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.
related reading:
Experts decry ‘funny math’ of plastics industry’s ‘advanced recycling’ claims

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Alternative Energy, Carbon Conservation, Carbon Emissions, Development, Emission Reduction, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Energy Politics, Environment, Environmental Law, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Industry, Land Rights, Pollution, Recycling, Renewable Energy, Waste
Print

Deal at N.J. Superfund site draws fire

An agreement on cleanup measures at one of the nation’s most notorious Superfund sites is drawing blowback from some environmental advocates skeptical of provisions within the deal.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced Monday that the German chemical manufacturer BASF would settle claims for damages done to natural resources at its former Ciba-Geigy Corp. plant in Toms River. But while the state hailed the deal as a “turnaround story,” critics are already concerned that community members will have limited involvement in the process.
“Given the dirty deeds of Ciba-Geigy and past government failures, the people of Toms River and downstream communities deserve more both on and off site when it comes to cleanup, preservation and protection from future harm,” said Janet Tauro, an Ocean County resident and board chair for Clean Water Action NJ.

Advertisement

That pushback marks the latest turn for one of the most high-profile sites ever to come under EPA scrutiny.
BASF assumed responsibility for the Ciba-Geigy Toms River plant in 2010, acquiring a deeply toxic legacy. During its operational years, the site produced industrial dyes, pigments, resins and plastics, leading to major groundwater contamination and outcry as a child cancer cluster appeared to crop up across the community. It has been on EPA’s National Priority List since 1983, underscoring its outsize threat to public health and the environment.
While the site has been subject to cleanup work for years, the deal announced Monday would see around 1,000 acres permanently preserved for public benefit. Of those, 790 will be for open space and restoration projects, while 210 will be dedicated to pollinator habitat and solar energy production.
That effort could break ground as early as spring 2023, DEP said, and could take five years. The agreement will allow BASF to settle claims for environmental damage, although no cost estimate has been shared regarding the extent of the work.
“This settlement would transform one of New Jersey’s most notorious polluted sites into one of our biggest environmental success stories — one that delivers the natural resource quality that every community deserves, shoulder-to-shoulder with a good corporate citizen determined to repair the environmental damage of our shared industrial past,” said DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette in a statement.
Critics of the agreement, however, have noted that some parts of the site could still see some development under the terms outlined. They have also pushed back on provisions that would virtually give the state oversight of the area, something they say lets industry members off the hook for pollution.
Tauro of Clean Water Action NJ also argued that the state’s provided 30-day comment period is insufficient. She also pushed for a public hearing that would allow for more input from community members.
“A required first step is meaningful public engagement, more than just written comment, during the public comment period for this proposed settlement,” Tauro said.
Still, some advocates have been supportive of the settlement. Taylor McFarland, conservation manager for the Sierra Club’s New Jersey Chapter, called the settlement “great news” for preservation efforts in the wider Toms River area.
“More importantly, it is a step in the right direction for the people who have been suffering from the contamination of the Ciba-Geigy Superfund Site for decades,” McFarland added. “This site has been on the Superfund List since the 1980s, and it is still one of the most contaminated sites in the state, if not the country.”
Alex Ireland, president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon, similarly praised the agreement for sending funding “directly back to the community that experienced the damages from contamination.”

German trains to offer coffee in porcelain cups to cut waste

German trains to offer coffee in porcelain cups to cut wasteDeutsche Bahn passengers will be able to opt for reusable cups, plates and bowls for their food and drink from next year Deutsche Bahn passengers will be able to get their coffee in a porcelain cup from next year, the German rail operator has announced, as it seeks to cut waste.Travellers would be able to choose a “high-quality porcelain or glass” option when ordering food and drink on its intercity and high-speed services, the company said in a statement.Reusable cups, plates and bowls would be offered to customers free of charge and without a deposit for all orders from the trains’ bistros, it said. Plastic and cardboard packaging will still be available at the request of customers.Row over Germany’s public transport ticket jumping from €9 to €49Read moreThe change will bring Deutsche Bahn’s services in line with rules coming into force in Germany on 1 January. From next year, restaurants and cafes will have to offer their to-go products in reusable packaging. Single-use packaging will not be banned but an alternative must be offered free of charge.“Deutsche Bahn is driving forward its green transformation in onboard catering,” said the rail operator’s passenger services chief, Michael Peterson.As part of its efforts to reduce its environmental footprint, more than 50% of the dishes offered on Deutsche Bahn trains had been vegan or vegetarian since March, the company said.Deutsche Bahn has set itself a target of being carbon-neutral by 2040.TopicsGermanyRecyclingEthical and green livingEuropeWasteRail transportnewsReuse this content

