Trash talking: Is our future in the dumps?

PHILIPPINES - The Philippines is embracing waste with a revolutionary spirit. With the passage of the Renewable Energy bill last September — one that took over a decade to negotiate — independent power producers are scrambling to build waste-to-energy projects across a country of eight million people.

Several projects have caught the attention of investors, including a $62 million plant that will convert energy using agricultural wastes, such as rice stalks and husks, and a Restore Biogas Cogeneration Facility, which if finalized, could turn biodegradable waste from the city of Barangay Calajunan into electricity.

As waste-to-energy projects proliferate around the world, two camps of thought are emerging: those that welcome the technology as an alternative to fossil fuels, and those who are skeptical that burning waste — biodegradable and non-biodegradable alike — can replace carbon-based energy entirely.

“We should not be relying on waste-to-energy as the only solution, but as a part of an integrated and coordinated movement with all the stakeholders,” Julian Radlein, president of an environmental consulting firm, SymbiAudit Sustainability Consulting Inc., told MediaGlobal.

Waste-to-energy technology works much in the same way as that of coal-fired plants.

The difference is the fuel. First, the fuel is burned, releasing heat. Then, the heat turns water into steam. After that, the high-pressure steam spins the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity. A utility company then sends the electricity along power lines to homes, schools, and businesses.

Globally, biomass — the organic matter in trees, agricultural crops and other living plant material — meets about 14 percent of the world’s energy needs. Waste-to-energy technology offers an appealing alternative to landfills, which emit methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than CO2, and present serious health risks to nearby residents.

In the developing world, landfills are becoming increasingly problematic, according to the United Nations Environmental Protection Programme (UNEP). In Latin America, two-fifths of landfills “do not meet even minimum standards, and are little more than rubbish tips,” says UNEP. In Africa, it is believed that up to 80 percent of solid waste is left out in the open, most likely untreated.

The Payatas waste dump, which serves the Philippine capital, is as high as seven stories in some places. After a typhoon hit in July 2000, garbage crashed down onto huts and shacks below and caught fire, killing hundreds.

Burning waste for energy, whether it be from biodegradable sources or not, makes sense if countries are to mitigate health hazards and lower their carbon emissions, says Floyd Hasselriis, a consulting specialist with 30 years experience in waste management and incineration technology.

“That’s the most valuable part of the material, the energy you get,” Hasselriis told MediaGlobal. “It doesn’t matter whether the refuse is biodegradable or not. They burn it, and it’s completely convertible to energy.”

But skeptics warn that if society is to truly usher in an age of carbon-neutrality, relying on waste-to-energy does not necessarily offer a holistic approach.

Another option, says Radlein, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, is to convert biomass, such as the agricultural waste that will be burned in The Philippines’ proposed plants, into bioplastics, a form of plastics made from biological sources, or liquid fuels, like ethanol.

The conversion process, known as fermentation, requires little input of energy as bacteria do all the work. The fermentation can be optimized to produce biogas, ethanol, or lactic acid, which is the precursor for a type of bioplastic. The final result of fermentation is an extremely nutrient-rich soil that can help reduce dependence on petrochemical fertilizers.

But the ability to produce biogas, Radlein noted, does depend on the capital and infrastructure already in place in a community and necessitates a coordinated approach between industry and government. Developing countries would have a harder time coming up with the necessary capital, especially during the economic crisis.

“The global financial crisis of 2008, and the recession that is following in its wake, represents a serious threat to the clean energy sector,” according to a report released by the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos earlier this year. “Short-term energy and carbon prices have fallen, making clean energy less competitive in immediate financial terms. At the same time risk has been re-priced, and finance is much harder to come by.”

However, the report also noted that waste-to-energy technology is one of “eight emerging large-scale clean energy sectors” that will play a major role in the future of energy efficiency. As renewable energy technologies are becoming more cost-competitive with fossil fuels, the report urged policy-makers, corporations, and investors to make the shift this year to a low-carbon economy. The United Nations will be aiding in this process by developing a framework for new carbon emissions targets to replace those in the Kyoto Protocol.



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