Clearing the air about waste-to-energy plants

waste-to-energyBy Hafidz Baharom

I have read a few articles in the press lately about plants dealing in waste-to-energy, and quite frankly there is a lot of misinformation going around. Since no company has reacted, I’ll voice out some valid factual points here which anyone can Google to verify.

The first article I read was one regarding Batu MP Tian Chua expressing his worry that the “black smoke” emitted from a soon to be established waste-to-energy plant in a current landfill in Kepong, would negatively affect residents in the vicinity.

At this point, I wonder if any of the MPs talking about the subject have ever been curious enough, during their multiple trips to Europe, to talk about waste-to-energy plants with those in the industry there – or at least been curious enough to talk to Malaysian companies building such plants.

Perhaps they should talk to KNM Group Bhd, who was involved in building waste-to-energy plants in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria.

Or maybe JFE Engineering (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, who has been involved in such projects in Japan since 1991.

Or maybe approach IRIS Corp Bhd, who has built two such plants in Phuket and Bangkok in Thailand.

In fact, if incinerators were so bad, perhaps opposition MPs can ask how JFE built such facilities for Perodua to handle their paint sludge in Rawang since 2001; or GS Paper for their waste in Kuala Langat since 2003; as well as their latest hazardous waste incinerator located in Kuching that has been in operation since 2014.

And then, a letter recently by one Tajuddin Ramlee raised the spectre of health issues in regard to incinerators and its effects on four schools in his neighbourhood.

To answer Tajuddin, the reason why there has been no feedback session, is because the project has yet to be awarded. No company has been granted the contract to build the waste-to-energy plant by the ministry involved. Until then, there will be no public feedback session. But allow me to write what I’ve learnt from reading about some facts on this issue.

First off, there is a need to differentiate between incinerators and waste-to-energy plants. For starters, waste-to-energy plants have intensive regulations and technology implemented with regard to air quality when compared to incinerators.

Waste-to-energy plants, such as which is planned for Kepong, are commonplace in multiple countries around the globe and has been safely established for some time.

In May 2016, Singapore approved a US$473 mil (RM2.05 bil) loan for a period of 27 years to establish such a waste-to-energy power plant that would process 3,600 tonnes of waste while generating 120MW of power for their nation.

In 2013, Sweden ran out of trash and imported 800,000 tonnes of it to generate energy. Northern Europe, including Germany and Austria, also did the same. Also, please note that Malaysian companies have been involved in building these plants since 1991, and therefore our experience in this field spans over 26 years – add another four years and it will be an entire generation.

Should one go to Paris, one can find an underground waste-to-energy plant 350 metres away from the office of Microsoft France, right next to the River Seine – which was in operation since December 2007 at the price of €580 mil to process 460,000 tonnes of trash.

In Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City, which discusses transforming lives through urban design, he even details designs of waste-to-energy plants that can double-up as ski slopes. There is even one with a piston in the smokestack that can produce an ‘O’ ring to signal a tonne of carbon dioxide being pumped into the skies of Copenhagen.

And this is yet another fallacy that must be addressed – the power plant does not emit toxic gas. It spews out carbon dioxide and water, while everything else is filtered out.

You can find details of this in the Best Available Technology (BAT) report published by the Department of Environment in cooperation and consultation with Universiti Malaya (UM), the Malaysia German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and relevant industries and stakeholders.

Critics argue that the ash produced is toxic and therefore should be feared, but at the same time insist on recycling as the only option. This is wrong, because waste-to-energy plants are not a replacement for recycling. Instead, it is a complementary technology. Waste-to-energy plants are often complemented with recycling initiatives to ensure that recycling takes priority.

Waste-to-energy plants are instead a replacement for landfills, the one in Kepong being a case in point. It will not spew black smoke as that misguided lawmaker and his entire political coalition said, to the point of including it in their Kuala Lumpur manifesto.

A waste-to-energy plant is supposed to stop us from using plots of land to dump trash and stink up entire areas while releasing methane into the atmosphere and risking whatever pollutants from seeping into the earth and polluting our groundwater supply and subsequently our water tables.

Now, having said all this, understand that what is being advocated in Kepong and even by the Selangor government is a solution against having garbage trucks filling up plots of land with trash.

Recycling helps reduce the amount of waste. Reusing also helps reduce the amount of waste. But it only reduces the amount of waste, not by much if we analyse our national goals in terms of recycling.

No country has a total dependency on recycling as a solution for waste management as of yet and in fact, using trash in a waste-to-energy plant is considered renewable energy and recycling in certain European countries.

So, now I have to ask this – what exactly is the fear?

If you fear the technology, then the BAT report with UM and GTZ as consultants, shows it can be safe.

If you fear the companies implementing it do not have the experience, well, we do have Malaysian engineering companies with 26 years’ experience in this field in Thailand, Germany, Japan, Austria and even Switzerland.

The truth is this, Malaysians don’t trust the government, don’t trust their own companies, and don’t even bother to read up on this issue.

They would rather listen to fear-mongering groups who go about with the support of politicians, who know nuts even after being to Europe multiple times and never being bothered enough to ask about this issue until they were nudged in the wrong direction.

Frankly speaking, the British, the Europeans, the Koreans, the Australians, the Thais and even the Singaporeans, have been burning trash to produce energy with environmental safeguards squarely in place for so long, and to say we shouldn’t do the same based on misinformation and irrational fear is downright tragic for a nation of supposed progressives such as ours.

Hafidz Baharom is an FMT reader.

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.


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