, the same report revealed that despite advances in the toxin capture techniques that made incinerators an attractive alternative to landfills and no matter how high-tech the facility is, the amount of toxin that escapes into the open air is still a cause of concern.

One non-profit watchdog organization in the US found that waste incinerators release more mercury, lead and nitrogen oxides into the air than coal power plants to produce the same amount of energy. The Bloomberg report likewise disclosed that incinerators also produce particulate matter (PM2.5), a poisonous air pollutant.

It added that incinerators burn continuously from the moment they begin operations, creating a demand for waste that cannot be reused. It said that when one builds an incinerator, “you’re locked into waste generation,” and municipalities are often contractually obligated to deliver a certain amount of waste to incineration facilities.

The second problem with promoting sustainable WTE generation is bureaucracy. One observer noted that waste management in the country is at best a myriad of regulations that often contradict with each other depending on where they emanate, whether from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, from local government units, or from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

To make for an efficient conversion of waste to energy, wastes should be first managed properly. You cannot expect the owners of these WTE facilities to go door-to-door just to get the wastes that they need.

But even if they can go door-to-door, unless the households properly segregate their wastes, owners of these WTE facilities may find themselves collecting wastes with high moisture content which will not burn and may need to be dried out first before being incinerated. Imagine the additional resources that will be entailed.

Ideally, these WTE facility operators only need to get their garbage from  materials recovery facilities (MRF) where garbage is segregated.

However, how many MRFs do we have? Very few barangays have MRFs. These despite the fact that putting up MRFs is mandated by RA 9003 as the primary way by which waste diversion can be done by serving as collection and sorting facilities for municipal solid wastes before disposal to landfills.

Section 32 of the law mandates the establishment of MRF in a barangay or a cluster of barangays. The law says each MRF must have a solid waste transfer station or sorting station, a drop-off center, a composting facility, and a recycling facility.

It has been reported that as of 2021, there were only 11,637 MRFs serving 16,418 of 42,046 barangays.

MRFs are not cheap to build. Are the WTE investors supposed to invest in MRFs? Partnerships between MRF and WTE investors could make it work but imagine the ordeal they have to go through just to get the permits and government approvals.

Waste management alone is costly. It is said that the costs range from $50-100 per ton based on studies from Japan, Singapore and the United States. In Thailand, the closest comparison with the Philippines, the cost of waste management is $30 per ton. These amounts are unacceptable especially for LGUs struggling with funds.

The DENR earlier said solid waste management remains a major problem for the country mostly due to mismanagement of waste segregation at the local level. It emphasized that despite the enactment of RA 9003 that mandated segregation at the barangay level, some LGUs have not yet strictly enforced the law.

The idea behind a WTE law may be good – reducing waste while producing more energy which the country badly needs, our government needs to find out if this is really feasible. Otherwise, we might just end up where we started, even possibly at a worse state.

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