The myths behind waste-to-energy technologies | Inquirer Opinion
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The myths behind waste-to-energy technologies

The Philippines is facing a waste crisis. The government has estimated that the country generated a total of 18.05 million tons of waste in 2020. This figure is expected to rise as the country’s population grows.

To address the problem, the Philippine government has increasingly welcomed the use of different waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies. Several local government units have received and adopted private proposals for WTE facilities. In 2019, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued guidelines on WTEs. Most significantly, in 2021, the House of Representatives passed a bill promoting the adoption of WTE systems in the country. The Senate version is still pending.

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The appeal of WTE springs from the broad promise that “we can burn our waste to get rid of it, and produce energy while doing it.” At first glance, it is a solution that looks elegant and promising. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to WTEs, the public should remember the old adage that one cannot trust an offer that is too good to be true.

First, WTE facilities and incinerators release toxins and greenhouse gases that threaten both human health and the environment. Such facilities are major emitters of dioxins and furans, extremely toxic substances that cause cancer and respiratory diseases. These toxins are persistent pollutants that bioaccumulate in the environment and can infect several generations.

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Data from the US government shows that WTE facilities and incinerators also emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal-fired, natural gas-fired or oil-fired power plants, alongside other greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

This is true even for WTE facilities that have so-called “state-of-the-art” pollution and toxin control devices.

Second, WTE facilities, particularly those that use thermal systems, are the most expensive methods to generate energy, even more expensive than coal-fired power plants and nuclear energy facilities. There are numerous examples of US cities that have been driven into debt because of investments in incinerators.

Plainly, the power generation segments of these facilities do not generate enough energy to make the facilities profitable. Scientific studies show that burning waste is a highly inefficient way to generate energy. Even the most productive incinerators generate electricity at very low efficiency rates of 19 to 27 percent.

Notably, the real and only reason WTE facilities stay profitable is through expensive tipping fees, which are paid by local governments from public funds. A pre-feasibility study for a proposed WTE facility in Quezon City showed that the projected cost of the tipping fees would be more than 500 percent of what the city currently pays to landfills. Simply put, the public will end up bearing the cost of propping up these expensive, inefficient, and unprofitable facilities.

Third, WTE facilities are unsustainable “solutions” that exacerbate the waste problem. The claim that WTEs is an effective way to eliminate waste is little more than a bad case of “greenwashing.”

In truth, the need for feedstock for WTE facilities actually encourages greater waste production and waste importation. Ironically, this is precisely the problem that proper solid waste management should address. Instead of reducing waste, WTE legitimizes continued extraction from the environment and unsustainable consumerism, while accelerating climate change, polluting the environment, and threatening human health.

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Even the United States and Europe, which are the heaviest users of WTE technologies, have taken steps to move away from waste incineration strategies in favor of zero-waste solutions. Zero-waste solutions favor approaches that reduce waste generation at-source, through redesigning manufacturing processes that minimize the use of natural resources and create products that are sustainably-made and safe.

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Lievj Raoni B. Alimangohan is a senior policy officer for the Ecowaste Coalition, a public interest and advocacy network that advocates sustainable solutions to waste and climate change issues.

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TAGS: Energy, Philippines, Technology, waste
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