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Trash talk

09:38 PM September 27, 2011

The great wall of garbage that collapsed and claimed the lives of six people at the Irisan dump in Baguio City four weeks ago was a disaster waiting to happen. Like the Payatas trash slide, which preceded it by 11 years and buried the hopes and dreams of more than 300 people under Quezon City’s monstrous garbage heap, Irisan was a tragic tale written and foretold by government ineptitude and schizophrenia.

That ineptitude is evident in the half-hearted efforts of national and local government units to implement the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. Eleven years after this landmark law was passed, many of the country’s towns and cities continue to create colossal mountains of mixed trash in illegal, leaking and open dumps. Lamentably, the law’s logic of progressively moving our society away from back-end waste disposal systems towards front-end resource management and sustainable industrial design via mandatory waste segregation and material recovery remains largely unfulfilled.

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But we are also seeing an increasing number of barangays demonstrating the wisdom, practicality and superiority of ecological and zero-waste management programs in dealing with discards, while generating thousands of jobs at the same time. The success of these community efforts epitomize the triumph of common sense and public participation over ignorance, greed and apathy, which the dumps in Payatas, Irisan and other places have come to represent.

The flipside of trash is resources, and that explains why waste pickers and their families continue to flock to dumps despite the obvious perils to their lives.  Waste segregation at source remains the safest and most viable strategy for effective material recovery and waste prevention.  Simply separating the collection and treatment of organic waste from households and commercial establishments would dramatically reduce the waste footprint of our cities by more than 50 percent. Clean and good quality compost generated by cities and municipalities could in turn be used to recondition and renew dying farmlands in the countryside and reduce farmer dependence on toxic and expensive chemical inputs. The synergies between organic agriculture and ecological waste management present a goldmine of sustainable solutions still waiting to be tapped.

The impressive progress at the grassroots, however, is not matched at the higher echelons of government.  The Department of Environment and Natural Resources,  the agency mandated to spearhead and oversee the country’s shift to a sustainable waste management regime is afflicted with a serious case of schizophrenia. Despite having the authority to close down illegal dumps and compel local government officials to toe the line, the agency remains lost in the limbo of its own indecision, made worse by pressure from some industry representatives sitting in the National Solid Waste Management Commission.  The commission has yet to come up with a list of non-environmentally acceptable materials, including those that cannot be safely recycled. The DENR continues to pine for convenient, quick fixes to the garbage problem.

If government cannot bury the evidence, it will try to burn it.  Sensing a timely opportunity, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje and MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino broke into a predictable refrain that harped on the need for incinerators to deal with the country’s worsening waste problem. This also struck a chord with Sen. Antonio Trillanes who immediately chimed in with his proposal to amend the 1999 Clean Air Act and lift the ban on the use of waste incinerators, which, if we were to believe his press release, carry “no environmental burden” and do not result in “harmful emissions to the atmosphere.”  We have heard this song before.

There are three lessons that policymakers need to keep in mind whenever talk turns to burning trash. The first one comes from thermodynamics, specifically the law stating that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed. Burning mixed waste converts the physical problem of waste into a formidable air pollution challenge, liberating heavy metals in various waste streams and creating new and persistent toxic compounds like cancer-causing dioxins and furans.  Modern incinerators may be equipped with advanced pollution control systems, but in the end, these only serve to capture and transfer the problem between different environmental media. Ash generated by the combustion process, considered hazardous waste, typically end up in landfills. So while there are indeed modern incinerators, there is no such thing as a pollution or emissions-free incinerator.

Which brings us to the second lesson about accountability. For an agency that does not have the capacity to monitor incinerators for emissions on a steady, continuous basis, it is rather dubious for the DENR to propose their operation in the first place.  As in most policy challenges, the principle of equivalence must be observed and the power to permit must be matched by the power to protect the public from the harm associated with the operation of these controversial facilities.

The final important lesson is about sustainability. Assuming that proponents managed to develop an incinerator that is safe and pollution-free, it still would not make sense to destroy materials that we ought to be sharing with future generations.  This lesson resonates in the efforts of communities  organizing themselves into recycling cooperatives. It also finds expression around the environs of Smokey Mountain and Payatas where community gardens come to life through the noble and inspiring efforts of local residents. The people who make this happen are the real heroes in our quest for sustainability.

The blueprint for solving our garbage problem is already enshrined in existing policies. The real question is whether our officials have the political will and the creativity to transform this festering problem into an opportunity that will energize our communities and free the nation from the misery and hopelessness symbolized by our notorious mountains of waste.

Von Hernandez is a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work on waste and was named as one of Time Magazine’s Heroes for the Environment in 2007. He is currently taking up public management studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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TAGS: featured columns, garbage problem, government ineptitude, irisan dump collapse, opinion, solid waste management
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