Waste-to-energy: A boon or bane for Philippines?

Danessa Rivera - The Philippine Star

(Part 1)

The government will push for the development of waste-to-energy (WTE) projects, despite strong opposition from various groups, in hopes of at least putting a dent in the country’s perennial garbage problem.

The garbage crisis has been the country’s main environmental problem for decades and the pandemic has again put a spotlight on this concern, given the increase in waste generation from tons of plastics and medical wastes.

The recently concluded national and local elections also compounded the waste problem with campaign posters, flyers and other paraphernalia left after the 90-day campaign period.

Clearly, Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 has not met its objective of solving the garbage crisis.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said only 30 percent of barangays nationwide have materials recovery facilities (MRF), while only 30 percent of cities and municipalities are being served by sanitary landfills.

The country’s growing population – now pegged at 109.99 million based on latest estimates of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) – coupled with an expanding economy means more waste generated.

There’s also the issue of land being finite. By 2030, the country may no longer have enough space in sanitary landfills for more garbage.

To address the country’s perennial waste problem, the government sees the development of WTE facilities as the immediate solution.

WTE versus sanitary landfills

The DENR, through a department administration order (DAO) issued in November 2019, provided guidelines on the establishment and operation of WTE facilities for the treatment of municipal solid waste in the country.

The department sees WTE as a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to the traditional sanitary landfill, which is the waste disposal method allowed under the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

More recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued department circular 2022-02-0002 in February. This prescribes the policies and programs to promote and enhance the development of biomass WTE facilities. The circular took effect on March 18.

Currently, there are 13 WTE plants registered with the DOE, six of which are already operating with a combined installed capacity of 9.69 megawatts (MW). These are located in Metro Manila, Rizal, Cavite and Cebu.

The remaining seven projects, which are all in Luzon and have a 42.48-MW total capacity, are in different stages of development.

There has also been a growing interest in WTE technology among local government units (LGUs).

For one, Ormoc City in Leyte is interested in investing in a WTE project, Mayor Richard Gomez said in 2019. Its only problem is the feedstock—if the city’s waste generation is enough to support a WTE project.

Last year, the Quezon City local government revived discussions with the group of Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) to develop a 30 to 40-megawatt (MW) WTE facility in Payatas.

In the same year, Metro Clark Waste Management Corp. (MCWM) was also hoping to get the approval to construct a 35-MW WTE project in the Clark Special Economic Zone. Its proposed project is said to use up to 70 percent of waste that would find its way into the landfill as fuel.

More recently, Cebu City Council approved last March a joint venture agreement with New Sky Energy Philippines Inc. to put up an incinerator- based WTE plant. The widely opposed project is now up for Swiss challenge.

Even Davao City started exploring WTE as a waste management option since its existing sanitary landfill neared full capacity.

For this, the city government of Davao Environment Bureau City of Kitakyushu, Japanese non-profit group Kitakyushu City Environmental Preservation Association (KEPA) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2017.

And as the country shifts away from coal power development, the DOE is also looking at is the repurposing coal fired power plants to biomass/WTE plants, based on the newly released WTE policy.

DOE-Biomass Energy Management Division chief Ruby De Guzman said the agency launched a study for the possible co-firing of coal with biomass/WTE based on an ASEAN project in 2019 where it investigated the possibility biomass co-firing it with coal in Indonesia.

For this study, the agency is eyeing STEAG State Power Inc. (SPI)’s 210-MW coal-fired thermal power plant in Misamis Oriental.

“We are targeting to complete the study within the year. We need to do data gathering, including technical specifications of feedstock, coal, equipment, and match it with existing biomass or potential biomass resources,” de Guzman said.

But why WTE?

The DOE recognizes that biomass WTE facilities simultaneously achieve the twin economic benefits on local government units’ (LGUs) solid waste management and provision of additional source of power.

“We minimize the solid waste and help LGUs, and provide additional power supply,” de Guzman said.

Instead of bringing trash to the landfill, municipal waste could instead be taken to WTE facilities to become fuel.

“Rather than building up more landfills, if municipal waste is brought straight to the WTE facility, it can be directly used as fuel after the segregation,” de Guzman said.

The WTE technology is covered under RA 9153, or the Renewable Energy (RE) Act of 2008.

