Power of Solid

  • The global challenge

    Many people in low-income countries, including those in Asia, have been conditioned to accept the presence of waste being dumped in their living surroundings, open lands and streets. As long as it is not in one’s own backyard, waste dumps are tolerated. Many people, including decision-makers, are not aware of the harmful impacts to human health, their groundwater resources, and their environment in general. Moreover, many people do not even realize that waste is energy and a product that can generate electricity and income.

    In today’s world, about 5.2 million tonnes of solid waste is being produced worldwide daily, out of which about 3.8 million tonnes in developing countries alone. In a recent report of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on Global Food waste, out of the 4 billion metric tonnes of food being produced in today’s world, between 30 – 40 percent never reaches the human stomach. In South East Asia, the loss of rice amounts 37 – 80% of all rice produced, which is about 180 million tonnes per year. Our world that is moving from the current population of about 7 billion people to 10 billion by 2080 will need to find proper solutions to avoid any further warming of our planet.

    Waste in Asia and its Value
    On average, humans produce between 0.4 – 1.62 Kg of waste per day in Asian countries. The proportion of biodegradable waste amounts between 42 – 80 percent. In the lower to middle-income economies this proportion is about 65 – 80 percent, while in the higher-income countries of Asia this proportion amounts around 45 percent. In many low-income countries the waste produced contributes to the emissions of Green House Gasses (GHGs), which contributes to global warming. In these countries, waste management has not been able to reach a certain level of maturity due to the lack of or weakly development logistics system, processing, leadership and management capacity and awareness and education in general.

    In South Asia, there is a potential to produce 8 million tonnes of compost per year, which is worth US$ 700 million per year or, alternatively as mentioned by a report of the Asian Development Bank, produce 3,340 million kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity per year with a sales value of US$ 700 million per year. Considering some level of carbon finance to be obtained this quantity could generate an additional US$ 218 million per year.

    In Singapore, for example, approximately 6.9 million tonnes of solid waste was produced in 2011, of which 59% was recycled and 38% incinerated in four Waste-to-Energy (WTE) power plants, totally producing approximately 1,075 gigawatthours (GWh), which is about 2.5% of the total energy demand. Only 3% was sent to the Semakau landfill. Singapore’s policy is geared towards the principles of sustainable development as the country has no space to waste, no life to risk and no nature to destroy. Its RRR (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle) program has become prominent among its citizens and inspiring for leaders of Asian and African countries.

    Surabaya, the second largest city of Indonesia after Jakarta with over 4 million people, inspired by practices in Singapore, has demonstrated a leadership that managed to develop and roll-out a community-based solid waste management program including a recycling and composting program, a reward and punishment scheme and training of cadre and provision of cleaning tools. While the city managed to reduce the solid waste volume that was sent to the landfill by 31% in five years time, the problem still pending is the landfill and the negative impacts in its immediate surroundings. Is WTE a solution to utilize the waste collection and composting system such that it could be used for feeding a bio-digester to convert waste into energy? Here is where incentives need to be brought in to attract private investors to design, build, own and operate a power plant feeding into the national or local power grid and help to make Surabaya a cleaner city.

    Moving Forward
    In Asia, the overall mindset of decision-makers of towns and cities are at the level of dumping solid waste in landfills. That mindset must shift through exposure of success stories and the capacity to execute after being inspired. However, there is a growing development in waste collection aiming to keep residential and commercial neighborhoods clean in the low/middle income countries. Unfortunately, quite often the collected waste is dumped in landfills that are not in compliance with environmental regulations. Cities like, Surabaya, are increasingly enhancing the solid waste management and are looking for a ‘end of the pipeline’ solution i.e. WTE systems, like in Singapore.

    Countries, such as China, India, The Philippines and Thailand are embarking on WTE-projects. In Hong Kong decision-makers are being confronted with the limits of dumping solid waste in landfills and allocated USD 4 billion to deal with their solid waste production in the next seven years. Hong Kong’s solid waste production is more than 30% higher than that of Seoul and Taipei. Part of this plan is a contested plan for building a large WTE incineration plant. Just like Hong Kong, several other places in Asia will need to deal with this increasingly urgent challenge. China is preparing for massive expansion of WTE projects to convert 30 percent of its municipal waste into energy by 2030.

    With the right pragmatic policies, public participation, incentives schemes, feed-in-tariffs, and political and professional leadership, countries can acquire the right ‘clean’ technologies to convert organic domestic and food-wastes into electricity. Private sector parties must understand the public-private nature of their investments in WTE power generation and the feeder-system or supply chains i.e. engaging, rewarding and increasing performance of stakeholders involved. Investors will need to be approached and convinced to participate in WTE projects as these are tangible medium-risk ventures with fair profits and serve the interest of all living beings on this planet to live sustainably.