Using his pedicab, Gerry Ignacio, not his real name, buys junks inside a subdivision in a town in Cavite. He buys old newspapers, empty bottles, plastic containers and even broken home appliances.
“I bring them to the junk shop. I earn from each item. From bottles, newspapers, plastics and from worn out cooking pots or appliances,” he said in Tagalog.
Gerry, 35, considers himself “self-employed” and earns P150 to P300 daily. Buying and selling junks has been his source of income since he was 12 years old.
The saying that there is gold in garbage is true for Gerry.
Sometimes, with no capital to buy junks, Gerry scavenges in an open dump near his home, where he had to deal in a turf war with other scavengers, and, more seriously, expose himself to serious health risks.
Thousands of Filipinos, mostly those who have no opportunity to land a job due to lack of education, end up as scavengers.
For the government, however, turning garbage into gold is easier said than done. Especially when the garbage problem has gone from bad to worse.
Not all garbage produced every day are actually hauled off to open dumps or sanitary landfills. Some end up in canals, rivers and esteros; street corners and vacant lots, according to the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC).
Environmental pollution, health risks
In the Philippines, with an estimated population of 100 million and an estimated 40,000 tons of garbage produced every day, or 14.6 million tons a year, solid waste management has become a serious health and environmental issue.
Garbage can be a major cause of air, water and soil pollution that can harm the environment and pose serious health risks to people.
Indiscriminate dumping of garbage kills rivers and other water bodies; it prevents the free flow of water and contaminate water, aside from causing flood.
All rivers in Metro Manila and other highly urbanized cities in the provinces are already found to have high biological and chemical oxygen demand, making some of the country’s rivers biologically dead or too polluted for fish and other species to live in or survive.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has an ongoing program to revive the country’s dying rivers. Called “Adopt an Estero,” segments of river tributaries are adopted by DENR partners, including several local government units (LGUs) but mostly private companies.
Liquid residues from decaying garbage also pollute the soil, killing beneficial nutrients, making the soil barren and unproductive.
Huge concentration of garbage, such as in open dumps, also emits intoxicating odor, causing air pollution. Worse, garbage heaps are known to produce methane gas, which could trigger fire. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which increases temperature that causes climate change.
Officials of the DENR and NSWMC blame LGUs for the country’s worsening garbage problem.
LGUs have been identified as the main culprit behind the poor implementation of Republic Act (RA) 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, a law which aims to address the country’s looming garbage crisis—enacted more than 15 years ago. Environment Secretary Ramon J. Paje said as of the end of 2015 only 36 percent, or 545 LGUs, comply to all aspects of RA 9003. There are a total of 1,634 LGUs in the Philippines.
Paje said a total of 54 materials recovery facilities (MRFs) were established last year with the help of the DENR, bringing to 8,656 the total number of MRFs in the country, servicing a total of 10,327 barangays. There are over 42,000 barangays all over the country.
According to the NSWMC, the agency primarily tasked to implement RA 9003, there are still around 400 open dumps in various parts of the country, which it intends to shut down, converted or replaced with sanitary landfills or controlled waste facilities, as mandated by law.
Eligio Ildefonso, executive director of the NSWMC Secretariat, said there are currently 120 sanitary landfills or controlled waste facilities in the country; 300 more need to be put up if all 400 open dumps are to be closed within the year.
In open dumps, mixed garbage, regardless of their classification, are dumped. In sanitary landfills, wastes are segregated and, mostly, residual wastes are sealed and buried underground.
Cracking the whip
This year, as it steps up the implementation of RA 9003, the DENR and NSWMC are posing to file charges against defiant LGUs for failure to comply with the provisions of RA 9003.
Besides the conversion of open dumps into sanitary landfills and establishment of MRFs, the law mandates LGUs to implement waste segregation, recycling and composting to reduce the volume of garbage produced every day.
Last year more than 30 LGUs have been charged before the Office of the Ombudsman for violating RA 9003, for failure to close existing open dumps within their jurisdiction.
More LGUs who blatantly defy orders to close the dumps and implement the provisions of RA 9003 will be charged before the Office of the Ombudsman, Ildefonso said.
