July 21, 2024

Lulled by the long and technical list of offices that will make up the city government under its revised charter as embodied under Republic Act 11689, one might miss that seemingly innocent-looking Section 48.

The said section creates a position for a “City Solid and Liquid Wastes Management Officer” and mandates said officer to “institutionalize generations of renewable energy from waste through waste-to-energy and other technologies…”

Looks pretty harmless and ignorable amidst the other issues meted against the revised charter.

But wait. What is this waste-to-energy (WTE) technology and why is it highlighted and merited in a city charter, no less?

Essentially, a WTE facility intends to burn our waste. Proponents claim the process is clean. They say it has no offensive toxic smoke generated and it even produces clean energy as a by-product. Sounds magical. We were always warned, however, that if something sounds too good to be true, we better look more closely.

First of all, RA 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 prohibits burning of waste – even burning of dried leaves that are typically used as “pang-siga” is banned. 

And with good reason.  Not only is the smoke from burning offensive to the eyes, lungs and the “sinampay; the burning process produces toxic substances or chemical harmful to humans and the environment.

WTE proponents claim these modern facilities emit little or no smoke, thus eliminating the possibility of air pollution.  Science however taught us that the amount of matter stays the same, even when matter changes form.

The transformation in this case is from solid waste to fuel, gas (in the form of smoke – minimal they say), and ash.  The ash accumulates at the bottom of the WTE chambers (bottom ash) or gets blown away by the wind (fly ash).

PLANNED WASTE-TO-ENERGY SITE — Between 2014 and 2015, the city government of Baguio during the term of former mayor Mauricio Domogan planned to set up a waste-to-energy facility within the 130-hectare city property in Sto. Tomas-Apugan in line with its integrated solid waste management system project. The plan did not push through due to unresolved concerns. — Harley Palangchao

Burning waste does not mean we can do away with hauling and sanitary landfills. We merely reduce the volume of what has to be hauled away. Ash from burning could be as much as one-fourth of the ori-ginal volume burned. Although there are studies showing that the ash is only one percent, that is still five tons a day based on the current waste generation of the city as shown in the Waste Analysis and Characterization Study (WACS) of 2022 which is close to 582 tons per day.

Certainly, the burning process reduces the volume of waste to be hauled and buried. However, the ash produced in a WTE facility contains chemicals and substance.  Analysis of ash from an incinerator in the Netherlands reveals presence of residues composed of close to 20 heavy metals including arsenic (poisonous when ingested and a known carcinogen), mercury (a neurotoxin) and lead (affects multiple organs brain, liver, kidney, and bones and especially harmful to children and women of child-bearing age and affects multiple organs brain, liver, kidney and bones and especially harmful to children and women of child-bearing age).

Two by-products of incineration – dioxins (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins-PCDD) and furans (polychlorinated dibenzofurans-PCDF) are so deadly they are included among the “dirty dozen” by the Stockholm Convention. 

Dioxin and furan are known to cause skin disorders, liver problems, impairment of the immune, endocrine, reproductive, and nervous system and is also known to cause certain types of cancers. 

Is Baguio prepared to deal with such toxic waste from WTE emissions when we can barely manage our hazardous wastes such as batteries and light bulbs that either end up being mixed with the regular wastes or are still being stored at home by well-meaning and ecologically conscious citizens?

WTEs are also the most wasteful way of dealing with waste. Not only is its construction costly with at least $82 million fund but also operating a WTE facility will require so much energy to generate heat that it will use up 80 percent of the energy it will produce. 

With an average lifespan of only 20 years, the facility has to earn so much to recover investment and costs of operation. No wonder a WTE requires a minimum of 500 tons of feedstock waste per day in order to run efficiently. Less than that would mean operating at a loss.

Now here’s the catch – WTE contracts typically include a “put or pay” clause.  Meaning, if a city is unable to provide the feedstock requirement, the city must pay the WTE company for the waste that was not provided.

The message is therefore clear: Produce more waste to keep the facility going. Consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and the continuous depletion of resources to produce more waste are therefore highly encouraged. What we will be burning are not waste – but wasted resources. What kind of planet will we leave to the generations that will inherit the Earth? And what values are we teaching them?

Now, what about the effects of WTE to climate change? Can we at least say that this technology will help mitigate climate change? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no. A large part of what we will burn is plastic which is made from petroleum – fossil fuel – the burning of which causes global warming and climate change. To meet the feedstock demand of a WTE facility, we will need to continue fossil fuel extraction, which by the way is a finite resource.

Going back to the revised charter of the city that proposed for the creation of a position for a City Solid and Liquid Wastes Management Officer, it must therefore be directed to support the use of clean energy and not the burning of resources. These ecologically safe technologies would include processing of organic wastes, biodigesters, biomass energy production, waste-heat recovery from waste water treatment and the like.

There is no magic wand to make our “basura” problems disappear.

The real, lasting and safe solutions require a huge amount of personal sacrifice, lifestyle change, and a change in the economic system. 

The real solution entails saying no to sachets, unnecessary packaging, plastic straws and all forms of single use plastics. It means bringing your own reusable carry bag to the market, avoiding the plastic cups, plastic spoons and forks, reducing unnecessary purchases. It needs designing products and product packaging that are re-useable, recyclable, compostable. It necessitates a transition to a real circular economy – where resources are continually reused and recycled to minimize waste and resource depletion.  

A huge sacrifice. But if we are not willing to make the sacrifice now – nature herself will compel us.

(Editors’ note: Zero Waste Baguio, Inc. is a non-stock, non-profit non-governmental organization registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission since 2017. Its main mission is to be a catalyst for citizen action towards a zero waste lifestyle and the full implementation of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Law.) ¢