Harmful bacteria found in common ocean plastics

Most bodies of water are naturally teeming with microbial life—and the Mediterranean Sea is no exception. Now, the Mediterranean’s microscopic marine organisms have a new way of getting around. They are hitching a ride on a growing fleet of plastic ships: microfibers. 

In a recent study published on November 30 in the journal PLOS One, a team of biologists from Sorbonne Université in France have discovered 195 species of bacteria living on microfibers floating in the Mediterranean Sea. According to their analysis, a single microfiber could be home to more than 2,600 bacterial cells. While not all marine microbes on the plastic particles were dangerous, the researchers were particularly concerned about the level of bacterial species that could be potentially harmful to wildlife and humans.  

“Plastics are a relatively new substrate in the ocean,” says Ana Luzia de Figueiredo Lacerda, study author and a marine plastic pollution researcher at Sorbonne Université. “We are discovering what is living [on plastics] to see the diversity of bacterial groups, and among these groups, what can be potentially pathogenic or invasive.”   

A 2020 United Nations Environment Program report estimates that 730 tons of plastic waste end up in the Mediterranean Sea every day, leaving more than 64 million tiny floating particles per square kilometer in certain areas, including plastic microfibers. In fact, of all the world’s major oceanic basins, the Mediterranean has the highest concentration of microfibers. These small synthetic strands are released from sources such as fraying fishing nets, textile producers, or loads of laundry, explains Lacerda. “It’s one of the most abundant types of microplastic in the oceans,” she says. The high salinity and density of Mediterranean waters may also cause greater concentrations of the fibers to float near the surface, the new study notes.

[Related: The secret to longer-lasting clothing will also reduce plastic pollution]

Across the world’s oceans, plastic pollution has created a new artificial community for marine microbes—which researchers call the “plastisphere.” Free-floating bacteria and other microbiota can secrete sticky molecules that help them latch on to substrates, like wood, microalgae, or sediment. Once attached, the bacteria produce more of these sticky molecules to allow even more microbes to glom on, causing a biofilm to grow, Karen Shapiro, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Davis, explained in an email to PopSci. But the problem with plastics is that they last much longer than natural substrates in marine environments, increasing the risk and spread of microbial contamination, Lacerda says. Some types of plastics are less dense than sea water and float on the surface where they can be carried long distances by ocean currents. 

“The plastic works like a boat to these organisms,” Lacerda explains. “They transport species across regions, which could lead to changes in the function of the natural system.”  

When colonized by bacteria, the plastics can smell like food to marine wildlife that might consume them by mistake. Not only does that mean the microplastics work their way through the food chain, past studies have shown that toxic chemicals in plastics could provoke hormonal dysfunctions that affect growth and reproduction in some wildlife groups, including orcas and oysters.

Photomicrograph of floating fibers collected from the coastal zone of the northwestern Mediterranean (A), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) images of their bacterial communities (B), with elongated and rounded cells as well as the sticky molecular compounds that build biofilms (C-F). Pedrotti et al., 2022, PLOS ONE

To find out what kinds of bacteria microfibers might be harboring in the Mediterranean Sea, Lacerda and her colleagues collected samples from the northwestern end near the coasts of Monaco and Nice, France. After isolating the microfibers, the team used microscopy and DNA sequencing to identify the bacteria species on the fibers and compared them to the free-floating bacteria in the water. Among the 195 species living on the microfibers, Lacerda and the authors flagged a “great quantity” of pathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria that can cause seafood poisoning in humans. 

Previous studies have found pathogenic marine microorganisms on plastics in the ocean, such as Aeromonas salmonicida, which can infect and kill salmon, and Arcobacter species, which can cause illness in people. “In one particular sample, the authors found nearly a third of the bacteria species to be V. parahaemolyticus, which is a notable proportion and of possible concern given its pathogenic potential,” Shapiro, who was not involved in the recent research but has also studied the plastisphere, wrote in her email. “These anthropogenically derived fibers that end up in our oceans could mediate disease transmission for sea life but also people that consume shellfish that can concentrate these contaminants.” V. parahaemolyticus thrives in warm brackish waters where filter feeders like oysters are typically cultivated.