Wastes are supposed to be segregated according to their characterization. They are either biodegradable or nonbiodegradable. Implementing proper waste segregation solves half of the garbage problem. Wastes that can be recycled are separated. Also under the law, toxic waste, such as waste tainted with hazardous chemicals that pose serious environmental and health problems, do not belong in open dumps or sanitary landfills, because they require a more rigid management regime for disposal purposes.
Rene de la Cruz, a garbage truck driver, said segregation at source is rarely enforced.
An employee in a town in Cavite, de la Cruz, not his real name to protect his identity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, told the BusinessMirror he has been driving the town’s garbage truck for more than 15 years. Incidentally, the law mandating waste segregation was passed 15 years ago.
“Waste segregation is not implemented. The garbage we collect are not segregated,” he said. While hauling garbage, he said he and his colleagues try to segregate but get only those that can be sold to junk shops for extra income.
In the process, he and his colleagues are able to earn extra from P500 to P1,000 every day.
“At least we earn extra. Some of my colleagues are not regular employees. They are volunteers only,” he disclosed.
He said all the garbage they collect go straight to the town’s open dump, where scavengers salvage whatever they can sell to junk shops.
This reflects a serious problem in segregating waste at source, as 70 percent of the country’s garbage produced every day are actually household waste, including toxic, such as broken light bulbs and batteries. De la Cruz said residents do not segregate their garbage and the haulers never asked them to do it because local officials do not require proper waste segregation, anyway.
Environment Assistant Secretary Juan Miguel Cuna said sanitary landfills should be put up to encourage LGUs and communities to practice proper solid waste management. “We can’t convince them to practice recycling and waste segregation if garbage get mixed in open dumps,” Cuna said partly in Tagalog.
Low budget, low priority
For years, governments, both national and local, provide very little budget for the implementation of the law. It was only this year that a bigger budget allocation was granted for the implementation of RA 9003, with P500 million having been realigned for solid waste management from the DENR’s National Greening Program (NGP), on top of its regular budget for the purpose.
This year, a total of P588.2 million will be spent by the DENR and NSWMC for solid waste management. LGUs provide very little budget for solid waste management and is the reason for the poor implementation of the garbage law, says Environment Undersecretary for Environment and International Affairs Jonas Leones.
“Solid waste management is not in the order of priorities of LGUs. It is time for LGUs to prioritize the garbage problem,” he said.
Leones said some P8 billion is needed to fully implement RA 9003. A budget proposal made by the DENR-EMB for such hefty amount was turned down in 2014.
Lack of technical know-how
Ildefonso said aside from the poor political will, LGUs lack the technical know-how to implement the law. He noted that many LGUs have failed to come up with a credible solid-waste management plan.
Many of the 10-year solid-waste management plans submitted to the NSWMC by LGUs have been rejected because they lack substance, such as waste characterization and analysis, a study from which a good plan on how to manage solid waste can be drawn, Ildefonso said.
The NSWMC said only 79 percent of LGUs, or 1,287 out of the total 1,634 LGUs, have submitted their 10-year Solid Waste Management Plans for 2010-2015, beating the June 30, 2015, nonextendable deadline. Of the submitted plans, only 122 have been approved by the NSWMC as of November 25, 2015, 60 of which were approved only last year.
National Ecosavers Program
LGUs, however, are not the only problem. Segregating waste at source—the households—is another big problem.
In 2012, the DENR, in partnership with the Department of Education (DepEd) and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), launched the National Ecosavers Program (NEP). The program aims to institutionalize waste segregation at source by giving incentives to students who will bring to schools junks that can still be recycled or sold to junk shops. Ildefonso said it needs to be institutionalized in every household, barangay, city or municipality. The program is ongoing, with a total of 763 public elementary schools taking part.
“Thousands of students benefit from the program,” Ildefonso said.
Under the NEP, participating students are given an Ecosavers passbook. The credits they earn are recorded every time they bring junks. In return, the students receive cash or good from the accumulated points over a certain period. During program’s launch, 2,500 Ecosavers passbooks were turned over by the DENR to the DepEd for distribution.
Zeroing in on wastes
LGUs can greatly benefit from proper solid waste management, starting with segregation and recycling.
Most LGUs pay for the hauling tons of garbage within their jurisdiction. With proper waste segregation, recycling and composting, the volume of wastes can be substantially reduced, thus, saving LGUs financial resources while creating jobs or livelihood opportunities.
