Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Is burning really the solution?

The problem of solid waste is in the headlines again.

With stories like the Baguio (Irisan) trash slide, the Olongapo trash slide and the flooding in Metro Manila and central Luzon aggravated by the fact that our rivers and canals are full of trash, the problem of solid waste is being confronted once again, both at the local and national level.

Sadly, instead of promoting ecological alternatives (there are plenty of success stories out there), certain groups and even media personalities are promoting fake solutions to something that is not even a problem in the first place.

The things that we throw away are not waste, they are resources if we only manage them properly.

Sadly, people are after quick "solutions" like incineration. MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino said he is open to reviving incineration as a way to address the problem of waste. DENR Secretary Ramon Paje is said to be to open to discussing it (thou he claims he was misquoted).

Ms. Karen Davila of ABS-CBN has been promoting it as a "practical solution," calling groups against it as "idealist." But are groups who are against incinerators really just idealist?

The EcoWaste Coalition, Mother Earth Foundation, GAIA, Greenpeace, and Health Care Without Harm are just some of the groups who are actively campaigning against the revival of incinerators. These are the same groups who worked hard to ensure that a ban on incineration is included in the Clean Air Act and Ecological Solid Waste Management Act which resulted in making the Philippines the first country in the world to ban incinerators (a lot of state or cities have made a similar move too).

So what is their issue with incineration? In their position submitted to the DENR and the MMDA, the groups summarized their position:

The revival and promotion of the use of incinerators, thermal waste-to-energy systems and more landfills will lead to:

1.    A BLATANT VIOLATION OF THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO LIVE IN A SAFE AND TOXIC-FREE ENVIRONMENT. No less than the Philippine Constitution of 1987, Section 17, provides that “The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.” The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (Republic Act 9003), Clean Air Act (RA 8749), Clean Water Act (RA 9275), and other related laws of the country are all designed to assure such right of the people.

There are more than enough studies already attesting to the irreversible ill-effects of the above-stated technologies for waste disposal on all forms of life and on the environment, and to their contribution to the worsening condition of global warming and climate change.

Very recently, on September 18, 2011, the special rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized the irrationality of these toxic facilities and called for an end to the incineration of medical waste in order to protect human health and the environment.   The recommendation is the substitution of incineration with more environmental-friendly and safe methods of disposal.   

2.    AGGRAVATION OF GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE. Incinerators and landfills are a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute greatly to the worsening climate.

The first of four fact sheets we are providing entitled “Incineration of Municipal Solid Waste / Impact on Global Warming” published by the David  Suzuki Foundation et al., in May 2007 states that a study comparing  technologies used in Ontario, Canada that produce energy shows that “incineration (labelled in the table as “gasification”) contributes the greatest amount of greenhouse  gas emissions” at 1,800 gms/kwh, followed by combustion or mass burning (1,400gms/kwh), coal-fired (1,000gms/kwh), natural gas steam turbine (less than 1,000gms/kwh), and natural gas combined cycle (less than 400). 

On the other hand, landfills are huge sources of methane, a potent GHG with 72 times more climatic impact compared to carbon in the next 20 years.

3.    TOXIC PROLIFERATION. Mixed solid wastes, when burned or heated, or subjected to gasification, pyrolysis or plasma produce air emissions or leach out extremely hazardous substances from heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, nickel, cadmium, vanadium and manganese to supertoxic dioxins and furans. 

Incineration also produces bottom and fly ash, and sludge which have been found in several studies to be even more toxic than those emitted to the air or leached to the ground.  And while incineration does reduce the mass of solid waste, the toxic ash which it will inevitably produce poses another equally difficult, if not greater, problem of disposal.

The problem with landfills is that they take up so much space that could otherwise be used for productive pursuits or for protecting the environment.

The reality is that so-called landfills are most often than not located in forested areas, watersheds, agricultural areas, beside rivers and near the seas, which are all environmentally critical areas.

With the increasing establishment of so-called sanitary landfills which regularly turn into dumpsites, more and more of the country’s soil and water resources are becoming toxic, which in turn expose more people to various tragedies.

4.    LOSS OF VALUABLE RESOURCES. Waste is a resource-turned-garbage if mixed with other useful discards.   If collected, hauled, and dumped or burned as such, it results in a tremendous loss of otherwise great wealth.

A study of the anatomy of waste reveals that almost 100% of our wastes, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable, can be recycled or composted; the remaining non-recyclable fraction— hazardous, infectious, and toxic wastes—can be properly dealt with using environment-friendly methods.

If research on the use and value of waste resources is fully pursued as mandated in RA 9003, this would generate substantial and continuing knowledge and know-how for the country to prevent discards from being wasted and use such resources in establishing a sustainable, cyclical - not linear - economy that is allows diminishing natural resources to replenish itself.

5.    LOSS OF MILLIONS OF JOBS IN THE RECYCLING INDUSTRY AND IMPLEMENTATION OF ECOLOGICAL SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT. Considering that waste is valuable resource, its incineration will result in the loss of livelihood in many informal recycling sectors, small industries, and communities whose residents are engaged in recycling, composting, segregation and collection of waste.

6.    INCINERATION IS A COSTLY COMMITMENT.  “State-of-the-art incinerators” like gasification, pyrolysis and plasma technologies are extremely expensive to install and operate.    They suck public resources that are better used for basic social services like health and education.  Studies show that Japan for example invested almost one third of the total expenditure of taxpayers’ money towards the improvement of incineration facilities with advanced technologies, this has not stopped the formation and release of dioxins from these plants. This is the same situation for other pollutants such as heavy metals and toxic trace chemicals.