[Related: A close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch reveals a common culprit]

Locating where microfibers—and the harmful species they carry—are abundant can help people know if certain bodies of water are safe for bathing, farming, or fishing, Lacerda says. Climate change could further the spread and pathogenicity of plastic-dwelling microorganisms that are influenced by temperature, including V. parahaemolyticus. “As the temperature of the ocean is increasing, the virulence and [plastic] adhesion of the organism also increases with the increase in temperature,” Lacerda says. This is especially important in a sand-locked sea like the Mediterranean, which is warming faster than other regions in the world. As a result, “we could expect that the plastisphere in the Mediterranean Sea could respond faster to climate change,” Lacerda notes. 

According to Shapiro, the study’s findings in the Mediterranean add to the growing body of evidence that marine bacteria thriving on plastic waste is “a global phenomenon that deserves more attention.” She and Lacerda both think there need to be more investigations on the interactions between pathogens and different contaminants such as plastics to get a better understanding of how humans are altering—and harming—marine ecosystems.

“I do believe that the general public should be aware of this problem and understand that plastic pollution in the ocean doesn’t affect only marine wildlife, but can affect us,” Lacerda says. As the plastic problem continues to grow, she adds, “we have to look for another way of living.”

Negotiators take first steps toward plastic pollution treaty

More than 2,000 experts wrapped up a week of negotiations on plastic pollution Friday, at one of the largest global gatherings ever to address what even industry leaders in plastics say is a crisis.It was the first meeting of a United Nations committee set up to draft what is intended to be a landmark treaty to bring an end to plastic pollution globally.“The world needs this treaty because we are producing plastics by the billions,” said Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for plastics in an interview with The Associated Press. “Billions of tons of plastics are being produced every year and there is absolutely no way to ensure that this plastic doesn’t end up in the environment.”Entire beaches on what used to be pristine islands are now mounded with trash. Examination of a random handful of sand in many places reveals pieces of plastic. The United Nations Environment Programme held the meeting in a city known for its beaches, Punta del Este, Uruguay, from Monday through Friday. ADVERTISEMENTDelegates from more than 150 countries, plastic industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders and others affected by the pollution attended in person or virtually. Waste pickers are seeking recognition of their work and a just transition to fairly remunerated, healthy and sustainable jobs.Even in this first meeting of five planned over the next two years, factions came into focus. Some countries pressed for top-down global mandates, some for national solutions and others for both. If an agreement is eventually adopted, it would be the first legally-binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution. Leading the industry point of view was the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies. Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division, said companies want to work with governments on the issue because they also are frustrated by the problem. But he said they won’t support production restrictions, as some countries want. “The challenge is very simple. It is working to ensure that used plastics never enter the environment,” Baca said. “A top-down approach that puts a cap or a ban on production does nothing to address the challenges that we face from a waste management perspective.”ADVERTISEMENTThe United States, a top plastic-producing country, agrees national plans allow governments to prioritize the most important sources and types of plastic pollution. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Other plastic-producing and oil and gas countries also called for putting the responsibility on individual nations. China’s delegate said it would be hard to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even several universal approaches. Saudi Arabia’s delegate also said each country should determine its own action plan, with no standardization or harmonization among them. Plastic plays a vital role in sustainable development, the delegate said, so the treaty should recognize the importance of continuing plastic production while tackling the root cause of the pollution, which he identified as poor waste management. Some referred to these countries as the “low ambition” group. Andrés Del Castillo, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said that while national plans are important, they should not be the treaty’s backbone because that’s the system — or lack of one — that the world already has.“We don’t see a point of meeting five times with experts all around the world to discuss voluntary actions, when there are specific control measures that are needed that can aim to reduce, then eliminate plastic pollution in the world,” he said after participating in the discussions Thursday. “It’s a transboundary problem.” The secretary general of the United Nations Antonio Guterres chimed in with a tweet: “Plastics are fossil fuels in another form & pose a serious threat to human rights, the climate & biodiversity,” it read. ADVERTISEMENTThe self-named “high ambition coalition” of countries want an end to plastic pollution by 2040, using an ambitious, effective international legally-binding instrument. They’re led by Norway and Rwanda.Norway’s delegate to the meeting said plastic production and use must be curbed, and the first priority should be to identify which plastic products, polymers and chemical additives would bring the fastest benefit if phased out. African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and others called for a global approach too, arguing that voluntary and fragmented national plans won’t address the magnitude of plastic pollution. Small island countries that rely on the ocean for food and livelihoods spoke of being overwhelmed by plastic waste washing up on their shores. Developing countries said they need financial support to combat plastic pollution. Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil said international obligations should complement national action.ADVERTISEMENTTadesse Amera, an environmental scientist, said the treaty should address not only waste but the environmental health issues posed by chemicals in plastics as the products are used, recycled, discarded or burned as waste. Amera is the director of Pesticide Action Nexus Association Ethiopia and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network.“It’s not a waste management issue,” he said. “It’s a chemical issue and a health issue, human health and also biodiversity.” People from communities affected by the industry went to the meeting to ensure their voices are heard throughout the treaty talks. That included Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations in Texas. “There’s a lack of inclusion from those that are directly negatively impacted by this industry. And they need to be at the table,” he said. “A lot of times they have solutions.” Orona said the talks seem focused, so far, on reducing plastic, when governments should aim higher.“We need to completely break free from plastics,” he said. Mathur-Filipp said that for the next meeting, she will write a draft of what a legally-binding agreement would look like. Organizers don’t want this to take a decade, she said. The next meeting is planned for the spring in France.__Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Plastic never dies: the museum of vintage waste on the beach – in pictures

