FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

It is not only traffic congestion that is killing us. We are swimming in our own waste – literally.

A recent newspaper report gives us the terrifying numbers. Our failure to manage our waste is even worse than our failure to manage traffic flow.

The newspaper report quotes Netherlands-based environmental NGO Ocean Cleanup. As of 2021, the Philippines contributed 36 percent of plastic waste found in the oceans. About 466 Philippine rivers discharge 356,371 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste into the sea annually.

Even new regulations encouraging the use of biodegradable plastics do not help. These more expensive plastic products degrade into microplastics that infiltrate our water systems and the food we consume. Another report I read says that even bottled water was found to contain microplastics.

The most alarming thing in this report is that microplastic material, when consumed, enters our bloodstream. That raises the possibility of strokes. Our mismanaged waste will literally kill us.

The newspaper report includes startling numbers from Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga. She says the country generates as much as 61,000 metric tons of solid waste daily. That is enough to fill 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The generated waste, says Yulo-Loyzaga, includes 163 million plastic sachet packets, 48 million shopping bags and 45 million thin-film bags. Because of the deficiencies in our garbage collection, this discharge of plastic waste is thrown into our water channels and eventually flow to the sea. Microplastics are ingested by planktons and eventually make their way to our food.

We do have laws that intend to stem the tide of mismanaged waste. One is Republic Act No. 9003 (Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000). But with scarce local government resources, this act is honored mainly in the breach. Only 39.05 percent of barangays have materials recovery facilities.

We also have the Clean Air Act which regulates incineration of waste material. But we have not built enough modern facilities to allow us to safely burn waste. 

Mega Manila transports its waste to remote landfills. These dumping areas are overflowing.

We have a number of waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities in the country – although all too meager to absorb the huge volume of solid waste we generate. They are certainly not enough to meet our energy needs.

Some concern has been raised about the pollution that WTE plants generate. We do not have a law governing the use of this technology, although one senator is introducing a bill to fill that void. We know from other pieces of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, enforcement tends to be spotty.

There are emerging technologies that will enable us to leapfrog from WTE plants straight to waste-to-fuel (WTF) facilities.

WTE basically involves using solid waste as fuel, burning trash to produce heat that in turn is used to produce electricity. It is a dirty process that requires the highest standards of filtration to prevent pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere.

The emerging WTF technologies enable harvesting of fuels from waste material. Among these are: refuse derived fuel (RDF), sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), biodiesel and gas such as bio-CNG and H2.

The fuel harvested from solid waste can be used directly to power generators and other machines such as aircraft.

The WTE bill to be deliberated at the Senate ought to be immediately upgraded to include WTF facilities. The latter technology is safer than the available WTE plants since no incineration is involved.

As in all new technology, the establishment of WTF facilities require a competent regulatory framework. Such a framework demands close collaboration between government agencies: the DENR for monitoring waste management compliance, the DOE for energy regulation and the DILG for local waste collection and proper disposal.

Countries such as India and Thailand have ventured into WTF technology. We can learn from their experiences.

To be sure, moving to the new technology will require massive new investments. Government must be prepared to grant incentives to investments in the new technologies. This is necessary to meet our carbon reduction targets, manage the trash that threatens to engulf us and evolve new sources of energy.

In the years since the enactment of the National Solid Waste Management Act, all we have learned is that there are not enough financial resources in the public sector to finance responsible management of our waste. We need the private sector to come and invest in new technologies that will help us manage our waste while creating new sources of fuel and energy.

We have to understand that producing fuels from waste has to be a profitable enterprise to be a sustainable one. Otherwise, we fall into the old statist traps that prevented otherwise progressive environmental laws from being fully enforced.

There is little time to lose. We have to start building the regulatory and fiscal regime to encourage deployment of new technologies that will help us manage our waste.

With our plastic wastes polluting the world’s oceans and our trash killing all our river systems, we need a comprehensive framework that facilitates responsible waste management by making this an attractive business proposition. We might even tap into global financing for emission reduction investments to achieve this.

We are wasting too much time and energy in petty politicking. Our legislators ought to look into how we might be able to harness new technologies – and draw new investments – to help us deal with our mountains of trash while creating the fuels we could use.

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