A Gary, Indiana, plant would make jet fuel from trash and plastic. Residents are pushing back

GARY, Ind.—For Lori Latham and four other self-described “badass women,” the future of their hometown rests on a battle over 75 acres that lie between a giant steel mill and a failed casino once owned by Donald Trump.

The site sits behind parked railroad cars painted in graffiti, where abandoned concrete silos rise from the sandy southern shore of Lake Michigan, a remnant of a former cement plant that helped build the country’s interstate highway system. Here, a California company called Fulcrum BioEnergy wants to construct a gasification plant and refinery to turn the Chicago area’s trash—as much as 30 percent of it waste plastic—into jet fuel. 

It’s a bid, according to Fulcrum, to make a dent in the airline industry’s contribution to climate change while reducing waste at landfills. The city’s mayor, Jerome Prince, touts what he sees as a green energy future in this once-booming vestige of the Rust Belt.

But Latham and the group she co-founded, Gary Advocates for Responsible Development, along with some national environmental experts, smell a ruse. 

They question the company’s claims of sustainability in what amounts to a complicated, high-energy production process, and the company’s ability to deploy a new combination of technology intended to turn the trash and plastic waste into a gas used to make aircraft fuel. They also say it’s unfair to locate the plant in an environmental justice community already burdened disproportionately by a century of pollution from heavy industry.

Lori Latham of Gary, Indiana, is a founding member of Gary Advocates for Responsible Development, which is fighting a proposed jet fuel plant on a former cement plant site. Credit: James Bruggers

“We use the term greenwashing, where they make things seem like they’re green technologies when they’re really not,” said Latham, a Gary native who works in business development for an engineering firm and also is chairwoman of the environmental justice and climate committee of Gary’s branch of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. “I feel like Gary is being used based on its location, and also based on its demographics just to be a solution for where to put Chicago’s trash.”

The company’s plans, while embraced by the federal government and the airline industry, do not pass a common sense test, said Jane Williams, executive director of the environmental nonprofit California Communities Against Toxics, who has advised the Gary advocates.

“They are taking trash and applying massive amounts of heat to make a fuel, and then burning it,” Williams said. The proposed gasification process uses intense heat to turn the trash and plastic into a synthetic gas, before another process turns the gas into synthetic crude oil, which in turn is used to make jet fuel in an on-site refinery.

“This is one of the most energy-intensive processes I have reviewed in my career,” she said. “That’s a massive carbon footprint.”

In the Fulcrum proposal, Earthjustice attorney James Pew sees an illustration of a national trend in which facilities that burn waste, including plastic, through a process like gasification or a similar method called pyrolysis, are working to skirt health protections in the Clean Air Act.

“This whole fight at the local, state, and federal levels is about getting gasification and pyrolysis incinerators rebranded as non-incinerators so they can … avoid installing pollution controls and monitoring and reporting their emissions,” Pew said. “EPA’s regulations have defined facilities like Fulcrum as incinerators for almost 30 years.”

GARD is organizing opposition among area residents. It’s challenged the proposed plant’s air pollution permit from Indiana state regulators. And it has filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint argues that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s decision to grant Fulcrum its air permit is part of a longstanding pattern and practice of local discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.

Gary’s 68,000 residents, down from 175,000 in 1970, are 78 percent Black. One in three city residents lives in poverty.

For its part, Fulcrum, based in Pleasanton, California, is a sharp contrast with Gary. An affluent suburb of San Francisco with a poverty rate of 5 percent, it touts the economics of making what it describes as an $800 million investment in Gary, providing about 1,000 construction jobs and 130 to 200 permanent jobs.

“We just feel that we have created, designed and now are just a short time away from proving that garbage-to-fuel is possible,” said Fulcrum’s vice president of administration, Rick Barraza. “It’s doable, and it is a sustainable source of renewable fuel going forward.”

He also dismissed the Gary residents’ opposition and encouraged Inside Climate News to do the same. “I certainly hope that you don’t give too much time to the local citizens that just don’t want that facility in their backyard,” Barraza said. “There’s a local group out there that just doesn’t want the project. And so they’re starting to get vocal.”

$4 Billion in Federal Taxes to Develop Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Fulcrum has been working to turn trash into aviation fuel for more than a decade. The company broke ground on the second phase of its first plant near Reno, Nevada, in 2018, where it’s still seeking to begin full production.