The Archeoplastica project was started by a group of Italian environmental activists who decided to collect and exhibit old plastic products found on beaches and elsewhere in the natural environment to show how plastic may remain intact – and polluting – for decades.

Dhaka’s ailing sewage system threatens human and environmental health

Existing sewage treatment plants in Dhaka treat only 30% of all sewage waste.Emerging pollutants such as antibiotics, microplastics, detergents, toothpastes, shampoos and lotion are found in Dhaka’s urban rivers and lakes.Microplastics are also found in fish, snails, crabs and sediments of the Buriganga River in Dhaka.City authorities suggest installing small treatment plants in residential buildings. DHAKA — Md. Dulal Mia, 50, ferries passengers in his small boat from one end of the Buriganga River to the other. He has been living along the river for the last three decades.
“The stench from the pitch-black water is almost intolerable. Nearby factories and houses release their sewage into the river,” says Dulal.
Not just the Buriganga; most bodies of water in and around Dhaka have become toxic as a result of the city’s inefficient sewage system. The water not only carries toxic substances and harmful bacteria, but recent studies have found further presence of “emerging pollutants” such as microplastics and antibiotics.
All of this has resulted in a spike in waterborne diseases among the city’s inhabitants.
Boatmen queue for passengers to cross the Buriganga River. The passengers can hardly breathe due to the stench of the pitch-black water while they travel. Image courtesy of S.M. Najmus Sakib.
The city’s sewage treatment plants (STPs) have capacity to treat only 30% of the sewage produced daily, while the lack of coordination between two government agencies responsible for managing sewage and waste has exacerbated the situation.
Most residences’ sewage systems are connected to the city’s drains, which carry the wastewater through storm sewers to STPs. Many storm sewers are sealed or damaged, disrupting the flow of sewage, while there are also not enough STPs to treat all the sewage.
The treatment plants usually release the water into rivers after treatment. The city is supposed to have five separate treatment plants at the sewage release points in five rivers — Turag, Balu, Buriganga, Dhaleshwari and Shitalakshya. Not a single one of them, however, is functional.
“We have storm sewage lines in Dhaka because we don’t have a system of ground storage of sewage waste,” Shahriar Hossain, secretary general of Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), told Mongabay.
“But the storm sewage lines are also not functional. Most sewage is released into the water without being treated,” he added.
Untreated residential sewage waste releases to urban water bodies in Dhaka. Image by Khalliur Rahman/ESDO.
New research highlight presence of emerging pollutants
A recent study found an alarming presence of emerging pollutants (EPs) in surface water, which has become a new threat to the environment and health, as the existing sewage system is inefficient at treating industrial and household waste.
The study, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances this October, said an abundance of microplastics was found in water and sediments of Dhaka’s urban lakes and rivers. Nineteen sites (in five lakes and five rivers) were sampled for the study.
Another study also confirmed that EPs, which include antibiotics, microplastics, detergents, toothpastes, shampoos and lotions, are polluting the environment. The study was published in the Journal of the Bangladesh Chemical Society.
There is evidence of coliform, fecal coliform, E. coli and microplastics in Dhaka’s surface water as a result of sewage waste contamination. Such contamination cannot be purified even after boiling the water, experts say.
Shafi Mohammad Tareq, a corresponding author of the Chemical Society study and also a professor at Jahangirnagar University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told Mongabay, “Dhaka city needs a huge quantity of STPs to treat the city’s sewage waste.”
There’s an alarming presence of emerging pollutants (EPs) in surface water, which has become a new threat to the environment and health. Image by Shafi Mohammad Tareq.
The presence of antibiotics is a particular menace for city dwellers.
Antibiotics are used to neutralize harmful bacteria inside the human body, but antibiotics doses cannot be absorbed 100% by the human metabolic system. Thus, up to 40% of live antibiotics remain in sewage after leaving the human body.
These remaining antibiotics eventually get released into the environment, rivers and lakes.
“When live antibiotics, even in a limited amount, reach the environment, it helps the bacteria available in the environment to develop resistance. Therefore, we become vulnerable to drug resistance, meaning antibiotics become ineffective against bacteria-borne diseases,” said Tareq.
Pharmaceutical companies across the globe have been struggling to develop new antibiotics as existing antibiotics have become drug-resistant.
