Burning garbage

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Marvin A. Tort-125


I recently chanced upon an Aug. 2 commentary in The World Post about an emerging Dutch technology that aimed to address the negative effects of incineration. Written by Rachel Nuwer, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, the commentary discussed how incineration could now be a “clean” alternative to solid waste management.

Incidentally, The World Post is a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. The Berggruen Institute was founded in 2010 backed by a $500-million endowment. It is a Los Angeles, California-based, independent, nonpartisan think tank that is devoted to proposing and implementing new ideas of governance.

Reading the commentary, I began to wonder if we could still change public opinion, as well as public policy, opposed to or against incineration particularly of solid waste. To date, the Philippines bans incineration under the Clean Air Act of 1999 as well as the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.

While I note that some quarters allege the existence of an ongoing lobby effort particularly in media in favor of incineration, let me assure you that this column is not part of it. I do not personally know any company or lobbyist directly or indirectly related to incineration. I would not have written this if not for what I believe to be relatively new information regarding cleaner technologies.

As Ms. Nuwer noted in her Aug. 2 commentary, the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN) has been working on “how to turn waste into electricity without producing more waste.” Referring to their system as “The MILENA-OLGA,” ECN has been looking into “a revolutionary carbon-neutral energy plant that turns waste into electricity with little or no harmful by-products.”

“We wanted to develop a technology to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy possible in a realistic way,” Ms. Nuwer quoted Mark Overwijk, the director of the ECN’s biomass and energy efficiency unit, as saying. The goal, he added, was to make gasification “the centerpiece of a new circular economy…one based not on fossil fuels, but on biomass.”

Describing the process, Nuwer wrote: “The MILENA-OLGA process, which heats garbage to over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit [705 degrees Celsius], is 11% more efficient than most existing energy-from-waste plants and over 50% more efficient than incinerators of a comparable scale. It’s also more environmentally friendly.”

“While the conversion from solid to gas does generate carbon dioxide, because it offsets fossil fuel energy and does away with landfills that would eventually produce methane, it is ultimately carbon neutral or environmentally beneficial. The process also emits zero wastewater and produces no particulates or other pollutants. Just four percent of the original material is left over as inert white ash, which can be used to make cement,” she added.

The MILENA-OLGA system is said to be capable of powering turbines similar to those used for generating electricity with natural gas. Studies are also being made to determine if the gas the system produces can be directly used by gas utilities, and whether the product can be “synthesized to make jet or diesel fuel or virtually any of the thousands of things traditionally made with fossil fuels, including plastics, clothing, cosmetics and computers.”

One “success” story, Ms. Nuwer noted, involved a Palestinian refugee who risked investing in the new “clean” technology. Ibrahim Al-Husseini wanted ways to deal with the global garbage problem, noting that landfills release hundreds of millions of tons of methane into the atmosphere, while burning trash also releases toxic chemicals.

The garbage problem, Ms. Nuwer wrote, pushed Al-Husseini to establish in 2013 the FullCycle Energy Fund, an investment firm dedicated to turning trash into clean energy. She quoted Al-Husseini as saying, “Garbage has value, so why are we throwing it away?” Through his investments, the MILENA-OLGA system has had help taking off.

To date, several plants have been built, including a 3.5-megawatt plant in Portugal and a 4.8-megawatt plant in India. Plants are being considered in Costa Rica and California, and opening next year is a 30-megawatt project outside Bangkok. Also said to be in the pipeline are “mini-units” for “on-site, locally generated energy for people on islands, off-grid locales or disaster sites.” Last year, additional investments into the new technology came in from Caterpillar Ventures.

Obviously, it will take a lot more than these recent developments to change our people’s and policy makers’ minds regarding incineration. Those zealously opposed to any form of waste incineration, much like those fiercely opposed to any form of coal-generated electricity, also deserve the opportunity to present their case against these supposedly “clean” technologies.

There will always be at least two sides to any argument or debate. It is important that we are open to listening to all sides. At the same time, greater effort should be made to make credible information readily accessible to those who wish to make an informed decision regarding the matter. And, people should be given the chance to voice their support or concern.

I believe that the government’s mandate is clear: Priority should always be economics over politics; environment over business profit; and, saving the planet first, then saving the republic after. In this line, since technology is dynamic and ever-changing, so should public policy be. We should be open to revising laws to make them serve us in better ways.

We have had legislation in place for almost 20 years that banned incineration. Overall, perhaps the ban has done us — and the environment — a lot of good. But, with what is now emerging, and whatever else that can come after, we should remain open to reconsidering or lifting that ban in the future, if doing so will promote the greatest good – both for the planet and people.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council