Sonia Mendoza of Mother Earth Foundation said properly used, the additional fund earmarked for solid waste management can help build the capacity of many LGUs. Mother Earth Foundation is just one of many NGOs that promote waste recycling
The group has been promoting zero waste and has provided LGUs with technical support as well as training in proper waste management—and with huge success.
Under its zero-waste advocacy, Mother Earth Foundation was able to help several barangays to address garbage woes, effectively reducing wastes through proper segregation, recycling, composting and other activities by as much as 80 percent. She said Barangay Potrero in Malabon City is now a model barangay in solid waste management. The same with Barangay Fort Bonifacio in Taguig City.
“Many barangays were able to reduce their wastes and can be considered model barangays through proper solid-waste management,” she said. Mother Earth Foundation has developed a module for LGUs to improve solid waste management which it is promoting for adoption by LGUs.
Support to LGUs
The DENR and NSWMC said LGUs would continue to get the needed technical assistance to enhance their solid-waste management capabilities. “We will continue in providing training to help them establish the facilities they need,” Cuna said.
Cuna, also the concurrent Director of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), said as early as 2014 the DENR has proposed a cost-sharing scheme for the establishment of sanitary landfills or MRFs with LGUs.
Lack of financial resources should not be a hindrance, Cuna said, suggesting that LGUs can explore other options, such as public-private partnership (PPP).
“In the absence of financial resources, LGUs can pursue PPP projects to put up whatever facility they need to comply with the provisions of the law,” he said.
Several LGUs have existing PPP projects for solid waste management, ranging from recycling and reprocessing junks to biomass to energy.
With a lot of creativity and ingenuity, garbage, including agricultural waste, can be useful and can be sold as recycled waste byproducts.
Huge volume of garbage can be converted into something very useful—such as natural gas and fuel—which can be used to generate electricity.
Ildefonso said to prove that proper solid waste management is possible, the NSWMC will pilot-test biomass-to-energy projects and put ecology centers or resource-recovery facilities one each in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Once successful, the NSWMC will push for the establishment of similar facilities, at least 16 or one for every region. “We would show in resource-recovery facilities what could be done to garbage. The same with proper segregation, recycling, composting and marketing of recycled materials,” Ildefonso said.
The NSWMC, he said, has earmarked a total of P230 million, or P115 million each for the Visayas and Mindanao. He said the agency is still scouting for the possible pilot sites of the projects, where waste segregation and recycling are already being enforced.
Big problem, big opportunity
With the country’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 70 percent under a business-as-usual scenario from 2020 to 2030, the government sees a big opportunity in pursuing renewable energy through biomass waste-to-energy projects.
Under its “condition commitment” in the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution submitted to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Leones said biomass and waste-to-energy projects can factor in.
He said besides massive reforestation, biomass-to-energy projects are being eyed for financing under the Green Climate Fund mechanism, a special UN fund to help strengthen the climate change capacities of developing countries.
While the Clean Air Act prohibits waste incineration, Leones said there is an opportunity in constructing power or methane plants fuelled by biomass wastes in sanitary landfills. Some private companies are also eyeing to produce biofuel from wastes.
“We have many open dumps. When we convert them into sanitary landfills we can put up methane plants,” Leones said.
Natural gas, such as methane, can be harnessed and harvested from sanitary landfills which could partially help address the country’s power shortage.
There are several waste-to-energy plants operating in the Philippines, including the Bacavalley Montalban Methane Plant in Rodriguez, Rizal, which produces 14 megawatts (MW) of electricity by extracting methane using landfill gas. Another project, the Bacavalley San Pedro Methane Plant in Laguna produces 4 MW of electricity, using the same technology. The Payatas Landfill Methane Recovery Plant in Quezon City produces 1 megawatt, while the Consolacion Landfill Recovery Plant, in Cebu produces 4 MW of electricity.
Some cement plants in the Philippines are now using biomass to generate power in their operation.
Converting tons of waste into energy is like hitting two birds with one stone, Leones said.
Besides, cutting costs in the disposal of wastes, the government, particularly LGUs, can generate revenues and energize communities through landfills’ largely untapped resources to boost revenues, in the process, turning garbage into gold.
Image credits: Jonathan l. Mayuga