Meanwhile, microplastics exist in nanograms or micrograms in the sewage, which cannot be treated by conventional effluent treatment plants, or ETPs.
Bangladesh mostly imports ETPs from India and China and has found they are inefficient to treat microplastics, according to the researchers of the study.
The presence of antibiotics in water sources is also a menace for city dwellers. Image by Khalliur Rahman/ESDO.
Read more: Humans are dosing Earth’s waterways with medicines. It isn’t healthy.
Health hazard
Microplastics have a serious adverse effect on the environment and public health. The chemicals used in making plastic are toxic and can lead to cancer in the human body. There is evidence of microplastics in the food chain, including in sea and river fish, salt and sugar.
Excessive amounts of harmful microplastics have been found in the soil, water and animals in the Buriganga River.
In another study, researchers examined the soil, water, 11 species of fish, snails and crabs of the Buriganga River, and found the presence of microplastics. Riverbed sediment, water and fishes are affected by microplastics and metals. Sediments host most of the pollutants.
The study was published this October in the peer-reviewed journal Science of The Total Environment.
Emerging pollutants like microplastics, antibiotics, lotions, toothpastes, whitening detergents and shampoos, which are being released into the environment through water sources, also enter agricultural land. They enter food grains and eventually the human body, creating long-term health effects.
“All drinking water, including WASA [Water Supply and Sewerage Authority] water and bottled water of different companies, carry E. coli bacteria, which we find in the toilet,” ESDO secretary Hossain added.
Such bacteria cannot be treated using conventional methods, so they remain in the water and food chain. The growing number of waterborne stomach diseases among Dhaka city residents is an indication of that, Hossain pointed out.
Gastric medicines have recently become the top-selling medicine in Bangladesh over the last five years. Taka 34.18 billion ($331 million) in gastric medicines was sold last year, a 30% increase, according to a recent report by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
Dumping solid and liquid wastes alike together has killed part of the Old Dhaka urban area. Image courtesy of S.M. Najmus Sakib.
Lackluster authorities
The Dhaka city corporation is supposed to monitor and manage the storm sewage system while the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is supposed to manage waste treatment for the city’s residential water supply.
But there is a serious gap between the two government agencies in ensuring service to city dwellers.
Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) chief executive Md. Selim Reza told Mongabay that an “embarrassing” situation prevails in sewage waste management in Dhaka, mainly due to the lack of cooperation among the government agencies.
“People who are responsible for managing it have shown negligence,” he said, admitting there were no waste treatment plants in most of the sewage points in Dhaka, while the rest were not functioning properly.
He suggested Dhaka residential building owners install treatment plants to treat household sewage waste to keep the environment safe.
The city authority said it had taken up a number of fresh programs to reconstruct the faulty sewage system, apart from efforts to stop sewage contamination of rivers and other water sources.
Pitch-black water of Buriganga River in Dhaka’s river port. The water color changes due to the indiscriminate dumping of industrial and household liquid and solid wastes. Image courtesy of S.M. Najmus Sakib.
The city authority has also warned building owners of Dhaka’s upscale residential areas like Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara that they will seal their sewage line if any building is found releasing sewage water into city lakes.
Gholam Mostofa, chairman of the Dhaka WASA board, also admitted to the coordination gap between the two government agencies. However, he told Mongabay the city corporation is leading the city’s sewage waste management system.
“It is crucial there is coordination among government agencies to have a sound sewage management and ensure a healthier environment in Dhaka,” he said, adding the situation would have been better if the ongoing projects of WASA gathered momentum in implementation.
DNCC Mayor Md. Atiqul Islam recently said that in Dhaka city, authorities had tried to culture fishes in city lakes, and even in posh areas, but failed completely. The lakes have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes instead.
The city authority has already written to the capital development authority, RAJUK, to impose requirements for installation of treatment plants in residential buildings in order to treat household sewage waste before it is released into the environment.
Experts say the city sewage system needs to be improved and redesigned, zone-wise, one after another, and not in unison or concurrently.
Related reading: 
Weak waste management leaves Dhaka communities at risk from landfill sites