Those efforts are part of a global push to develop what the airline industry and federal government call “sustainable aviation fuel,” or SAF.  In theory, SAF is made by recycling renewable plant- or animal-based materials as feedstock, offsetting the need to use new fossil fuels that would unleash carbon that scientists say needs to remain locked underground to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

Industry and government scientists are experimenting with different feedstocks ranging from animal fats, plant oils and wood waste to trash and plastics. 

Nikita Pavlenko, a program leader with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit environmental research group, says he  does not like the term “sustainable aviation fuel” because regardless of what is used to make these new fuels, “it implies it is actually sustainable,” or beneficial. “I always prefer the term ‘alternative aviation fuel,’ because there’s such a wide variation in the climate impacts of those alternatives.”  

California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy wants to turn trash and plastic into jet fuel at this former cement plant in Gary, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers

In all, aviation contributes about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But when other impacts—including the heat-trapping effects of condensation trails planes paint across the sky—are factored in, aviation accounts for as much as 3.5 percent of warming caused by humans, according to research published last year in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

As aviation has soared, so has pressure to reduce its emissions. 

“It doesn’t make sense to give aviation a license to continue polluting if we’re imposing climate policy on (motor vehicle) drivers or people who purchase electricity because those are a much more representative sector of society,” Pavlenko said.

The 290 member airlines of the International Air Transport Association, a global trade association, have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. In the United States, IATA members include American, Delta, United and cargo giants UPS and FedEx.

The industry is exploring various strategies including burning hydrogen made from renewable energy, making fuel from captured carbon dioxide and even using battery power in small airplanes; in 2015, United Airlines bought a $30 million stake in Fulcrum. Others suggest solutions such as replacing short-haul air travel with trains.

But the industry’s main focus is on improving airplane efficiency and on the development of SAF. 

“The newest commercial airplanes today for passenger or freight…are on the order of 25 percent more efficient than the planes they replaced,” said Robert McCormick, a senior research fellow at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colorado “And the aviation industry thinks they can do that, again, with the next generation of planes, which are still probably 10 years out.”

The International Energy Agency expects passenger growth to offset efficiency gains, though, so the industry is still looking for alternative fuels.  

Right now, there’s only one kind of SAF used in the United States, in test flights, said McCormick. It’s made with fats and oils, such as waste cooking oil, beef tallow or soybean oil, he said. 

Widespread industry use could be a long time coming.

“As you might imagine, you have to meet some pretty stringent approvals to legally sell them as aviation fuel as compared to say, a diesel fuel, because trucks are not going to fall out of the sky,” he said.

Decarbonizing air travel will be difficult, acknowledged Sebastian Mikosz, a senior vice president of IATA. “Unlike others in the transportation industry, we have to fight with something that they don’t have to fight with, which is gravity,” Mikosz said. “And our biggest problem is that we have to take our source of propulsion, our energy source, with us in the air.”

The industry is getting help from the Biden administration, which has pledged more than $4 billion to support the research and development of low-carbon fuel. The Biden administration has set a goal for the U.S. to produce aviation fuels with half the carbon emissions of conventional fuel, and to make enough of it by 2050 to meet all domestic aviation fuel demand.

The Plastic Problem

Last year, Fulcrum secured $375 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds through the Indiana Finance Authority to support the Gary project. 

For Fulcrum’s production here, the company plans to collect and sort municipal waste that otherwise would head to a landfill, and shred it at up to two locations outside of Gary. In all, the company plans to divert 700,000 tons of municipal solid waste from the region each year; Chicago alone produced more than 4 million tons of solid waste in 2020, according to a 2021 University of Illinois at Chicago study.

The Gary plant’s feedstock—about half paper and 30 percent plastic, along with wood and other trash—will be hauled into the city in about 90 trucks a day, the company has said. 

The presence of plastic causes two main problems. Plastic is made from a myriad of chemical mixtures. Gasification systems function the best with a consistent feedstock, McCormick said, so plastic waste poses a technical challenge.

Plastic complicates the company’s sustainability claims, as well. 

With plastic waste as a feedstock, McCormick said, “you’re going to have to answer the question, ‘To what extent is it a sustainable aviation fuel compared to biomass?’ It’s not going to have as low of a carbon intensity … simply because the plastic is made out of petrochemicals, (or) fossil carbon.”

At least one airline is specifically targeting plastic waste to make fuel.  United Kingdom-based Virgin Group, which includes the airline Virgin Atlantic, announced in February that it was partnering with U.S.-based Agilyx to produce synthetic crude oil from plastic waste that will then be refined into what it claims will be a lower-carbon fuel.

