SCMP Friday, April 20, 2001

City of garbage


It's every big city's nightmare - a rising tide of garbage and nowhere to put it. But as the Philippine authorities struggle to find a new tip for the capital Manila, others are looking for more creative answers.
"When we come up with a solution to the garbage problem, it has to be profitable," says Romeo Cabacang, head of the microbiology and genetics division at state research Industrial Technology Development Institute.
With the help of a fast-working strain of micro-organism, which converts garbage into compost in six hours with minimal odour or pollution, Cabacang and his team are hoping to offer companies and communities a way of earning money.
Others who see the problem as a money-spinning opportunity say eco-friendly charcoal substitutes or cheap but stronger-than-normal bricks for building are the way forward.
But environmental campaigners say that until calls for effective recycling filter down to the level of the ordinary Philippine home, any lasting solution is likely to be elusive.
One of the first laws passed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's new administration when it came to power in January was the Solid Waste Management Act, to provide a framework and set targets for recycling and mandatory segregation.
Manila, a city of 10 million people, produces about 6,000 tonnes of garbage each day. Crowded roads, pollution and the occasional power cut are fairly commonplace in the city but garbage vexes residents more than any other issue.
One dump site, Payatas, was shut after a landslide last July killed more than 200 scavengers who lived there.
The city authorities closed the other major landfill, 30km east of the capital, on December 31 when its operating contract expired. They reopened it in January temporarily after residents began dumping garbage in the streets. (Theoretically, the 1999 Clean Air Act bans incineration.) Manila has yet to identify a new landfill site.
Cabacang's institute has developed its micro-organism for use in a bio-reactor, which costs 220,000 pesos (HK$35,200). He says this is an affordable investment by which communities and private firms can earn income. "There's a 20 to 40 per cent rate of return on investment, depending on the complexity of the system," he says, adding that the institute hopes to transfer some of the technology to interested groups by May.
Media reports say that 80 per cent of Manila's garbage is recyclable.
The Philippines' small recycling industry, which has tapped only six per cent of that, is already valued at one billion pesos annually and employs 40,000 to 50,000 people, they add.
"Economically, recycling can be less expensive than traditional disposal oriented systems," says a study commissioned by environmental group Greenpeace. "Recycling requires less capital and operating expenses. Furthermore, it sets the foundation for new recycling businesses and increases employment."
Estaw Consultancy and Construction of Environmental Technology (ECCE) is a private firm offering technology to make organic fertilisers and hollow blocks from treated waste.
Combined with cement and water, the blocks - made from enzyme-treated solid waste - are about 1.5 times stronger and cost about half the retail price of regular cement blocks, says ECCE's Victor Rojo.
Another firm, Mapecon, which makes "green charcoal" from biodegradable waste, says its facility costs only about eight million pesos and can be built in an area of around 1,000 square metres. Mapecon powers its facility using "green charcoal".
"It's an attractive investment for a community. It's a legacy," says Alex Santiago, international consultant for Mapecon.
The first step in recycling is separating the waste at source into biodegradable and non-biodegradable, but some households seem reluctant to do that, non-government groups say.
"The problem is that the residents do not want to segregate their garbage in the kitchen," says Leonarda Camacho of one such organisation, Linis-Ganda (or "clean and beautiful", in Filipino). Linis-Ganda, which buys waste from Manila homes, says some 300,000 households out of a total of 1.6 million separate their garbage. It hopes to reach another 300,000 homes by the end of 2001.
Von Hernandez, Southeast Asia regional director for Greenpeace, says an infrastructure for effective recycling has yet to be established and households see their effort as an "exercise in futility" when garbage trucks sweep their rubbish into a single pile.

"The thing is, no solution is going to be easy. It requires creativity, vision and leadership," he says, welcoming the attitude of the Arroyo government.

"It's not a perfect law, but it pushes the Government in the right direction," he says.