Creating bigger problems

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

If you think that incinerating solid waste to produce energy would solve our garbage disposal and power supply problems, you better think again.

As early as 1994, the US Supreme Court has ruled that ash produced by municipal waste incinerators is not exempt from stringent hazardous waste regulations, as it held that incinerator ash containing hazardous constituents exceeding specified levels must be managed, stored, treated, and disposed of as hazardous waste.

The cost of disposing incinerator ash as hazardous waste is said to be at least five times the cost of disposing non-hazardous incinerator ash. The ruling also meant that owners and operators of municipal solid waste incinerators and waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities will have to incur additional costs to comply with testing, storage, and recordkeeping requirements that will add to the already substantial increase in disposal costs that they were facing, according to an article from Illinois Periodicals Online.

Meanwhile, an article in chinadialogue.net noted that with Southeast Asia’s urban population projected to rise to nearly 400 million by 2030, significant investment in waste management is required to cope with the increase in garbage. The growth in electricity demand is also prompting countries to more than double generation capacity by 2040.

It said that one obvious and quick solution to these two needs is WTE, a catch-all for different technologies that allow countries to get rid of waste and generate electricity at the same time.

Incineration is the cheapest and best known WTE technology. But while it eliminates physical waste, to be efficient, it also requires pre-sorting materials to remove organic and non-flammable materials. Ineffective pre-sorting, the article pointed out, reduces the cost effectiveness and efficiency of all WTE technologies and for incineration plants, this means the temperature does not get high enough to eliminate key pollutants.

It added that even well-managed, incineration plants still leave ash that needs to be disposed of safely.

Sadly, some incineration plants have sought to offset the economic losses from inefficiently sorted local waste by illegally importing better-sorted trash.

In 2018, Indonesia’s Supreme Court ruled that incineration of waste is against the law because it produced hazardous pollutants but the government went ahead with WTE in the face of serious waste management challenges and a biomass and waste energy target of 810 megawatts by 2025, the article revealed.

Just like other countries in the region like Thailand, trash in the Philippines is full of organic and other non-flammable materials simply because of the absence of an effective waste segregation program. Plastics, food waste, textile, rubber, PVCs, polyurethane, name it. With or without effective segregation, these materials are toxic. And burning them won’t make them any less toxic.

There is a proposal in the Senate that would institutionalize WTE by including it in the Philippine Energy Plan. The country currently has 13 WTE plants but only six are operational.

What some lawmakers conveniently forget to say is that there is no other currently available method to produce electricity directly from waste other than to burn everything flammable that is collected from the garbage pile.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth warned that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any incinerator is safe, adding that burning waste doesn’t cause it to disappear. Rather, 15 to 25 percent of the waste thrown in incinerators becomes ash, producing a different but more toxic trash.

It explained that the incineration process produces highly toxic filter cake which will need to be disposed of in hazardous waste landfills.

In order for WTE to work, and safely at that, it would require a change in mindsets and ways of life, not to mention a strong will and coordination on the part of agencies like the DENR, DOE, and DILG to make sure that we are adopting solutions and not creating more problems.

Nuclear water feared

Just recently, Reuters reported that Tokyo Electric Power Co. or Tepco plans to start a fourth release of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in late February.

The staged water releases began last August in what Japan says is a key step in decommissioning the plant hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. According to the same report, in the fourth release, about 7,800 cubic meters of the treated water will be sent into the Pacific Ocean, similar to the first three discharges. The fifth and sixth discharges will be done during the fiscal year ending March 2025.

According to Tepco, the entire decommissioning process will take between 30 and 40 years, or six times longer than it typically takes to decommission a plant under normal circumstances.

But why is there so much water at the Fukushima plant?

Media organization NPR explained that after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, several reactors melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. To avert further disaster, workers flooded the reactors with water and that water quickly became highly contaminated. The plant is now offline and the reactors are defunct, but they still need to be cooled, which is why wastewater continues to accumulate.

NPR reported that according to Japanese authorities, some 350 million gallons of radioactive water are being stored in more than 1,000 tanks onsite. The tanks are nearing capacity and the site can’t fit anymore so some of the water needs to be released.

According to Tepco, the plant operator, there was an accumulation of 1.3 billion tons of treated radioactive wastewater that was used to cool the three reactors that were in operation at the time of the disaster. But wastewater will continue to be produced as long as the melted fuel remains in the reactors, Aljazeera reported.

Japan says that the water is treated to remove most radioactive elements except tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that must be diluted because it is difficult to filter. Both the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have found the tritium levels to be within safe limits.

According to the IAEA, the advanced liquid processing systems or ALPS which removes part of the radioactive substances that contaminate the water, is consistent with relevant international safety standards and that the discharge of the treated water into the sea will have negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.

Local fishermen belonging to the group Pamalakaya and other environment advocates have protested the release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima plant into the Pacific Ocean as they feared that the waste water which allegedly still contains high levels of toxic chemicals will reach Philippine waters.

While Japan managed to get IAEA’s endorsement on the released nuclear water, there are scientific arguments against TEPCO’s release plan. The Pacific Island Forum for one, expressed its concern about whether current international standards are adequate to handle the unprecedented case of the tritiated water release.

The South Korean government has reportedly sent some of its experts to Japan and were reassured after their visit. In spite of this, South Korea’s largest fisheries market has started monitoring the fish’s radioactivity to allay fears from both fishermen and consumers.

China in August banned imports of all seafood products from Japan shortly after it started discharging treated water that month. Meanwhile, Japan criticized Russia’s announcement that it is joining China in its ban.

Perhaps, the Philippine government should come up with its own investigation into the matter instead of relying on third-party reports. After all, our fishermen and consumers as well want to be assured that we are not consuming radioactive seafood.



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