Fulcrum officials acknowledge plastic in its feedstock reduces its fuel’s climate benefits, even as it claims SAF from its Reno plant will represent  an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to traditional aviation fuel made from fossil fuels. And it expects that percentage to improve at its Gary plant.

Poetry stenciled on boards adorns one of Gary, Indiana’s thousands of abandoned buildings. Credit: James Bruggers

But the company has been less than transparent about how it got to that 80 percent figure. It appears to rely on environmental lifecycle analyses, the kinds of studies that experts often describe as being fraught with assumptions that can skew the conclusions. 

And a 2015 lifecycle analysis for the company’s Reno plant estimated that fuel produced there would result in a product claiming a less-robust climate benefit of 60 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared with traditional fossil fuels.

Fulcrum officials said they updated the 2015 study for the California Air Resources Board, which lists the company’s claims as certified. But Fulcrum did not provide a copy of the updated analysis for Inside Climate News to review. Fulcrum also did not provide any analysis of carbon emissions for the proposed Gary plant.

The company claims benefits to the climate from keeping trash out of landfills, where it rots and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But that’s an inexact science as well. Scientists and the EPA have been arguing over how to accurately calculate landfill gas emissions, Inside Climate News reported last year with NPR and Orlando public radio station WMFE.

Environmentalists are skeptical of the company’s claims, though Pavlenko said its fuel would represent “one of the better options” as long as the plastic content is “kept to a limited contribution.”

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Watered down: why negotiators at COP15 are barely mentioning the ocean

Watered down: why negotiators at Cop15 are barely mentioning the oceanWith only two mentions of the word ‘ocean’ in the latest 5,000-word working agreement, delegates fear marine biodiversity is being sacrificed The ocean may cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and contain much of its animal life, but you might not get that impression from the UN discussions in Montreal to save global biodiversity. Some delegates fear marine protections could be severely watered down or dropped entirely.Although overfishing, global heating and acidification are considered an existential risk to what has been called “the lungs of the planet”, so far there are only two mentions of the word “ocean” in the latest 10-page, 5,000-word working agreement at Cop15. There are no specific demands to curtail fishing, protect coral reefs or stop deep-sea mining.In public the ocean, which represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, isn’t being entirely ignored: delegates have approved a general draft on marine and coastal biodiversity, and there remains hope that the 30×30 pledge to protect 30% of Earth by 2030 will also include the ocean. In private, participants in the working groups – the closed-door sessions where the details are hashed out – say several countries are acting obstructively, with China, Russia, Iceland and Argentina among those accused of being hesitant to commit to specific restrictions.“We’re worried these countries will try and water this down to, say, 10%,” says Simon Cripps, executive director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society and a Cop15 participant. “We’re already sitting at 7% protection, of which 3.5% is in any way effectively managed, and look – sharks are going to pieces, fisheries are massively overfished, you’ve got coral reefs on the verge. So clearly a 10% goal isn’t working.”Because the negotiations work on a consensus basis, individual countries and coalitions can effectively veto things they don’t like.One of the perceived obstacles is fishing. China maintains the largest distant fishing fleet in the world, operating 17,000 industrial trawlers that fan the globe and cluster along the borders of other countries’ jurisdictions, sucking up vast amounts of fish and squid, for example near the Galápagos. So, when the word “fisheries” was dropped from the latest working document in the section about ending perverse environmental subsidies, it came as little surprise to many: Cripps explains that losing the specific word was a way to keep countries from vetoing the entire section, and making at least incremental progress.Another stumbling block is money. Developing countries are wary of restrictions if no more money is promised to help pay for them. On Tuesday night, Brazil led a group of developing countries that walked out of a finance meeting, protesting that donor countries were refusing to create a new fund for biodiversity. Those wealthier countries argue that Brazil – as well as China, India and other large countries whose economies have ballooned – should start pitching in to pay for biodiversity, too.One hugely important marine issue is simply not on the table at all, namely whether the 30% target will be local or global: will individual countries be asked to protect 30% of their own coastal areas – or is it a vaguer aim to protect 30% of the ocean, somewhere else? “From the start, they’ve been saying it’s a global target,” says Cripps.This means that, even if 30×30 were agreed, it might not help marine biodiversity at all because of yet another unsolved problem: the high seas. Most of the ocean lies outside national jurisdiction, and is effectively lawless. Countries only have sovereign authority up to 200 nautical miles from their coast; everything beyond is considered the high seas, ruled by nobody. A separate set of UN negotiations has been under way for years to agree a high seas treaty, but the last round of talks ended in failure. They are reconvening in March 2023 to try again.Can Cop15 protect ocean biodiversity from the big fish of the ‘blue economy’? | Guy StandingRead moreWithout that treaty, any agreements made in Montreal to protect ocean on the high seas are legally meaningless, as there would be nobody to enforce the rules. There are regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), which set quotas to prevent species, such as tuna, from being overfished on the high seas, but their enforcement powers are limited in scope and they are heavily influenced by commercial fisheries. Countries could also use the parallel negotiations as an excuse not to act, arguing that protecting the ocean isn’t a matter for Cop15 at all.A few nations have been forging ahead closer to home, with Costa Rica, France and the UK proposing ambitious limits off their own coastlines – though almost all the UK’s marine protected areas still allow bottom-trawling.“Designation is not protection,” says Steve Widdicombe, director of science at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “You can allocate a particular label or piece of ocean and say, ‘Oh, it’s a marine protected area, it’s a site of special scientific interest, it’s a nature reserve’ or what have you. Well, you’ve still got bottom-trawling going on in there, you’re still pumping sewage into it.”“Not every piece of sea is the same as every other piece of sea,” he adds. “We can choose 30% of the open ocean, away from every consumer – that’s absolutely fine, accessible, easy stuff to do. But it doesn’t help any coral. It doesn’t help any mangroves. It doesn’t help seagrass.”Cripps raises the possibility that even if the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) fails to reach an agreement, the ocean might already soon be 30% protected in some form. “You’ve gotta ask – if CBD doesn’t get consensus, are we gonna get 30×30 anyway?” he says.But he points out that it means business as usual – with nothing changing in terms of overfishing, deep-sea mining, acidification, microplastics or any of the other threats facing the embattled ocean.“It should be much easier [to protect 30% of the ocean] than the land – that is the conundrum and the paradox here,” National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala told the conference. “Thirty percent is not the goal: it’s a milestone. Studies show we need something closer to half of the ocean if we are to prevent the collapse of our life support system during our lifetimes. But it is the unprotected 70% where our use of resources really has to be done more responsibility, to let that 30% help to regenerate the rest of the ocean.”Conservationist Sol Kaho’ohalahala, a seventh generation Hawaiian, agreed. “In a native Hawaiian perspective it is almost saying as though only 30% of our ancestors are important and that the other 70%, we might just have to put them aside.”TopicsCop15Seascape: the state of our oceansOceansMarine lifeAnimalsWildlifefeaturesReuse this content

