Southeast Asia has a mounting waste problem but the idea of using incinerators to deal with it has met with string resistance because of concerns about pollution from toxins and fly ash.
However, new incineration technology makes it possible to treat municipal and hazardous waste with minimal pollution while generating renewable energy at the same time.
Rapid urbanisation is already straining the capacity of Asean cities and countries to deal with waste. Bangkok, for example, produces 8,700 tonnes of waste per day. The most popular and easiest solution is to dump waste into a landfill and bury it. It is not a solution for hazardous wastes, although regrettably such disposal is common in Thailand because companies refuse to pay for proper treatment.
The environmental impact caused by the landfills is always an issue in developing countries. Chemical substances that leak into rivers or soils threaten agricultural land and the safety of the food chain. As well, new sites are increasingly hard to find as citizens resist landfills in their communities.
Waste incineration is another option, but it costs a lot of money to construct a well-designed system that can reduce environmental impact from pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Moreover, incinerators can be designed to convert heat produced during the incineration process into steam, which will be used to generate electricity.
One of the prime examples of a successful incineration and energy venture can be seen in
Leverkusen, Germany, the home base of the chemical multinational Bayer AG. The company that handles the waste treatment business is Currenta GmbH & OHG, a joint venture between Bayer and Lanxess AG. Currenta also operates the Chempark industrial estates located in Leverkusen, Dormagen and Krefeld-Uderdingen.
At the Leverkusen site, the incinerator receives municipal garbage from the city and chemical waste from the Chempark every day. The amounts of waste from the former are higher than from the industrial zone. All waste is separated into organic and inorganic material. The former will be incinerated and the latter will go to the landfill.
After waste separation, the organic garbage is fed into the tower for burning. The service charges depend on the waste content, which can range from 150 euros per tonne for municipal garbage to 1,500 euros per tonne for chemical waste. There are up to 5,000 different kinds of waste fed into the incinerator in Leverkusen.
A Currenta executive said the company had invested hundreds of millions euros for the waste management system to serve the Chempark in Leverkusen. Environmental laws in Germany are very strict and require all industrial estates to have waste management systems. Bayer and Lanxess have to invest in incinerators as well as landfills.
Income from waste treatment alone cannot cover the high investment and operating cost of the Currenta system. Consequently, the incinerator was designed to convert heat released from the incineration process to generate electricity, which is sold to the Chempark. This model enables Currenta to enjoy a slim profit, said the executive.
There are many similar incinerators across Germany because businesses and municipalities need to comply with strict laws.
Dr Ulrich Bornewasser, head of environmental dialogue at Currenta, said the concept of a rotary kiln incinerator for incinerating hazardous waste is a proven system all over the world. Rotary kiln incinerators are in use such as in India and China. In China the company Zhongde Waste has built around a dozen such incinerators and they have been working successfully.
In Asia, one of the chief difficulties of this type of waste treatment is cost. It is much more expensive to incinerate waste than to dump it. In the EU and Germany, legislation defines recycling quotas for different materials in products such as cars or electronic devices. Thus businesses have to recycle or to incinerate this material and make use of the energy produced. The whole waste management process is strictly controlled by the authorities.
Ning He, chief executive officer of C and G Environmental Protection (Thailand), a private company that is constructing a thermal incinerator at the Nong Kaem Waste Management Centre in Bangkok, said waste in Asean countries was increasing due to the urbanisation and growing populations. Incinerator numbers in the region are expected to increase soon, although some people still oppose this waste management model.
Thailand, he said, produces about one kilogramme of waste per person per day. He figure in much more affluent Singapore is about 1.6 kilogrammes. Japan, in contrast, has reduced its output of waste, from between 4.2 million and 4.6 million tonnes in the late 1980s before a long period of economic stagnation set in, to 3 million tones today.
C and G late last year won the contract from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to build and operate the thermal incinerator aimed at eliminating municipal waste. The unit costs 900 million baht and when it starts operating in late 2014 it will be able to incinerate 300-500 tonnes of waste per day.
Mr Ning said the incinerator could also generate 6-7 megawatts of electricity from heat. The company is negotiating with the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA).
C and G operates 10 incinerators in China with the capacity to eliminate more than 10,000 tonnes per day of waste.
"Waste in Asean will increase for sure. Incinerators are needed if we want to eliminate waste with an environmentally friendly process. But it needs huge budget," he said.
Nick Nattal, director of communications for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said climate change would be an environmental problem for Asia in the medium to long term. Loss of natural resources will also become a major concern.
"We should think out of the box about how we can grow the economy in a way that we can start reducing the demand for the natural resources we are consuming," he said.
Mr Nattal said waste in all its forms was the major environmental problem in Asia. The region is wasting natural resources, energy, carbon dioxide and opportunity. Its populations are less efficient in energy use than they could be.
In his view, Japan has always been the most efficient in the use of energy. The country does well because it has had to make an effort to do so, given its large population in a small land area with limited natural resources. Hence, it is important to make people realise that being less wasteful is part of smart development.
He added that governments of Southeast Asian countries could combat environmental problems, but leadership, ambition and creativity are needed.
"There is no need for new technology. The technology nowadays is okay enough to mitigate the environmental impact," he said. "What we need is the ambition from governments and populations to work together to help solve the environmental problems in this region."
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- Writer: Nalin Viboonchart