WITH the closure of Payatas Sanitary landfill in Quezon City, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is looking at waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies to address the worsening garbage problem in the country, particularly in Metro Manila. According to DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones, WTE is a "smart alternative" to the traditional sanitary landfill. I’m sure environmentalists will not agree with him.

Usec. Leones believes that WTE is more environment-friendly than sanitary landfills. He said that when waste sits in landfills, it leaks methane and other greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment and human health. On the other hand, Leones added, there are WTE technologies that use biogas or enzymes to convert waste into useful energy.

While the law allows the use of WTE technology, it is not the best solution to manage solid waste. It is however the most practical option at this point when cities are overflowing with garbage and there is no quick solution in sight. The ideal strategy is still waste reduction through segregation, the 3R’s and composting. WTE technology discourages these waste management practices because it needs continuous supply of garbage to operate.

It is a battle against time. Population is increasing and many places are becoming urbanized. The volume of solid waste is mounting and sanitary landfills are overflowing to the brim. Yet, the compliance to RA 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste management Act is painstakingly slow. Faced with this challenge, I can’t blame local government officials for considering WTEs.

There is a legal basis for WTEs. The Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999 bans the use of incinerators but the Supreme Court had already ruled in the case of MMDA v. JanCom that incineration technologies that comply with emissions standards are allowable. The National Solid Waste Commission (NSWMC) has already issued last year the guidelines on the implementation of WTE.

Even before the issuance of guidelines by the NSWMC for WTEs, there are already ‘thermal’ technologies which were allowed to operate by the DENR. The SC ruling paved the way for Alternative Fuel Raw Materials co-processing technology. In this process, plastic waste and other materials with high heating value are fed into cement kilns as replacement for coal. Here in Pampanga, plastic waste are hauled for free by Holcim Cement for use in their plant in Bulacan.

In fairness to the NSWMC, the guidelines for WTE facilities are very strict. The facility must be located in an LGU with an approved 10-years solid waste management (SWM) plan. All LGU’s that will dispose their waste into the said facility must also have an approved 10-year SWM plan. At present, only a handful of LGU’s have approved SWM plans.

The most difficult among the guidelines is that the WTE facility must not accept unsegregated municipal waste. Let’s see if this requirement can be complied with.