Bio-based plastics aim to capture carbon. But at what cost?

It’s the year 2050, and humanity has made huge progress in decarbonizing. That’s thanks in large part to the negligible price of solar and wind power, which was cratering even back in 2022. Yet the fossil fuel industry hasn’t just doubled down on making plastics from oil and gas—instead, as the World Economic Forum warned would happen, it has tripled production from 2016 levels. In 2050, humans are churning out trillions of pounds of plastic a year, and in the process emitting the greenhouse gas equivalent of over 600 coal-fired power plants. Three decades from now, we’ve stopped using so much oil and gas as fuel, yet way more of them as plastic.Back here in 2022, people are trying to head off that nightmare scenario with a much-hyped concept called “bio-based plastics.” The backbones of traditional plastics are chains of carbon derived from fossil fuels. Bioplastics instead use carbon extracted from crops like corn or sugarcane, which is then mixed with other chemicals, like plasticizers, found in traditional plastics. Growing those plants pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, and locks it inside the bioplastic—if it is used for a permanent purpose, like building materials, rather than single-use cups and bags.At least, that’s the theory. In reality, bio-based plastics are problematic for a variety of reasons. It would take an astounding amount of land and water to grow enough plants to replace traditional plastics—plus energy is needed to produce and ship it all. Bioplastics can be loaded with the same toxic additives that make a plastic plastic, and still splinter into micro-sized bits that corrupt the land, sea, and air. And switching to bioplastics could give the industry an excuse to keep producing exponentially more polymers under the guise of “eco-friendliness,” when scientists and environmentalists agree that the only way to stop the crisis is to just stop producing so much damn plastic, whatever its source of carbon.But let’s say there was a large-scale shift to bioplastics—what would that mean for future emissions? That’s what a new paper in the journal Nature set out to estimate, finding that if a slew of variables were to align—and that’s a very theoretical if—bioplastics could go carbon-negative.The modeling considered four scenarios for how plastics production—and the life cycle of those products—might unfold through the year 2100, modeling even further out than those earlier predictions about production through 2050. The first scenario is a baseline, in which business continues as usual. The second adds a tax on CO2 emissions, which would make it more expensive to produce fossil-fuel plastics, encouraging a shift toward bio-based plastics and reducing emissions through the end of the century. (It would also incentivize using more renewable energy to produce plastic.) The third assumes the development of a more circular economy for plastics, making them more easily reused or recycled, reducing both emissions and demand. And the last scenario imagines a circular bio-economy, in which much more plastic has its roots in plants, and is used over and over.“Here, we combine all of these: We have the CO2 price in place, we have circular economy strategies, but additionally we kind of push more biomass into the sector by giving it a certain subsidy,” says the study’s lead author, Paul Stegmann, who’s now at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research but did the work while at Utrecht University, in cooperation with PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. If all three conditions are met, he says, it is enough to push emissions into the negative.