Banner image: Used polythene waste on the banks of Buriganga River in Dhaka. Polythene releases emerging pollutants, including microplastics. Image courtesy of S.M. Najmus Sakib.
Citations:
Parvin, F., Hassan, M. A., & Tareq, S. M. (2022). Risk assessment of microplastic pollution in urban lakes and peripheral rivers of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, 8, 100187. doi:10.1016/j.hazadv.2022.100187
Niloy, N. M., Sharmin, F., Shajed, S. N., & Tareq, S. M. (2022). Identification and characterization of sources and fate of emerging pollutants (EPs) in surface water of Bangladesh using three-dimensional excitation-emission (3DEEM) spectroscopy. Journal of the Bangladesh Chemical Society, 34(1), 126-36.
Haque, M. R., Ali, M. M., Ahmed, W., Siddique, M. A., Akbor, M. A., Islam, M. S., & Rahman, M. M. (2023). Assessment of microplastics pollution in aquatic species (fish, crab, and snail), water, and sediment from the Buriganga river, Bangladesh: An ecological risk appraisals. Science of The Total Environment, 857, 159344. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159344

Chemicals, Development, Diseases, Environment, Health, Lakes, Microplastics, Pollution, Public Health, Rivers, Waste, Water Pollution
Print

Can Josh Shapiro regulate fracking as governor?

“Our government has a duty to set, and enforce, ground rules that protect public health and safety. We are the referees, we are here to prevent big corporations and the powerful industries from harming our communities or running over the rights of citizens. When it comes to fracking, Pennsylvania failed.”

Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro made that statement in 2020 as attorney general in response to the findings of the 43rd statewide grand jury commissioned by his office. The two-year investigation exposed systemic failures by state agencies to protect Pennsylvanians living in close proximity to fracking operations and an absence of effective regulation and oversight of the industry.

Now, Shapiro prepares to take office as governor in the wake of one of the largest methane leaks in U.S. history in Cambria County, as Shell’s cracker plant begins producing plastics from fracked ethane and while residents in rural Greene County are still without safe drinking water after a ‘frack-out’ impacted the local aquifer. 

On the campaign trail, Shapiro pledged support for a set of more stringent regulations recommended by the grand jury for Pennsylvania’s hydraulic fracturing industry. And in one of his closing acts as attorney general, he announced a plea agreement with the fracking corporation Coterra, addressing fracking’s impact on the water in the Susquehanna County town of Dimock.

The midterm election pitted the Democrat Shapiro against Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator who pushed for deregulation of the state fossil fuel industry and called for more lands to be opened for fracking and drilling.

With the election in the past, it remains to be seen how Shapiro will govern, what obstacles he will face and to what extent his vision for natural gas regulation will be seriously pursued or successfully implemented.

A record to run on

As the commonwealth’s chief prosecutor, Shapiro took actions that he said would hold fracking companies accountable.