Contractual obligations to supply a certain tonnage of waste per year to the incinerator can saddle municipalities with financial liabilities if there is a miscalculation in waste generation or a decreasing waste stream, giving them an incentive to maintain the supply of waste or even import it. [2]
Recent news even cited the bad experience of the City of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania where the city government “fell victim to the "incinerator from hell"—a waste-to-energy incinerator whose renovation caused the town to go $310 million into debt, five times as much money as the city has in its general fund, according to the Stateline newspaper.”[3]  This prompted Pennsylvania to declare its capitol financially distressed.

7.    PROLIFERATION OF FAILED TECHNOLOGY. In 2000, through a loan from the Bank of Austria, the Philippine Government received 26 “state-of-the-art” medical waste incinerators. At the outset, these incinerators failed our emission standards for dioxins, nitric oxide and other pollutants, which resulted in them being decommissioned. 

However, the Philippine government continues to pay PhP 92 million every year since 2002 and is bound to do so until 2014 for these loans.  Also, accidents involving incinerator plants in developed countries such as the US, Japan, and Germany have been widely reported.

Since the banning of medical waste incineration, health care facilities around the country have proven that there are safe and environment-friendly solutions in managing health care waste.  Autoclaving and microwaving, methods of disinfecting waste (without burning), which are widely practiced in health care today, require low investment and low operating cost and less the threat to health and environment.    
Still, other groups are claiming that incineration is a "safe" technology. To answer their claims, below are some of the highlights of a report published by the British Society for Ecological Medicine (a complete copy can be found here) entitled "The Health Effects of Incinerators" (June 2008):
    • “Incinerator emissions are a major source of fine particulates, of toxic metals and of more than 200 organic chemicals, including known carcinogens, mutagens, and hormone disrupters. Emissions also contain other unidentified compounds whose potential for harm is as yet unknown, as was once the case with dioxins.  Since the nature of waste is continually changing, so is the chemical nature of the incinerator emissions and therefore the potential for adverse health effects.”

        •    This fly ash is light, readily windborne and mostly of low particle size.  It represents a considerable and poorly understood health hazard.

        •    America have shown that fine (PM2.5) particulate air pollution causes increases in all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality and mortality from lung cancer, after adjustment for other factors. A more recent, well-designed study of morbidity and mortality in postmenopausal women has confirmed this, showing a 76% increase in cardiovascular and 83% increase in cerebrovascular mortality in women exposed to higher levels of fine particulates.

        •  Higher levels of fine particulates have been associated with an increased prevalence of asthma and COPD. Toxic metals accumulate in the body and have been implicated in a range of emotional and behavioural problems in children including autism, dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning difficulties, and delinquency, and in problems in adults including violence, dementia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.

        • Some chemical pollutants such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals are known to cause genetic changes.

        •  Monitoring of incinerators has been unsatisfactory in the lack of rigor, the infrequency of monitoring, the small number of compounds measured, the levels deemed acceptable, and the absence of biological monitoring.

        •    It has been claimed that modern abatement procedures render the emissions from incinerators safe, but this is impossible to establish and would apply only to emissions generated under standard operating conditions.  Two of the most hazardous emissions – fine particulates and heavy metals – are relatively resistant to removal.

        •    The safety of new incinerator installations cannot be established in advance and, although rigorous independent health monitoring might give rise to suspicions of adverse effects on the foetus and infant within a few years, this type of monitoring has not been put in place, and in the short term would not reach statistical significance for individual installations. Other effects, such as adult cancers, could be delayed for at least ten to twenty years. It would therefore be appropriate to apply the precautionary principle here.

        •    There are now alternative methods of dealing with waste which would avoid the main health hazards of incineration, would produce more energy and would be far cheaper in real terms, if the health costs were taken into account.
But the most important part of this report is probably this:

    Incinerators presently contravene basic human rights as stated by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in particular the Right to Life under the European Human Rights Convention, but also the Stockholm Convention and the Environmental Protection Act of 1990.  The foetus, infant and child are most at risk from incinerator emissions: their rights are therefore being ignored and violated, which is not in keeping with the concept of a just 7society. Nor is the present policy of locating incinerators in deprived areas where their health effects will be maximal: this needs urgent review.
I hope Ms. Karen Davila gets to read this. And I hope that she will afford those who campaign against incinerators the same airtime she has spent on promoting incinerators. Her listeners and viewers deserved to know the other side of this issue.

At the end of the day, the question we have to ask ourselves is "Can we really afford to burn our resources when we are living on a finite planet?"

To quote the famous Chief Indian Seattle, "We did not inherit this earth from out forefathers, we are just borrowing it from our children." As such, each one of us has the responsibility to make sure that we are passing on to our children a better planet, or at the very least, a planet where there is still enough resources, where scarce resources are not wasted or burned.

Note: The writer is an advocate against incinerator. He is currently the President of Mother Earth Foundation.

Patuloy na umiibig sa Pilipinas,
At naniniwala sa galing ng Pilipino,

Froilan Grate | GreenMinds


  1. better burning the germs than spreading it...

  2. We're talking about waste, not germs in particular. And waste, if segregated at source and managed properly should not pose any health or sanitation problems. If you refer to hospital wastes, there is a different law that mandates the proper treatment of hospital and hazardous waste before disposal.


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