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How microplastic kills plankton

Richard Kirby, a marine biologist based in Plymouth, England, was looking at zooplankton wriggling under a microscope when he spotted something else: shreds of plastic pieces interlaced with the tiny creatures.

This wasn’t unusual to Kirby. He’d collected the sample off the sea of Plymouth for the purpose of raising awareness about microplastic pollution in oceans. Examining plankton is routine for Kirby, and so is observing microplastics in his samples.

Ghastly plastic now lurks among all the beautiful glass of the diatoms in my plankton sample. Microplastic fragments and plastic microfibers. Every inshore sample I now collect contains our plastic litter. @zeiss_micro pic.twitter.com/KAo89s8EXy— Dr Richard Kirby (@PlanktonPundit) November 29, 2022

Plastic pollution in oceans has been increasing at an alarming rate over the years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 88 percent of marine species have been affected by plastic contamination.

People are familiar with seabirds dying from eating cigarette lighters, or turtles suffocating as a result of mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, but there is very little awareness about plastics that harm creatures at a smaller level, Kirby explains. Ingesting microplastic can even kill plankton that are crucial sources of food to other marine life, including fish. This is because plankton cannot get a sufficient amount of food into their guts if they’re already occupied by little shreds of plastic.

Plastic is almost ubiquitous in oceans, and can even be found in environments that used to be considered pristine, says Kirby. “You can even find plastics in plankton samples collected in Antarctica, for example.” Plastic shreds from clothing are a significant polluter at the micro level. Microplastic can also come from tires, road markings, and personal care products.

Plankton aren’t mistaking microplastics for food, exactly, says Bill Perry, an associate professor of biology at Illinois State University. They are filter-feeding , during which they extract small pieces of food and particles from the water. In doing so, they gather up microplastics, too.

The damage that microplastics cause is not just confined to microscopic marine organisms like plankton. In fact, it is more pronounced in species that are located higher in the food chain, explains Perry, and which eat smaller creatures that have themselves consumed microplastics. In 2020, Perry conducted a study that examined the presence of microplastics in two different fish species in drinking water reservoirs that belonged to McLean County in Illinois. Perry’s research group collected 96 fish, and they detected microplastics in all of them. “The fish seemed to be swimming in essentially a soup of microplastics in the reservoirs,” he says.

Eating microplastics, as you might imagine, is not very good for marine animals. Fishes can face problems with growth and reproduction, says Grace Saba, an associate professor who also researches organismal ecology at Rutgers University. Their guts start to have more and more plastic and less food, and they don’t have enough energy to put toward growth and reproduction like they would if they weren’t eating microplastics.

The microplastic problem is only going to get worse: A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency projects that the amount of microplastics in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean will rise by 3.9 times in 2030 as compared to the microplastics level in 2008 in the region.

Once microplastics enter the ocean’s food chain, it’s hard for them to leave. Individual animals may excrete microplastics, but “the thing about poop in the ocean is that it serves as a food source for marine animals, including plankton and filter feeders,” Saba explains. In this way, microplastics get continuously recycled. Marine scientists in the future will probably be spotting microplastics in their samples, too.

