Monday, July 16, 2007

Waste management: legislation without understanding

UPSET by the rising prices of commodities, a president—or so the joke goes—at one time asked his socioeconomic planning secretary to explain the problem. The socioeconomic planning secretary told the president that more people are buying these commodities, thus outstripping supply. “A classic example of the operations of the law of supply and demand, Mr. President,” he said. The president answered: “Then, I should ask Congress to repeal that law.”

The provisions of the country’s Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Management Act on waste management somehow mirror this kind of joke foisted upon us by well-meaning individuals blinded by their lack of understanding of the dynamics of the policy issue. That explains why, as pointed out in last week’s editorial, we are experiencing a waste-management crisis, manifested in the accumulation of untreated, unprocessed biomedical, toxic and hazardous waste in the environment.

This lack of understanding clearly manifested itself early in the day with the passage of the Clean Air Act in June 1999, which banned incineration but allowed pagsisiga or the “traditional” small-scale burning of waste, including agricultural waste.

Analysts then expressed fears that the new law actually encouraged open burning of garbage, including toxic and hazardous wastes, since the vague definition provided by Section 20 of the Clean Air Act suggested that burning waste is actually fine, provided it is done in an open, decentralized, small-scale manner—an activity that could easily fit as pagsisiga for “community and neighborhood sanitation.”

Open burning or pagsisiga is actually an environmental planner’s worst-case scenario as incomplete combustion in this process implies that cancer-causing substances are generated right smack in the community.

Indeed, people started burning their garbage right in their backyards after the closure of many dumps, as local government units either failed to secure funds for conversion of these dumps into engineered landfills or failed to get the land where landfills could be constructed. Well, they did it because the Clean Air Act actually allowed them to do so.

Realizing their mistake, “environmentalists” and legislators tried to “correct” the issue by completely banning all waste combustion under the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000. They probably hoped that legislating away the burning of waste could banish the problem. The garbage crisis got worse, however, especially after the Metro Manila Development Authority failed to get adequate landfill spaces after the closure of the Payatas dump.

And while the brouhaha over the municipal solid-waste management is brewing, companies, hospitals and processing plants generating industrial waste, biomedical waste, and toxic and hazardous waste are either storing their refuse on-site for future disposal when a proper facility is available, or outsourcing their disposal to private contractors while hoping that such private firms have what it takes to handle them.

Looking at the actions of some “environmentalists” who lorded it over the crafting and passage of the solid-waste management law, one can’t help but suspect that many of them were not doing their advocacies in good faith.

Naturally, when thermal technologies are banned, the next viable option could be engineered landfills. But when LGUs tried to look for landfill spaces, many in the same network of “civil-society” groups dabbling in environmentalism also opposed landfills, citing certain environmental risks. The only correct option, they say, is “zero waste,” as if it’s actually possible to do so.

Well, “zero-waste management” is actually possible in small, isolated villages producing a few kilograms of organic waste. But it certainly wouldn’t work in megacities producing tons of municipal, industrial, and toxic and hazardous wastes. They missed this perspective because when legislators and “environmentalists” were crafting the laws, they didn’t bother to check the markets for recyclable materials.

In fact, they didn’t know at all the characteristics of Metro Manila’s waste stream. They didn’t know how much percentage is economically viable for recycling. They didn’t know who the buyers and sellers are and how much are being transacted in these recycling markets. They simply assumed that mandating recycling and reuse would automatically solve the problem like magic. Had they known these basic facts, they would have known the enormity of the problem and acted accordingly.

And the fatal flaw is the lack of understanding value and social use of land. The Philippines is a land-scarce country. Without resorting to land-saving waste-management options offered by thermal technologies and waste-to-energy plants, Philippine cities will have to gobble up huge tracts of land for landfills and dumps, thus posing strong competition for other uses like agriculture, forestry, industry and socialized housing.

This partly explains the pervasive Nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome. Certainly, it is hard to convince communities to host a landfill or a dump, knowing that such a “special land use” would destroy land values.

That is why other countries adopt an integrated waste-management program that allows for a hierarchy of options covering waste generation (minimize, reuse, recycle); storage; collection; processing, treatment and recovery; and disposal.

For instance, if thermal facilities (assuming adequate environmental standards) were available to handle what cannot be recycled (including biomedical, industrial and other toxic and hazardous waste), Metropolitan Manila can reduce the volume of waste by 90 percent.
The residual waste, or the ashes that could be made even safer to handle through vitrification, could be disposed of in monofills.

Compared to landfills that occupy hundreds of hectares, monofills need only a few hectares, thus saving a lot of land for other more socially beneficial uses. Equipped with liners and proper engineering design, environmental risks such as leaching could be eliminated. This way, the Nimby syndrome could be avoided.This is what land-scarce countries in Europe do. This flexibility of options is not currently available to us in the Philippines because our legislators chose to craft our policy with their eyes closed. If legislators won’t undo our mistakes, we are stuck with this garbage forever.

(Originally drafted as Editorial for BusinessMirror, July 17 2007).

1 comment:

elmer said...

our community alternative for ESWM is in