More than a year ago I wrote about a commentary in The World Post regarding new Dutch technology that was looking into incineration as a “clean” alternative to garbage disposal. And while we have existing laws on promoting solid waste management and banning incineration, I believe this matter deserves a second-look by our policy makers.
To begin with, some quarters claim that not all types of waste incineration are banned locally, citing some precedents contained in Supreme Court rulings. On the other hand, pro-environment groups continue to press the government to strictly enforce existing laws on solid waste management, while upholding the ban on burning garbage.
I reiterate now my call a year ago for policy makers as well as the public to rethink the matter, and to make an “informed” choice regarding incineration, particularly towards technologies that convert waste into energy. Technologies have changed, so have circumstances, and so did the urgency for new and more effective modes to manage solid waste and ocean plastic pollution.
Legislators should start reviewing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, as well as the Solid Waste Management Act — two of three of which are now about 20 years old. There should be a comprehensive audit of how these three laws and their implementing rules have actually served us in the last two decades, and whether their provisions have resulted in more positives than negatives. In particular, I call for a review on the ban on incineration.
Incineration technologies were different 20 years ago, and waste-to-energy conversion projects were not as sophisticated as they are now. Conversion processes have changed that even biomass and other waste conversion modes have actually become “cleaner” by eliminating “tar” and by making sure that emissions meet standards.
Already, Bill Gates’s foundation is looking into developing new toilets particularly for the developing world, via a system that will not only save water but will also recycle it through some process of distillation. But this entails solid waste being “incinerated” to become dust, also as a mode of separating liquids from solids. And he is looking into modular facilities that can be deployed easily.
I believe we should start doing the same, making the effort to better understand the new technologies available and how they can be applied to our situation. And while there may be gaps in law or in policy that can allow certain processes or technologies to be used, nothing can beat a clear and unequivocal mandate given through legislative and executive fiat.
Simply put, the country and its people need to make an informed choice for the future. We have dabbled with solid waste management — and banning incineration — for about 20 years now. And what have we got to show for it now? Some quarter claims our solid waste management law is among the best in the world. But have we actually solved our garbage problem? Have we actually cleaned our air and water sources? Or do we remain to be among the top sources of ocean plastic or plastic pollution in our world seas?
I am not lobbying for any particular technology. However, I do believe that looking for ways to benefit from waste — and using them productively rather than just burying them — will better serve the interests of our people. If incineration can prove itself “clean” enough as a process, then I believe we should consider it and promote it rather than strictly confining ourselves to what law prohibits at present. Laws can be changed to benefit people.
Incineration, or course, is not the only recourse. Technologies that make use of waste plastic in road construction as well as converting waste plastic into building material should likewise be encouraged and promoted. The effort should not be driven purely by the private sector. The government, whether national or local, should have some stake in the game.
Municipal waste-to-energy facilities will ease the pressure on local governments as well as the MMDA to build and operate landfills. Moreover, costs in waste management can be offset by income from power generation. At the very least, through a combination of solar farms and waste-to-energy facilities, perhaps cities and towns can be partly energy self-sufficient.
The MILENA-OLGA process, for instance, entails heating garbage to over 705° Celsius. And while converting solid waste to gas generates carbon dioxide, this is offset by reducing the use of fossil fuel and eliminates methane produced by landfills. The process also claims to emit zero wastewater and produce no particulates or other pollutants.
And only a small portion of the original solid waste — garbage — is left over as inert white ash, which can be used to make cement. The system is said to be capable of powering turbines similar to those used for generating electricity with natural gas.
Puerto Princesa City in Palawan has reportedly partnered with a private company to put up a waste-to-energy plant that will make use of garbage from the Sta. Lourdes Sanitary Landfill. About 110 metric tons of garbage per day will be used as fuel or feed stock to generate 5.5 megawatts of electricity.
Other than Puerto Princesa, I believe even Davao City has initiated a waste-to-energy project, to be supported by Japanese funding and technology. Waste-to-energy facilities can benefit particular islands with limited space for landfills, and small cities and towns. Even places like Baguio City and Boracay can benefit from such technology.
There will always be arguments for and against waste incineration and waste-to-energy conversion. But we need to reopen the floor to debates and informed discussions, to allow all parties concerned to discuss the issues, and for policymakers to consider all the pros and cons. Garbage-related laws dating back 20 years or so need to be reviewed and updated to deal with the pressing needs of today.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.