Weight of microplastics raining on Auckland equal to 3 million plastic bottles yearly, study finds

Some 74 million metric tons of microplastics, the equivalent of more than 3 million plastic bottles, are falling on Auckland yearly, new research finds.
These tiny plastic fragments — shed from car tires, synthetic fabrics, plastic bottles, and other products — make their way into the atmosphere, waterways, and the sea. Scientists suggested that ocean currents may be ferrying microplastics from afar, and that crashing waves off the coast of Auckland are casting these particles into the air. The particles pose a risk to public health, according to the paper, which follows on a recent study that found microplastics buried deep in the lungs of human cadavers.

For the new research, scientists gathered tiny plastic particles at two locations in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. They recorded a daily average of 4,885 airborne particles per square meter, a figure that far outstrips previous tallies of 771 in London, 275 in Hamburg, and 110 in Paris.

Researchers attributed the difference to more sophisticated measuring techniques, which allowed them to identify particles as small as one-hundredth of a millimeter. To track the smallest particles, scientists applied a dye that glowed under certain conditions. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
“The smaller the size ranges we looked at, the more microplastics we saw,” Joel Rindelaub, a chemist at the University of Auckland and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The tiniest particles pose the greatest health risk as they can enter the bloodstream and build up in organs, including the testicles, liver, and brain, the paper said.

“Future work needs to quantify exactly how much plastic we are breathing in,” Rindelaub said. “It’s becoming more and more clear that this is an important route of exposure.”

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As waste-to-energy incinerators spread in Southeast Asia, so do concerns

