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Image: Owi Liunic

Waste-to-Energy Plants Keep Trash From Mounting. So Why Are Environmentalists Against Them?

Burning trash and turning it into energy keeps countries like Sweden and Japan clean. But environmentalists say this comes at a cost.
Therese Reyes
Manila, PH
September 25, 2020, 11:24am

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Not so long ago, the sweet scent of pine welcomed visitors driving up to the Philippines’ highland city of Baguio. Vicky Bautista, 58, remembers smelling it too, as cool air touched her skin during long walks in the forest when she was young. She still lives there but longs for the hometown in her memories.

“Now, I have to pick up a pine branch and smell it in order to smell pine,” she told VICE News. “It’s gone.”

Baguio sits on the mountains of Luzon island, about 250 km north of Manila, and is known for its year-round cool weather. It’s a popular tourist destination that over a million people visited in 2019. But rapid development has changed its landscape, cutting down the pine trees from Bautista’s youth, congesting roads, and making the air the most polluted in the country. Then there’s the trash.

Baguio produces about 402,777 kg of waste per day. Because of limited space and the city’s unique terrain, it does not have an engineered sanitary landfill and spends millions hauling residual or non-recyclable waste to a lowland province. The local government hopes to limit this through various methods, including a proposal for a “waste-to-energy” facility.

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Baguio City in January. Photo: Therese Reyes

From trash to power

Waste-to-energy facilities or WTEs, turn one man’s trash into another man’s power. It comes in many forms, with new technologies promising little to no negative effects. But environmentalists have one word for it: incineration.

“The energy you can produce from waste to energy is very little… waste-to-energy is a waste management business,” Glenn Ymata of Break Free From Plastic Philippines told VICE News. “They just spice it up.”

Incineration is widely used in European countries, where there is limited space for landfills. It has also worked to keep trash off the streets and waters in Japan and Singapore. But burning waste is a polarizing method.

Supporters say it significantly reduces the volume of solid waste and helps avoid an overflow of landfills. Newer WTEs don’t do direct burning, and instead use processes that claim to be safer for the environment like pyrolysis, gasification, and plasma arc gasification, which convert solid waste into synthetic gas or oils to create electricity. In the United States, WTEs are even considered a renewable energy source.

However, critics warn that even the most advanced facilities are not completely clean. Unlike wind, solar, or wave energy, waste does not come from an unlimited source. Incineration could also emit toxic chemicals like dioxins and furans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), incomplete burning from uncontrolled incinerators are “often the worst culprits” of dioxin released into the environment, where it can stay, be passed for generations, and cause skin lesions, cancer, and negative effects on the reproductive and immune systems.

Based on Ymata's latest count, there are currently 18 active WTE project proposals in the Philippines. He and other environmentalists are now trying to halt these plans. Their main argument: burning trash is illegal. The Philippines’ Clean Air Act states that burning waste is not allowed if the process “emits poisonous and toxic fumes.”

By these standards, some government officials argue that WTEs should be allowed because technological advances have made them safer. They also cite a Supreme Court decision saying that not all forms of incineration are prohibited. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself said early in his term that he plans to build WTEs.

“The adoption of appropriate waste-to-energy facilities will be explored. There are a lot. The technology is coming very fast,” he said during his first State of the Nation Address in 2016.

The Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has since released guidelines for WTE facilities. "That's our direction now, considering there's increasing generation of waste in the country," DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones said in 2019.

Several lawmakers are now actively pushing bills to allow WTEs. One of its biggest proponents is Senator Win Gatchalian, the son of a plastic manufacturing tycoon known as the “Plastic King.” As a principal author of the Waste-to-Energy Bill, Gatchalian said that the “reduce, reuse, recycle” method is a “failure” because most villages don’t actually follow it. An earlier version of the bill sought to provide a framework for WTE facilities and “ensure the uninterrupted supply of waste as feedstock.”

This is exactly what environmentalists are afraid of.

"The government has to encourage people to produce more waste,” Ymata said, adding that the government may allow the importation of waste from other countries just to provide continuous waste feedstock for these WTE facilities.

“[I]t's like a can of worm[s],” he said. “When you start allowing it, there will be...other problem[s] that will surface along the way."

The burning problem

Some cities are already making moves to set up WTEs, including Bautista’s hometown Baguio.

“You need the waste-to-energy approach because that is the next-generation way to manage waste,” Baguio City General Services Officer Eugene Buyucan told VICE News, adding that the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle is “utopian.”

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Trash in the streets of Baguio. Photo: Courtesy of Vicky Bautista

There are no definite plans yet for the proposed WTE plant in Baguio, which the local government hopes to use for residual waste. Buyucan said they are still looking for an area that would fit requirements and reviewing what kind of technology to use, but it remains a priority.

In September 2019, three months into his first term, Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong formalized a partnership with the Philippine National Oil Corporation Renewables to conduct feasibility studies for a WTE facility. The previous mayor inked a similar partnership earlier that year. A retired police general, Magalong’s campaign promised a "breath of fresh air" and a focus on environmental preservation.

“We can’t do what they say about managing the waste with a zero-waste approach, or else we could be buried in trash,” Buyucan said.

Bautista disagrees. As part of the organization Zero Waste Baguio, she now dedicates her time fighting against building a WTE facility in her city and other environmental causes.

“I think many people who grew up in Baguio have learned to be environmentalists, in a sense, because we saw a city that was very conducive to loving nature,” she said.

