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Monday, March 4, 2024

Burning trash and incinerators will just harm the environment

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Generating electricity from wastes seems to be a win-win solution. You produce electricity from non-fossil sources—as opposed to crude oil and coal—and reduce carbon emissions at the same time to help protect the environment.

But the waste-to-energy option is far from ideal. It involves waste incineration that contributes to air pollution. Toxic fumes from incinerators, as we know, are bad for the health, especially in areas with a large concentration of population.

Incinerator companies nowadays are marketing waste-to-energy as a source of renewable energy. Unlike wind, solar or wave energy, however, waste is produced from finite natural processes, like fossil fuels and forest trees that are mowed down irresponsibly. Environment warriors should pause and think about the merits and demerits of advocating the waste-to-energy choice.

The Senate is now deliberating on a bill to institutionalize the production of energy from waste. The objectives of the bill are commendable, although careful studies should be made to really ascertain that the Philippines can, indeed, manage waste efficiently and secure energy supply.

It is basic that one has to burn garbage to produce heat and electricity and that the main equipment to do this is through an incinerator.

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Highly-developed nations with advanced WTE technology have invested billions of dollars on facilities that turn waste into electricity with very minimal impact on the environment. Can investors in the Philippines afford the big investment?

They sure can with higher power rates to justify the investment. Or they may seek subsidies to support incineration.

Waste management, meanwhile, will surely undergo a horde of regulations, with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, local government units and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources jostling with each other to stamp their authority.

An investor will think twice before joining the the WTE foray. The Department of Energy (DOE) is another layer of bureaucracy that one has to navigate. One wonders how will the DOE coordinate its act with other agencies,whose main tasks revolve around collecting, segregating, storing and preparing the tens of millions of tons of garbage that more than 100 million Filipinos discard everyday.

Costing is a major factor to make the WTE viable. To make for an efficient conversion of waste to energy, wastes should be first managed properly. This requires a materials recovery facilities (MRF) that will store the garbage before it is fed into machines to generate electricity.

Like state-of-the-art incinerators that don’t harm the environment, MRFs are not cheap to build. Investors, even those with deep pockets, would surely hesitate to spend on MRFs and incinerators separately unless they simply wanted to waste their money.

The partnership between MRF and WTE investors could make it work but the bureaucratic maze will surely discourage even the most dogged businessman.

Waste management is a costly undertaking, too. The costs range from $50 to $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. Such amounts are certainly unacceptable, especially if an LGU is cash-strapped.

One way to synchronize garbage collection in the WTE is to centralize MRFs in regional or provincial levels. Once this is done, the private sector can be enticed to invest in WTE facilities knowing there are modern MRFs at hand to supply the waste that the WTE would need.

The WTE bill will also have to go through the House of Representatives. Intelligent deliberations on the bill should be conducted to determine what is best for economic development and the Philippines’s renewable energy drive.

For the guide of our lawmakers, burning waste is hazardous to one’s health and the environment. The most advanced technologies so far cannot avoid the release of huge amounts of pollutants that contaminate air, soil and water, and end up entering the food chain. The recent smog that enveloped the metropolis is a reminder of how bad air pollution in the Philippines is.

The WTE in its current form is not a win-win solution after all. We are better off if we invest in environmentally-friendly and energy saving practices, like recycling and composting, than subsidizing the WTE.

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