6 environmental wins that gave us hope in 2022

The world now has eight billion people, according to the United Nations. The milestone, reached late this year, comes at a time when climate change is increasingly disrupting life on Earth as we know it. Wildfires and droughts continue to rage in the American West. Floods are destroying towns. Heatwaves are making summers deadly. And the greenhouse gas emissions that worsen these disasters are increasing. Hope, however, is not lost for all eight billion of us.Scientists are creating new ways for us to coexist with nature, from hacking the genome of plants to creating marine reserves that protect people and the planet. Politically, the environment also won some major victories this year. Here are six environmental wins from 2022. 1. Global climate deal addresses a longtime injusticeSome of the countries most affected by climate change have done the least to cause it. That’s why world leaders at a global climate conference—COP27—this past November agreed to a financing system that would help developing nations access financial assistance to adapt to and recover from climate change. The deal is being hailed as historic recognition of a growing global climate injustice. Countries seeking restitution have seen their claims bolstered by what’s called “attribution science”—the science of linking individual storms, heatwaves, and other weather disasters to global climatic changes. For example, when Pakistan was hit by deadly, catastrophic floods this summer, research showed the floods were worsened by climate change. Even though Pakistan contributed less than one percent of the world’s carbon emissions that propelled the disaster, the country was on the hook for billions in damages.2. Protecting nature has surprising benefits for us  Marine protected areas are stretches of ocean that limit human activity to protect animal and plant species. Scientists say these reserves are important for limiting the rapid rate of extinction happening as a result of climate change and human activities like drilling, mining, and shipping.The world’s largest marine reserve, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i, has shown it not only protects marine life in the park’s boundaries, but also helps the marine life living outside its borders flourish. And, as an added bonus, it helps us, too.A study on the reserve published this October found that boats fishing for lucrative tuna species outside of the park’s boundaries have been catching more tuna since the park was created. Scientists think these catch rates are a result of the “spillover effect” of marine reserves—meaning when fish populations in the park flourish, they “spill over” into nearby areas. Evidence that protected areas like these can benefit both people and nature shows that more sustainable ways of doing business are possible. 3. U.S. makes historic investment in fighting climate change In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was a political win for the planet. Signed into law in August, the IRA invested $369 billion in clean energy projects and incentives for energy-efficient technology such as electric vehicles. “This is the most consequential piece of U.S. legislation for the climate ever,” Richard Newell, chief executive of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit energy research organization, told National Geographic writer Craig Welch at the time.Scientific analysis of the bill showed it could help the U.S. more quickly transition to renewable energy. By the end of the decade, 81 percent of the country’s energy could come from sources such as wind and solar power. The bill also quietly introduced the nation’s first-ever fee on a greenhouse gas—methane, a more potent source of planet-warming pollution than carbon dioxide. 4. Hacking into the technological power of plants As humans pump more carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, plants—from prairie grasses to rainforest trees—play an essential role in removing that carbon from the air and storing it underground. Using CRISPR gene editing technology, scientists are embarking on an $11 million research project to try to hack photosynthesis to suck carbon out of the air more efficiently. A man works to grow baby leafy greens on a reusable substrate made from recycled plastic bottles. Vertical farms like these are an innovative way food producers are experimenting with growing more fresh food for a growing population. Photograph by Luca Locatelli, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.In addition to carbon storage, scientists are also changing how plants are grown for food. Living on an increasingly populous planet means we’ll need new ways to feed more people nutritious food grown on even less space. To do so, scientists are making strides in food innovation that rival science fiction. Research published in June showed it was possible to grow some edible plants—including algae, edible yeast, and mushrooms—without photosynthesis. This promising first step to growing food in the dark could be useful for astronauts traveling through space or as an insight into how to make crops grow more efficiently on Earth. Scientists are also constructing experimental greenhouses at the bottom of the sea to conserve water and energy. Photographer Luca Locatelli’s recently published photographs show an underwater farm in Italy. 5. Cracking down on plastic  Plastic is everywhere—in our water, air, and even our blood. That’s why governments, internationally and at the local level, are trying to curb the amount of plastic flowing into the environment. In March, 175 United Nations delegates agreed to negotiate a global treaty by 2024 that would curb the flow of plastics. The treaty would legally require countries to clean up their plastic pollution, a framework that is stricter than the voluntary emissions reductions countries make under the Paris Climate Agreement. And in June, California passed a game-changing plastics law that aims to reduce the amount of plastic in single-use products by a quarter over the next 10 years. Restricting production, instead of improving recyclability, is a significant shift in how governments tackle plastic pollution.6. Finding ways to protect—and restore—nature In the tropical coral reefs of Hawai’i, nature is finding a way to adapt to climate change. Two commonly found species of coral may be able to successfully live in warmer ocean temperatures, according to research published in March. This adaptation offers some hope that reefs, which experience massive die-offs during heatwaves, may survive rising temperatures.  Meanwhile, humans are giving nature a large helping hand through the rewilding movement. Rewilding is loosely defined as the process of bringing back lost plant and animal species. Scotland, which is committed to becoming the world’s first “rewilded nation,” is bringing back to life forests that have been lost for centuries. In California and Louisiana, nature is being allowed to correct its own course. A federal energy agency recently approved a plan to demolish four dams along California’s lower Klamath River to restore critical salmon habitats. Along the Gulf Coast, Louisiana took a major step toward its plan to alter the flow of the Mississippi River delta and divert river sediment downstream—a last-ditch effort to restore the state’s disappearing shoreline.On our radar for 2023—new regulations for drinking water.The Environmental Protection Agency has until the end of the year to propose a new drinking water rule to address chemicals called PFAS. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is technically a class of chemicals that includes as many as 9,000 different iterations of the substance. They are in everyday household items: raincoats, carpet, curtains, non-stick pans. But studies show most of us have it in our blood, too—and we’re only just starting to learn about the long-term health consequences. The EPA rule would regulate two types of PFAS called PFOS and PFOA.A drinking water standard would be a major step toward regulating PFAS in our tap water and an environmental win for next year.