Widely in use in countries including Japan, South Korea and northern Europe, waste-to-energy technology is making inroads in Southeast Asia, where it’s presented as a tried-and-tested green energy solution.Thailand plans to build 79 waste-to-energy plants in upcoming years, and there are at least 17 proposed for Indonesia.Concerns about environmental and public health impacts have already led to protests and project delays.In Europe, the technology’s climate-friendly credentials are being called into question, with several countries imposing or considering carbon taxes on waste-to-energy facilities. In 2016, Bangkok opened its first waste-to-energy incinerator in the district of Nong Khaem, turning up to 500 metric tons of solid waste into electricity every day. The 9.8 megawatt incinerator uses technology from Japan’s Hitachi Zosen, and the project aims to be a model for future waste-to-energy plants in Thailand. The government already plans to build two additional facilities alongside a landfill in Bangkok’s On Nut subdistrict.
For Thailand, ranked as the fifth top source of oceanic plastic pollution in the world, addressing waste is a key concern. In 2021, the country produced 24.98 million metric tons of solid waste, of which only 16% was recycled back into the supply chain, according to the country’s Pollution Control Department (PCD). The waste problem has become so pressing that Thailand has set it as part of its national agenda, with waste-to-energy increasingly being pushed as a solution.
“The easiest and most suitable way is turning this waste into energy,” said Pinsak Suraswadi, director-general of PCD. “Moreover, the projects will help cut down greenhouse gas.”
It’s a similar story in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country and estimated as the world’s third-largest plastic polluter. There, too, rapid economic growth and increased production of single-use plastics by global brands has overwhelmed the country’s waste management system, leading to clogged rivers and plastic waste impacting local marine wildlife. To address this, in 2018 President Joko Widodo signed a regulation pushing forward plans to deploy waste-to-energy in 12 cities.
Thus far, there are at least 17 projects proposed for Indonesia, with a total capacity of at least 134.9 MW. One is already operating in the Jakarta satellite city of Bekasi, along with another in the country’s second-largest city, Surabaya.
Thailand, meanwhile, plans to build 79 waste-to-energy plants in the upcoming years, with a total installed capacity of 619.28 MW, according to PCD. Each will have at least a 20-year operating contract, many built using international technology or finance. The goal: bring to Southeast Asia a technology that has helped Europe, Japan and South Korea deal with waste.
“Waste-to-energy is aligned with the ways other countries have solved waste issues,” Suraswadi said.
Nong Khaem waste-to-energy plant is the first incinerator in Bangkok. Run by a Chinese company, C&G Environmental Protection, the 9.8 MW project aspires to be a model for municipal solid waste management in Thailand. Image by Nicha Wachpanich.
From the Global North to Southeast Asia
For decades, wealthy countries like Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Finland and the United Kingdom have turned to incineration to deal with growing consumer and industrial waste. There are more than 1,000 incinerators in Japan and more than 500 in European countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark, burning thousands of tons of municipal waste every year and using that heat to generate up to 4.2 gigawatts in Japan and 10.5 GW in Europe.
While in the past there have been concerns about dioxin and other heavy metal pollution from incinerators, advances in pollution control technology had abated those concerns somewhat.
Advocates of waste-to-energy, such as the industry group European Suppliers of Waste to Energy Technology (ESWET), say the technology has improved in recent decades, making it cleaner and, they argue, renewable. For countries in Southeast Asia, it can be a useful tool to deal with growing consumer waste, advocates say.
“In developing countries in Southeast Asia, waste generation is increasing rapidly,” said Masaki Takaoka, a professor and chair of the Waste to Energy Research Council at Kyoto University in Japan. “I think waste-to-energy systems are necessary to avoid landfilling.”
Opponents, however, say the landscape in Southeast Asia, where the waste sector remains mostly an informal industry, along with lax pollution control and nearly no system for monitoring dioxins and other highly toxic chemicals that are byproducts of incineration, mean that burning waste will be dirty and harmful to local economies.
Residents of Thalang, Thailand, hold signs protesting against the waste-to-energy project during a demonstration. Image courtesy of Thalang community.
“None of these pollutants coming from incinerators are…very well monitored in Southeast Asia,” said Yobel Novian Putra, an Indonesia-based campaigner with GAIA Asia-Pacific, a nonprofit network of organizations opposed to incineration. “Here, in Indonesia, the government only mandates to test the dioxin from emissions once every five years.”
In both Thailand and Indonesia, opposition has had an impact on government plans, as citizens grow increasingly concerned about pollution, health impacts on communities, and whether the technology is really as climate-friendly as is being marketed.
In Thalang, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Bangkok, local opposition to a 7.9 MW waste-to-energy plant was strong enough to halt construction of the project, one of the first victories for a resistance movement growing across the country.
“One night a storm hit the area and the contaminated water washed down from the dumpsite,” said Kampol Wadnoi, the head of a village near the incinerator. “Our community relies on underground water for raising cows and household use.”
Similarly, in Indonesia, a small incinerator planned for the South Jakarta neighborhood of Tebet is facing opposition. According to local NGOs Walhi Jakarta and the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), the project is currently delayed due local concerns about environmental and public health impacts, including the placement of the facility close to residential areas.
A protest organized by Walhi Jakarta against the proposed incinerator in Tebet, Jakarta. Image courtesy of WALHI Jakarta.
A facility planned for the city of Surakarta is also facing grassroots opposition. The 12 MW incinerator, which will use Austrian technology to process 450 metric tons of garbage daily, is being built at the Putri Cempo landfill, one of the largest in Central Java.
Activists say one key factor driving opposition is the government’s failure to adequately engage surrounding communities. “The access to information about the incinerator obtained by local residents is very low,” said Fahmi Bastian, executive director of Walhi Central Java.
Already, operations tests have raised concerns in Surakarta. In 2018, a test while the incinerator was under construction led to a small protest by people living nearby. “The residents came because the smoke from the incinerator caused sore throats.”
