EDITORIAL: Talking points about the City’s waste-to-energy deal

The joint venture deal between the city government and energy company AustWorks for a P2 billion  waste-to-energy facility raises an important environmental debate in Palawan.

The city has touted the DOE-approved project as a two-pronged solution, addressing both its waste management and electricity supply problems. On the other end, the NGO coalition ‘No Burn Pilipinas’ (NBP) has raised legal and environmental concerns against the project, claiming it to be in conflict with both the country’s Solid Waste Act and the Clean Air Act.

AustWorks and the city government have dismissed NBP’s claims, citing that thermal gasification—the technology employed by the proposed project—does not qualify as incineration which is banned in the country.

City administrator and legal officer Arnel Pedrosa argued that RA 9003 has been rendered “obsolete” by a technology that can process almost all types of waste. He went as far as thumbing down the ‘zero-waste’ policy, a core principle of the country’s current solid waste management law,  as “too good to be true”.

As with any technology, thermal gasification  comes with benefits and risks, as well as capital and operational challenges. As claimed by AustWorks, thermal gasification indeed is a commercially-available technology recognized as a viable energy source.

Japan and South Korea are among the countries currently employing this technology. WTE technologies, in general, are considered effective options for land-scarce nations, such as Singapore which currently operates four WTE incineration plants.

However, WTE does not necessarily provide a magic solution to a waste management system struggling with inefficiencies and inadequacies, which is the current case of Puerto Princesa.

WTE technologies are capital-intensive projects. Their operation requires skilled labor and strict adherence to health and safety standards. To sustain energy production, WTE plants also demand careful planning of a waste stream’s composition to achieve optimum calorific content. This fact holds true to thermal gasification plants as well.

In other words, WTE plants are expensive work that require thorough planning and well-regulated operation. That they are successfully implemented in more economically advanced nations speaks more of these countries’ efficient and well-regulated waste management systems rather than of the ‘state-of-the-art-ness’ of the technology itself.

Various case studies have shown that the applicability of WTE facilities mainly weighs on the maturity of one’s waste management system and on the effective regulatory capacity of the government. (Joshi and Ahmed, 2016). Without these safeguards, these plants–like any processing facility–can be real sources of harmful toxins or real threats to workers’ safety when standards are not upheld or met.

Thermal gasification is still considered a new technology compared with other forms of WTEs (Ferreira and Balestieri, 2018). Its application is still largely confined to bigger economies. Studies have also cited its higher capital and operating costs compared with other forms of WTE technology. (Salman Zafar, 2009). Depending on who you asked, this relative new-ness can spell either unmapped economic and environmental risks, or an opportunity to pioneer the technology’s application in this part of the world.

To be a pioneer, however, requires analytical muscles in assessing new technology. It requires a thoughtful understanding of the specific role that such technology will play in an entire management system.

In other words, pioneering does not mean putting blind faith over the ‘magic’ of a single technological fix and dismissing claims to the contrary.

With such enormous capital, technical, and regulatory demands–not to mention the risks arising should they fail–the question hence is, why is it critical that Puerto Princesa adopt this expensive technology? What is in Puerto Princesa’s current waste situation that warrants a billion peso-worth of WTE technology that will test not only the city’s regulatory and monitoring powers, but of the country as well?

We sense a more honest dialogue is in order, one that convinces the public that this decision to invest large capital to a relatively new form of technology springs from a holistic analysis of the problem.

In particular, we have yet to see how a WTE plant sits with the paradigm of sustainable waste management, especially one that emphasizes waste minimization and recycling and less of waste processing.

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