The planet desperately needs that UN plastics treaty

This week in Uruguay, scientists, environmentalists, and government representatives—and, of course, lobbyists—are gathering to begin negotiations on a United Nations treaty on plastics. It’s only the start of talks, so we don’t know how they will shape up, but some of the bargaining chips on the table include production limits and phasing out particularly troublesome chemical components. A draft resolution released in March set the tone, acknowledging that “high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.” Which is a bureaucratic way of saying that plastic pollution—both macroplastics like bags and bottles, and microplastics like fibers from synthetic clothing—is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order, and one that’s getting exponentially worse. Humanity is now churning out a trillion pounds of plastic a year, and that’ll double by 2045. Only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled—and currently the United States is recycling just 5 percent of its plastic waste. The rest of it is either chucked into landfills or burned, or escapes into the environment. Wealthy nations also have a nasty habit of exporting their plastic waste to economically developing nations, where the stuff is often burned in open pits, poisoning surrounding communities. Plastics are also a major contributor of carbon emissions—they’re made of fossil fuels, after all.Environmentalists and scientists who study pollution agree that the way to fix the plastic problem isn’t with more recycling, or with giant tubes that collect trash floating in the ocean, but by massively cutting its production. But while we don’t know what will eventually make it into the treaty—negotiations are expected to extend into 2024—don’t expect it to end the manufacturing of plastic the way a peace treaty would end a war. Instead, it could nudge humanity toward treating its debilitating addiction to polymers, by for instance targeting single-use plastics. “We’re not going to have a world without plastic—that’s not in the very foreseeable future,” says Deonie Allen, a plastics scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “However, the way we currently use it, that is a choice we can make today.” Think of the unmitigated flow of plastic into the environment as a stream. If you want to treat the problem downstream, you remove the waste that’s already in the environment, the way a beach cleanup does. Farther upstream—literally so—you might deploy river barges to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean. But the farthest upstream you can go is just not producing the plastic in the first place. That’s why the treaty needs to include a limit on plastics production, an international team of scientists argued in the journal Science after the draft resolution was published. “What we’re really going to be pushing for is for mandatory and obligatory caps on production,” says Jane Patton, campaign manager of plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law, who’s attending the talks. “We’re going to be pushing for changes in the way the plastics are produced, to eliminate toxic chemicals from the production and the supply chain.”The draft resolution does indeed call for addressing the “full lifecycle” of plastic, meaning from production to disposal. But time will tell how successful negotiators will actually be in getting agreement on a cap. Ideally they’d agree to an internationally binding limit, but it’s also possible that individual countries will end up making their own commitments.