Concerns about community impacts are a common issue in both countries. In Thailand, due to a governmental effort to build small incinerators around the country, most planned waste-to-energy projects have less than 10 MW of generating capacity. Small-scale plants like these do not have to complete a full environmental impact assessment (EIA), which, in Thai law, requires the company to monitor and inform the public about dioxin and other heavy metals from incinerators. These regulations were further weakened after 2015, when the Thai military government made an official exemption for all waste-related power plants regardless of generation capacity. Currently, waste incinerators in Bangkok are instead only required to carry out a study called “code of practices,” which does not require tracking or informing the public about dioxin or heavy metal pollutants.
“Waste-to-energy has potential health and environmental risks if they are not governed properly,” said Supaporn Malailoy from EnLAW, an environmental legal aid group based in Bangkok. “But instead of having a strict monitoring regulation, Thailand is facilitating the investors to easily and quickly invest in these projects.”
Bunluan Amnat, 65, had been making a living from waste scavenging for more than 30 years before she stopped to help raise her grandchildren and took a break from the physically demanding work. She and the other Nong Khaem dumpsite community dwellers make a living from informal waste picking and are concerned waste-to-energy projects might reduce their access to waste. Image by Nicha Wachpanich.
International role
While Southeast Asian governments are enabling the spread of waste-to-energy technology, the primary source of financing and technology is from abroad.
Leading the charge is Japan, home to more than 1,000 incinerators and little space, or need, for any more. Since hosting the 2019 G20 summit, the Japanese government has been actively promoting waste-to-energy technology in Southeast Asia. Japanese companies including Hitachi Zosen (which has at least three projects in Thailand, including the one in Thalang), JFE Engineering, Marubeni and Mitsubishi are seeking to export their technology to the region. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan also used to regularly host Southeast Asian government officials on tours to showcase waste-to-energy plants.
Also playing a role is the Asian Development Bank, which, according to GAIA Asia-Pacific, has distributed more than $1 billion in loans, grants and technical assistance for waste-to-energy projects across Asia, and still considers the technology to be a form of climate mitigation.
Other government-backed development agencies pushing waste-to-energy in Southeast Asia include the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute and Denmark’s DANICA. Without this financial support, it’s unlikely that Southeast Asian countries would be willing to finance or import waste-to-energy technology on their own.
“Waste incineration is one of the most expensive ways of producing energy,” said Janek Vahk, climate, energy and air pollution program coordinator at the nonprofit Zero Waste Europe. “You can do it in rich countries, but not in most developing countries, unless you put public funds into it.”
Waste-to-energy projects are often presented to the public as a solution from industrialized countries. “The project was presented as a foreign technology that would cause no harm because it had already been used abroad,” said Wadnoi, the Thalang village leader.
Kampol Wadnoi, 56, the headman of a village near the Thalang waste-to-energy site, was sued by the company developing it, which is seeking 150 million baht ($4.3 million). Image by Nicha Wachpanich.
Climate impact
While proponents of waste-to-energy technology say it’s a sustainable solution to waste management challenges, opponents worry that, in addition to concerns about pollution, expanding the use of the technology in Southeast Asia may also have a detrimental impact on the region’s climate goals.
Indonesia included incineration in the country’s 2021 updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), its emissions reduction pledge under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector. In October, Thailand added waste-to-energy as part of its national carbon crediting system.
However, in the most recent European Union taxonomy, which designates how the bloc’s 19 member states deploy systems and technologies related to renewable energy and waste reduction, incineration is no longer considered either green or renewable. In the future, incinerators will have to pay carbon tax for their emissions in Germany, and likely other countries shortly thereafter. This, Vahk said, clearly shows that the technology is not climate-friendly. “With a growing climate emergency … waste incineration definitely should be phased out rather sooner,” he said. “If you look at the actual reported figures, burning waste is quite similar to coal.”
Opponents also point out that waste streams in Southeast Asia are quite different from those in Japan, South Korea and northern Europe, where waste-to-energy plays a significant role. Organic waste, which doesn’t burn efficiently, makes up a higher proportion of waste, up to 50% in Thailand, compared to 10-20% in Europe or Japan.
“Incinerators do not really address organic waste, as it’s too wet, not suitable for burning,” Yobel said. “The commonsense solution is to prevent food waste, and then composting. If you want to try some energy recovery, you can try biogas, but definitely not incineration.”
Local people say household waste from other areas was transported to the Thalang site to prepare for the waste-to-energy operation. Image courtesy of Thalang community.
Some projects, such as the Nong Khaem incinerator in Thailand, use what’s known as “Stroker Grate” modified technology to dry the wet waste before sending it into the incinerator. But GAIA Asia-Pacific warns that more plastic, including recyclable or reusable plastic, will end up in the region’s planned incinerators, while organic waste will continue to flow into landfills. “All of that fossil fuel materials will be instantly transformed into CO2,” Yobel said.
He added he’s also concerned that consumer brands, which have failed in recent years to reduce their plastic output, might be promoting incineration as a false solution or cover for their failures to create a circular system for plastics.
Vahk said he’s also concerned that waste-to-energy is incompatible with regional and global climate goals, a fact that Europe is only now starting to take seriously. “We have a very strong industry in Europe, and they’ll fight to say they’re part of the future, but things are changing,” Vahk said. The last thing he wants to see, he said, is Southeast Asia follow Europe down the wrong path and spend billions to lock in an expensive, polluting technology.
“We don’t want to have the same mistake in other regions,” Vahk said.
Activists in Jakarta say they fear this is just what is happening, with the government pushing forward with three additional incinerators.
“We are worried that the paradigm related to waste will be that no matter how much the garbage, it will be burned,” said Muhammad “Anca” Aminullah, a campaigner with Walhi Jakarta. “We are worried that this will open up opportunities for waste imports, and worsen Jakarta’s current air quality, which is already poor.”
Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist. She regularly covers environmental issues such as mining and waste.
This article was developed with the support of journalismfund.eu.
Banner image: A protest organized by Walhi Jakarta against the proposed incinerator in Tebet, Jakarta. Image courtesy of WALHI Jakarta.
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