Baguio is one of the Philippine cities most vulnerable to climate change, exposing it to extreme weather conditions like typhoons and landslides. The effects are obvious to Bautista, who said climate change has warmed Baguio’s year-round cool weather. “It’s July and I use a fan,” she said.

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Bautista talking about climate change. Photo: Courtesy of Vicky Bautista

Bautista said that building a WTE facility could further damage the city’s environment, as it would lead to the cutting down of more trees.

“Baguio is already so small...it's already very crowded,” she said. “I don't think there's any place you can put a waste-to-energy facility, first of all, that will not impact on humans.”

Over 1,000 km away from Baguio, Davao City in Mindanao has more concrete plans for a WTE facility. Though construction has not started yet and more funding is needed, First Daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte said in October 2019 that the city has started preparing for the WTE facility, which the Japanese government has offered to partly fund.

According to Davao’s City Environment and Natural Resources Office (Cenro), the city generated around 900 tons of garbage per day in 2019. About 300 tons are recycled or reused, while 600 tons end in a landfill.

“Efficiency-wise, we really think that it's (WTE) efficient,” Asst. City Administrator Tristan Dwight Domingo told VICE News. “We can't just be putting up landfills every now and then, like every 10 years or 20 years. Sooner or later...we'll find a hard time looking for land.”

They’re considering a grate stoker-furnace incineration plant in the agricultural area Biao Escuela, which purportedly could reduce municipal solid waste by 80 to 90 percent, according to a 2016 Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) report.

Domingo is confident that current technology is mature enough to be safe. “[W]e're quite sure that if we check it properly, we monitor it properly, it will have really negligible effects in terms of the community or the environment surrounding it or in our city, in particular,” he said.

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Break Free From Plastic Philippines visited the proposed site for Davao City's WTE facility. Photo: Thea Kersti Tandog, courtesy of Break Free From Plastic Philippines

The lure of WTE facilities lies in the Philippines’ overwhelming trash problem. In 2016, the country generated 40,087 tons of waste per day. With the lack of proper waste management, it has become one of the world’s top polluting countries. The burden lies on the local governments, which are tasked to address the problem in their own areas. This is why cities like Baguio, Davao, and many others, started considering WTE plants.

The strategy has proven effective in some countries, at least in preventing an overflow of landfills and keeping public areas clean. Japan, known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, has about 380 WTE plants — and even more incinerators — and burns about 78 percent of its waste. It has developed technology and processes that reduce emissions of dioxin, greenhouse gases, and other harmful substances. But doing this in the Philippines will entail a lot of money.

“The bottom line is, if you're really serious about a functioning waste to energy [facility], it's going to be expensive,” said Fabian M. Dayrit, a professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Chemistry who completed his doctoral studies in chemistry at Princeton University. “You can't say that money's not the problem because that's what's gonna make it run well or not.”

Most new plants make use of scrubbers, precipitators, and filters to catch compounds and prevent them from being released into the environment. Thoroughly characterizing waste is necessary because not all waste is suitable for processing. Ideally, only residual waste — non-hazardous waste that can’t be reused or recycled — are processed in WTEs. Burning non-recyclables with trace metals, chlorine, and sulphur — like PVC plastic — is dangerous so they need to be segregated. Without strict enforcement, even WTE technology deemed safe could still have negative effects.

Controversial impact

WTEs are promoted as an “eco-friendly” alternative to landfilling. Supporters claim they reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about a ton for every ton of waste that’s not landfilled. The idea is that as the burning of fossil fuels for energy goes down, methane generated in landfills do as well. Metals that are not burned are also recycled. However, other studies show that recycling plastic saves more energy than burning plastic. Ash incineration, which is usually more toxic than solid waste, also still needs to be buried, so it does not completely get rid of landfills. Plastic is still burned and released into the atmosphere, turning solid waste into air pollution and creating a “landfill in the sky,” Ahmina Maxey, U.S. and Canada regional coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said.

“You have a material that is designed, you know, not to burn, and now you're gonna burn it. So even with those…‘clean plastics,’ you have problems,” Dayrit said.

The worst part, environmental advocates say, is that allowing WTEs would only derail sustainability efforts. Japan, for all its success in keeping streets clean through incineration, only recycles about 20 percent of its waste, one of the lowest among OECD countries.

“I think the worst part about it is it is giving the message that it's OK to create waste, which it is not, because we have a finite planet,” Bautista said.

“The more that you consume and the more that you waste, the more that we are depleting the resources of our planet. Which means we are compromising the future generation.”

Domingo said that WTEs will only be one part of a larger plan and believes it could even encourage people in Davao to segregate trash properly. Buyucan, meanwhile, said that having the facility in Baguio would solve two problems at the same time — mounting residual waste and the need for cleaner energy.

But Ymata of Break Free From Plastic Philippines said the government does not need to look far to properly address the trash problem — just follow the law to the letter. He cited the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, which prioritizes resource conservation and recovery, waste minimization, and more participation from the private sector. It requires segregation and recycling at a village-level and excludes incineration as a solution.

“Waste management does not require [a] high-tech solution,” Ymata said, adding that the government should just invest in helping local governments implement the solid waste management law.

“Supporting LGUs (local government units)... will not require [the] spending of billions of pesos just to make them effective in managing the waste. And you won’t have dangers on public health and [the] environment.”

Bautista acknowledged that reducing waste is difficult but crucial.

“There's a lot that we have to give up to be able to have a zero-waste lifestyle. Many people are unwilling to give up much of the material goods that have come to define who they are. At the rate that humans are destroying this planet however, giving up material possessions may become not a matter of choice.”

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