Under the law, WTE technologies refer to systems which convert to biodegradable materials into useful energy through processes such as anaerobic digestion, fermentation and gasification, among others.

Fuel for WTE include some biomass resources, which cover agricultural products, by-products and residues but also biodegradable organic fractions of industrial and municipal wastes that can be used for bioconversion or other processes. It also includes gases and liquid recovered from decomposition or extraction of non-fossilized and biodegradable organic materials.

And as mandated by law, the DOE shall encourage the adoption and development of WTE as a source of power as long as they comply with RA 8749 or the Clean Air Act of 1999 and the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

To explain the renewable concept of WTE, this all boils down to the infinite production of municipal solid waste due to the growing consumption of an increasing population, De Guzman said.

Municipal solid waste is defined waste produced from activities within local government units, which include a combination of residential, commercial, institutional and industrial trash and street litters.

“Municipal solid waste is intertwined with existing of modern human society. And as long as people continue to live and enjoy the goods and amenities that the modern civilization provides, municipal solid waste—whether organic and inorganic—will be produced,” the DOE official said.

“Therefore, municipal solid waste fits in the definition of RE resource – energy resources that have no upper limit, renewable on a regular on a basis, renewal rate is relatively rapid to consider availability over an indefinite period of time,” she said.

WTE is not renewable

However, environment groups do not acknowledge WTE as an renewable energy source as this only promotes the use of plastic and worsens climate change.

For one, Greenpeace does not recognize WTE and plastic-to-fuel technologies as renewable energy because these in fact perpetuate the plastic crisis and climate emergency, said Marian Frances Ledesma, its zero-waste campaigner for Southeast Asia–Philippines.

“They discourage waste prevention and justify the continued use of plastic, since cities usually have to guarantee a minimum volume of waste for these facilities. Waste-to-energy incinerators are also carbon intensive, producing more emissions per kWh compared to conventional fossil fuels,” she said.

Moreover, Greenpeace said all municipal waste cannot be classified as renewable biomass as the Renewable Energy Act refers to biomass resources as non-fossilized, biodegradable organic material.

Ledesma said around 99 percent of plastic comes from fossil fuels, so a substantial portion of municipal residual waste is neither a biomass resource nor is it renewable.

On the other hand, burning of organic waste is inefficient as it uses more power to burn organic waste than the energy generated when incinerating it.

“Waste-to-energy, with the exception of anaerobic digestion, has no place in the country’s energy transition as it is neither clean nor safe,” she said.

But Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) said WTE should be considered more in the context of waste management and circular economy options than as energy solutions.

“WTE is often considered a costly option for waste disposal and energy generation when compared with other fossil fuel-powered generation alternatives,” the ADB Philippines Country Office said in email replies to The STAR.

It said WTE is under the recovery phase of the waste management hierarchy and covers a wider range of processes than incineration such as biogas generation from the organic portion of waste, landfill gas capture, a range of processes including pyrolysis, gasification and thermal depolymerization, among others.

On a case-to-case basis, among the benefits a WTE projects include reductions in open burning of solid waste which generate dioxin, PM2.5 and black carbon emissions that are exceptionally damaging to human and environmental health; reductions in fugitive methane emissions from waste fermentation (even from capped landfills, not all methane can be captured); and displacement of fossil fuels for power and heat generation

It also has risks which need to be considered, including atmospheric emissions need to be carefully controlled to ensure no risk to health; residual ash needs appropriate containment and disposal; and economic viability depends on the calorific value of the waste, which needs to be sufficiently high.

“A WTE project would only be considered if the risks can be mitigated and the benefits clearly outweigh costs,” the ADB said.

To help address the some concerns on safety, DOE-Renewable Energy Management Bureau (REMB) director Mylene Capongcol said the agency is teaming up with the DENR to ensure that all WTE programs are compliant with existing laws and clean energy technology standards.

“The DOE has already indicated that WTE has two major contributions in the country like solid waste management as well as additional energy supply for the country, particularly for LGUs. There’s a lot of LGUs now engaging or looking at WTE program,” she said.

“We are now partnering with DENR, the Solid Waste Management Bureau and other units in the government to ensure that all WTE projects will be clean and free from any harmful effects to the country and the consumers,” Capongcol said.

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