The benefits of incineration
In August last year, Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Francis Tolentino, and Nancy Binay introduced a waste-to-energy (WTE) bill (Senate Bill No. 1789). It’s a well-thought-out potential law that addresses two of our country’s problems: disposing of all the rubbish we create and producing clean, renewable energy.
Landfills are an environmentally unhealthy and dangerous activity and should be minimized as much as possible. They litter our landscape. Burning that waste is a sensible way to achieve that minimum.
With the damage that is being done to this planet by the ever-increasing release of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other toxic emissions by power plants running on polluting sources such as coal and oil, and to a lesser extent gas, it’s clear change must come. The Philippines must be part of that change.
So I was heartened by the Department of Energy’s declaration of a moratorium on coal power plants. According to Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, “the agency’s most recent assessment revealed the need for the country to shift to a more flexible power supply mix. This would help build a more sustainable power system that will be resilient in the face of structural changes in demand and will be flexible enough to accommodate the entry of new, cleaner, and indigenous technological innovations.”
Waste-to-energy fits into that declaration and adds to solar, wind, and sea, which together with nuclear (which is essentially a renewable resource) can move the Philippines to clean power generation over the next few decades.
It’s a good bill, but it doesn’t go far enough. It helps address the need for clean energy. And it eases the burden on garbage dumps, or landfills as they seem to be called. But it can still leave a lot of garbage unburned. The bill should be expanded to authorize incineration as a disposal process, and not necessarily to create energy. So we kill two birds with one stone: clean the environment and produce clean energy. That way we get rid of a lot of the garbage that wouldn’t be burned as there’s no need for its energy in some cases.
In 1999, I argued during Congress hearings that incineration should not be banned. You don’t ban a process, you control an end-result. You specify the maximum pollutants allowed out of a black box and leave it to experts to design how to achieve that. If an incinerator can’t meet that clean standard, then it can’t operate; but if it can, it should be allowed. The politicians didn’t listen, they knew better than the engineers. Incinerators were banned. I repeated that plea a full decade later, in October 2019, again to no effect. So Republic Act 8749 or the Clean Air Act was signed into law and remained unchanged 10 years later. Section 20 of that Act states: “Incineration, hereby defined as the burning of municipal, bio-medical and hazardous wastes, which process emits poisonous and toxic fumes, is hereby prohibited.”
SB 1789 corrects that uneducated concept and rightly places control where it belongs—on the emissions. It states, “All waste treatment technologies in a WTE facility shall be allowed including incineration: Provided that these technologies shall not emit toxic and poisonous fumes into the environment and shall comply with all the laws mentioned hereof and other relevant laws, rules and regulations.”
The environmental group Greenpeace ranked the Philippines the third-worst polluter of the world’s oceans after China and Indonesia. We are a fish-dependent (and pork-dependent, unfortunately) nation, but we are killing off that healthy source of sustenance through plastic ingestion and over-fishing.
It’s not just the oceans. Take a look at the Pasig and its tributaries, or any other rivers around the nation. Then there’s the land. Consider the filth littering our streets and neighborhoods, and it’s clear there’s far more garbage to dispose of than can be done solely through conversion to energy. Some of it should be just clearly burned.
As I’ve argued before, allow a black box as long as the emissions from that black box are at acceptable levels. Leave it to engineers to design what goes into that box. Let’s remove garbage from our land, rivers, lakes, and seas by cleanly burning it.
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