Waste-to-energy bills more harm than good, envi groups warn

Environmental groups urged lawmakers March 19 to scrap bills lifting restrictions on waste incineration, saying that this will only create more problems in addressing the country’s garbage crisis. 

House Bill 7829, which was passed in November last year, aims to regulate technologies including incineration to lessen the harmful effects of waste. This repeals Section 20 of the Clean Air Act which bans the large-scale burning of garbage in the country.

Amending the said environmental law will give leeway for more emissions of greenhouse gases, said Luzon coordinator Chadli Sadorra of Break Free from Plastic Philippines.

Greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun, raising global temperatures.

Mas dudumi at mas magiging unhealthy na bansa ang Pilipinas,” he said.

Sadorra added that this will hinder the country from meeting its commitments in international climate treaties like the 2016 Paris Accord. 

In the agreement, the Philippines pledged to reduce 70% of its carbon emissions by 2030. The latest projections show the country will not meet its goal with its current policies and the rate it is emitting carbon.

Independent researchers at Climate Action Tracker forecast that present measures are not enough to meet the Philippines’ contribution to the global goal of keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Chart from Climate Action Tracker

A counterpart bill in the Senate called the Waste-to-Energy (WTE) Act, or SB 1789, was submitted in August 2020 by Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Francis Tolentino and Nancy Binay, but it is still pending on second reading. 

WTE is a process of converting solid waste such as food scraps, product packaging and home electronics into electrical energy through burning or incineration, among other methods.

The Senate law, like its House counterpart, seeks to encourage the use of WTE methods including incineration in the country’s solid waste management programs.

‘Problematic’ solution

Proponents of the legislation frame it as a solution to the country’s waste management crisis. 

Sen. Gatchalian, co-author of the bill, cites Singapore as an example. 

Singapore ships incinerated waste to a landfill on the artificial island of Semakau. But their environment ministry estimated in 2018 that the sanitary facility can meet waste management demands only until 2035.

Sadorra argued that the process does not entirely destroy garbage but transforms it. A 2015 study by the International Pollutants Elimination Network finds that burning solid waste produces ash 26 to 40% of its mass.

In their position paper, No Burn Pilipinas cited several figures showing that exposure to incinerators is linked with cancer, blood toxins and other health complications.

SB 1789 requires WTE facilities to comply with health standards in line with the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. These standards aim to reduce the harmful effects of disposing and processing solid waste on citizens’ well-being.

While the bill also includes provisions to minimize the greenhouse gasses released by incineration, Sadorra says it is “better said than done.”

We need specific technologies for that. It’s mostly available in the West and very expensive. Wala tayong kapasidad para i-monitor kung gaano karaming [toxic gases] ang nagsi-spread sa surrounding communities,” Sadorra added.

He added that incineration is “economically inefficient.” The US Energy Information Administration reported in 2016 that waste cost more than wind, natural gas and coal as an energy source.

Moreover, a 2021 study by the Philippine Institute for Developmental Studies (PIDS) reported that biodegradable matter, which comprises over half of the nation’s solid waste, is “unfit” for WTE through burning.

Piling up

PIDS also projected that by 2025 Filipinos will generate twice the amount of garbage in 2015, 11% of which consists of plastics.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) claimed that over half of the residual plastic waste stream is composed of sachets.

One Filipino uses nearly 600 sachets every year. In total, the number of sachets balloons up to 59.8 billion, GAIA estimated in 2019.

PIDS attributed this to a growing population and its consumption patterns, but Sadorra points to manufacturers for the shift to the mainstreaming of single-use plastics.

The state-funded think tank showed in a brand audit that Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble account for a quarter of that waste. All three are multinational companies that produce essential consumer goods like food and hygiene products.

These numbers, however, do not include the additional medical waste from the pandemic response, which the Asian Development Bank forecasted in April 2020 to be at a rate of 280 tons daily. 

The audit has yet to consider as well the plastics for packaging in online shopping popularized even more during the community quarantine.

(READ: Ready to add to cart? How online shopping creates ‘silent plastic problem’)

This trend indicates an overproduction in single-use plastics which no waste management plan can completely solve, Sadorra said.

He claimed that SB 1789 may incentivize further waste generation as local government units will be tasked to provide feedstock or a supply of waste for WTE facilities.

“Imagine a tub being filled with water to the brim tapos you’re trying to empty the tub. Ang gamit mo lang kamay mo. Pero bukas pa rin ‘yung faucet at malaki ‘yung faucet. Patuloy-tuloy siyang mapupuno,” Sadorra added

‘Closing the faucet’

Sadorra clarified that environmental organizations stand only against incineration. He suggested other sustainable methods to generate energy from waste, one of which is anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion uses bacteria to break down organic waste like food scraps and leaves in a controlled environment without oxygen, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This may yield biogas, a renewable energy source that can generate electricity for households and for transportation. 

One anaerobic digestion facility has been installed in Malabon City, one of the first in the region.

For Sadorra, government authorities must shift their focus from WTE and towards reducing, reusing and repurposing products and packaging so that nothing else is wasted.

The National Solid Waste Management Commission in its 2016 solid waste management strategy placed waste recovery below other options like reduction and recycling, with waste avoidance still the top priority. “The success of processing and recovery of waste highly depends on the effectiveness of other prior activities,” it stated.

The government still sees avoidance as the most recommended solution. It is also the most challenging to implement, according to the National Solid Waste Management Commission.

This will require residential and industrial areas to start thinking about reducing their waste, or in Sadorra’s words, “closing the faucet.”

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