CEBU Gov. Gwen Garcia, in her desire to address Cebu’s, especially Metro Cebu’s, garbage crisis, is proposing the construction of a waste-to-energy plant. Chinese company New Sky Environment is offering to put up an incinerator that will not only make Cebu’s garbage literally go up in smoke but generate electricity as well!
Burning the garbage definitely looks like the convenient way out for Metro Cebu. Existing landfills either cannot accommodate all the garbage or are being shut down due to violations. In the longer term, as Metro Cebu gets more and more congested, finding available land or space for future landfills sounds like a mission impossible.
Burning garbage, we know, has its problems too. The main one is called dioxin. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known. It is an inevitable byproduct of burning garbage. Filters and scrubbers are used to capture dioxins so that they won’t escape into the air. Unfortunately, even the highest standards of emission controls are no guarantee that dioxins won’t make it to the surrounding environment. In Denmark where garbage has been incinerated for decades, an incineration plant was recently found to have been exceeding dioxin emission limits for years. Even after corrective measures were implemented the levels were still too high.
Because of the extreme toxicity of dioxins, they must be sealed before being disposed in landfills. Chinese researchers Zhenwu Tang, Qifei Huang and Yufei Yang in a scientific article entitled “PCDD/Fs (dioxins and furans) in fly ash from waste incineration in China: A need for effective risk management” (May 2013) pointed out that dioxin-containing fly ash from incineration constitutes a great environmental risk, whether disposed of in hazardous waste landfills or in ordinary municipal solid waste landfills. Dioxins are likely to eventually leach into the surrounding environment and contaminate soil, ground water and nearby water bodies.
To summarize: dioxins, formed during the burning of garbage and industrial processes, find their way into the environment through smoke stack emissions where air pollution control devices fail to capture them, and in solid form when they leach into the surroundings from the landfills where dioxin-containing fly ash has been disposed.
Last year, the European Food Safety Authority set a new Tolerable Weekly Intake for dioxins and dioxin-like chemicals seven times lower than the existing one. Now the TWI is two picograms per kilogram of body weight. A picogram is one trillionth of a gram.
Dioxins pose a real risk to the health and are linked to reproductive and development problems, among others. “The developing fetus is most sensitive to dioxin exposure,” warns the World Health Organization. Dioxins are absorbed by fat tissue and accumulate in the food chain. They find their way to our bodies through fish, shellfish, meat, eggs and milk that are among the food that have been found to contain higher levels of dioxin in contaminated environments (fields and water bodies). Are we capable of controlling, monitoring and managing emissions and fly ash? Do we have the expertise and tools to conduct regular tests of soil and water to ensure the safety of incinerator host communities, the general public, and consumers?
From a political perspective, going down the waste-to-energy – incinerator – path is a sad surrender: 18 years with the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act and waste minimization and segregation are like towns in Siberia. We continue to generate so much unnecessary garbage – in Cebu, plastic bags are still being used in most stores. Paper bags that replace plastic bags are often unnecessary and good for one use only. Fast-food restaurants automatically add plastic utensils for take-out and delivery orders when the customer may not even need them. Every place has its own peculiar segregation system the inevitable result being both faulty segregation and failure of the garbage-generating public to learn to do it right.
The choice is not limited to landfilling and incineration. There are “hundreds of communities worldwide which are getting 80 percent diversion from landfills without using incineration,” according to anti-incineration activist Paul Connett. The “figure of 80 percent is highly significant because an incinerator only gets 75 percent diversion from landfill (while) 25 percent is left as ash — which has to go to a landfill.” These communities have shown “that they have been able to get 80 percent reduction, without the capital costs and pollution of building an incinerator, and without having to build an ash landfill (…) Incineration is neither a solution at the local or global level — Northern Europe has finally realized this and is not encouraging incineration anymore.”
The biggest lure of incineration is that we wouldn’t have to change the way we act and think. Taking responsibility for our trash is complicated and inconvenient. However, taking responsibility for our trash is also taking responsibility for our finite resources. There is more to gain from waste minimization, reuse and recycling than from incineration, for our health, the environment and the economy.