Thursday, July 12, 2007

Solid waste management: garbage in, garbage out

‘ENVIRONMENTALISTS” swore that incineration technologies are evil so the government should ban them under both the clean-air and solid-waste management legislations.

When pressed for alternatives, some environmentalists replied they will eat garbage, including hospital waste and toxic refuse, should Metro Manila become a mess after following their dictates. So the senators relented, and the “environmentalists” danced in triumph.

Now that we are swamped with garbage, now that hospital and toxic-waste dumps are spreading around like mushrooms as reported lately in the newspapers, Metro Manila residents should demand that the environmentalists who made that boast should now start swallowing their true nourishment.

But they won’t do that. These people are now gone and we are left with a crisis that is certainly causing a lot of health problems to many citizens—problems associated with the continuous open burning of waste, the dumping of hospital and toxic waste in canals and some quiet corners of the metropolis.

When Congress passes laws based on ideological predispositions instead of technical considerations, when these legislators allow themselves to be bamboozled by interest groups, and when such a body legislates without understanding, such laws would surely create a lot of problems. That’s happening to us right now under the clean-air and solid-waste management laws. Garbage in, garbage out.

These days, environmentalists are tossing the blame to local government units (LGUs) for failing to do their duties. That is partly correct. But the difficulties being experienced in handling municipal, biomedical and other waste stem also from a flawed law influenced by the so-called environmentalists.

Under the clean-air and solid-waste laws, all incineration technologies are banned, thus limiting the options available to government managers (mayors, governors, and barangay chairmen) in managing different types of waste.

That fatal flaw stems largely from the failure to understand the “universe of wastes.” Under the influence of lobbyists from scrap dealers and interest groups, those who crafted the laws were simply thinking about small volumes of municipal waste that lend well to purely reclamation techniques, including waste minimization, reuse and recycling.

What they failed to understand is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Effective waste-management technologies, as practiced in successful countries like Singapore and Europe, differ largely depending on the types of waste and the volumes generated.

Let’s start with the basics. In waste management, experts generally define “toxicity” as “the ability to cause harm.” Hence, technically all types of waste are toxic. In reality, some types of waste present minimal risks when properly handled while others are so virulent they need special treatment and disposal procedures.

Hence, we have hazardous waste, industrial waste (from manufacturing, mining, coal, oil and gas exploration), medical waste (generated by hospitals, laboratories, universities, morgues, funeral homes, blood banks), radioactive waste (from nuclear power facilities) and municipal solid waste (MSW)—the last one we generally call garbage generated by households, offices and commercial buildings.

All these types of waste require different types of handling, processing, treatment and disposal. Reclamation techniques (waste minimization, reuse and recycle) are generally used for MSW, especially in smaller low-volume cities.

But in cases of biomedical, industrial and other hazardous waste, like polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, the only “best practicable environmental option,” or BPEO, are treatment and incineration and other high-temperature options like plasma and pirolysis prior to disposal. This is because the only realistic way to deal with virulent and hazardous wastes is to destroy them at very high temperatures.

As practiced, most of these approaches are not used in isolation. In fact, a state-of-the-art waste-management treatment facility has three major components: a physical- and chemical treatment-plant, an incineration or thermal facility (usually waste-to-energy plants) and a dedicated landfill for the final disposal of the residues (about 10 percent of total volume of wasted handled).

However, options like incineration and landfills usually generate a negative attitude among residents, primarily due to the not-in-my-backyard (nimby) syndrome. Thus, as practiced, these waste-management approaches are expressed as a hierarchy of options that put emphasis on “greener” methods like reclamation.

In Europe and the US, this hierarchy of options includes waste reduction at source (first priority), waste recycling and reuse (second), recovery of raw materials and energy content of the waste (third), treatment (physical, chemical, biological), thermal (incineration, pyrolysis, plasma destruction and thermal oxidation) processes to convert waste to a form that permits safe disposal, and, finally, disposal through landfilling.

To ensure that thermal or incineration plants are environmentally safe, policy makers in these countries usually require these facilities to have a 99.9999-percent destruction and removal efficiency (DRE). They also require these facilities to have adequate engineering measures, including the use of bag house filters, electrostatic precipitators and scrubbers.

A hierarchy of options is necessary to give LGUs the flexibility to use various methods, depending on the characteristics and volume of waste generated. Smaller communities usually generate MSW, thus a reclamation and disposal techniques would do.

In huge megacities like Metropolitan Manila that produce huge volumes of MSW, as well as medical and hazardous waste, however, it would make sense to allow a full hierarchy of options to give flexibility to the LGUs, in tandem with the private sector, to explore effective options. More so, because we have vibrant electronics, chemical, hospital and food industries that produce large volumes of toxic and hazardous waste.

Right now, we don’t know how these toxic and hazardous waste are disposed. Most hospitals probably just outsource the handling and processing of their waste while crossing their fingers that their contractors are doing the right thing. But right now we don’t have the facilities to handle them properly. That explains the prevailing dumping of these toxic and hazardous waste in open dumps, waterways and some “quiet corners” in the dead of night.

It’s high time legislators reviewed our waste-management laws and put in place one based on science and common sense. And while they are at it, maybe those “environmentalists” who swore to eat garbage should start fulfilling their promise.

(Note: Prepared as editorial for BusinessMirror, 12 July 2007).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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