Hundreds of garbage flies infest homes, flying from waste to food, to children. The decaying stench of the dumpsite lingers as families eat. It was almost noon and waste pickers like Virgilio Romero*, 44, scavenge waste on the mountain of garbage under the scorching 51-degree celsius heat.
This is the everyday scene at the eleven-year-old seven-hectare sanitary landfill located in New Carmen, Tugbok — Davao City’s only sanitary landfill.
According to the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO), the city generates around 900 tons of garbage per day, and waste pickers like Romero find a living by recycling the dumpsite’s overflowing waste.
“This has been our family’s livelihood since we moved to the city. It was what was expected as I didn’t finish my studies, and there weren’t any suitable jobs for me since I do not have a degree,” said Romero.
Romero comes from a family of landless peasants in Mati, Davao Oriental, tilling farmland less than a hectare in size. He doesn’t earn money from working in the field and is only paid for his labor with a portion of their produce.
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At New Carmen, he takes home P200 daily for scavenging for plastics, cans, and sacks for 11 hours from 6 a.m. – 5 p.m. Romero said that life as a waste picker hasn’t been easy, but it’s better compared to not earning anything when he was a farmer.
However, by 2023, the landfill where Romero resides and finds a living will be unserviceable as the rapid urbanization and poor waste segregation of Davao will drive it to its full capacity.
And as a response to the city’s waste crisis, the local government of Davao City plans to construct a P2.5 billion waste-to-energy (WTE) facility, funded by a Japanese loan, on a 10-hectare property in Biao Escuela in the Tugbok District.
The landfill will be closed down and converted to a segregation area for the WTE facility, and over 100 waste pickers will be asked to leave.
“We don’t know what will happen to us and our homes. They started measuring houses and promised to compensate us for P30,000. Until now, they don’t have a concrete plan for us,” said Romero.
Waste fueling the climate crisis
The local government eyes the WTE incinerator as a “long-term solution” to its solid waste problem. By burning household garbage, household wastes would replace coal and oil in producing energy.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Plastic-Free Pilipinas Project, however, oppose this technology because the burning of non-biodegradable wastes is no different from burning fossil fuels. Plastics, after all, are made from fossil fuels.
Marian Ledesma, a zero-waste campaigner of Greenpeace, said that the whole concept and scheme of burning waste for energy is unnecessarily costly and counter to the idea of reducing waste.
“It even encourages cities to produce more waste, because these incinerators would require a minimum amount on a daily and weekly basis to produce energy,” she said.
Ledesma said that the WTE incinerator also goes against the country’s Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, a law designed to promote zero-waste practices and waste segregation. On top of this, it is also prohibited under Section 20 of the Clean Air Act.
“WTE projects are an easy way out to address the waste crisis. And it attempts to address the waste problem without changing problematic parts of the system, beginning from plastic production,” she said.
The European Commission has also been defunding WTE incinerator projects because of the realization that such facilities do not contribute to climate action and instead even worsen the climate crisis.
Ledesma said that perhaps the reason that groups and loans are pushing for WTE projects in developing countries like the Philippines is that this technology is already being questioned in developed nations.
“If you look at WTE, it’s no longer included in EU sustainable economic activities. And because they’re not able to market in their region, they push that narrative in poorer regions where laws and policies have not yet decided if the technology is eco-friendly. They are banking and trying to find a way of investment elsewhere,” she explained.
She also flagged that most often these types of projects are also located in low-income areas where communities are more vulnerable to suffering from climate impacts as a result of dirty technology.
No proper consultation
The WTE facility will be constructed at Biao Escuela, a 10-hectare of agricultural land south of Davao. The proposed site is only 2.2 kilometers away from the barangay’s school and 550m from the planned relocation site.
Jill Banta, regional coordinator for Mindanao of the Plastic-Free Pilipinas Project said that the construction of the facility may also have long-term effects on residents of Biao Escuela and nearby communities.
“Persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and furans are produced when plastics are burned. This can cause respiratory and reproductive diseases, birth defects, and cancer to the already marginalized low-income agricultural communities in Biao Escuela,” said Banta.
“Beyond the community, its toxic by-products may reach our plates through the food chain because food and poultry products are sourced in Biao Escuela,” she added.
Nerea Tagunon*, 60, is a sari-sari store owner at Biao Escuela. Her family moved to the community three years ago after having been displaced from their homes due to road widening in Catalunan Grande, Davao.
Tagunon and her neighbors weren’t properly consulted about the project, and it’s common for residents of Biao Escuela to make uninformed decisions because of the lack of consultation with the local government.
Residents think that the facility to be built is a plastic recycling factory, providing them employment. And while the WTE project may give them jobs, what residents do not know is that the facility can only employ people with engineering backgrounds.
“I think having the waste-to-energy incinerator project here would be helpful to our community because it will give us jobs,” said Tagunon.
“From the demographics of their community, who are mostly agricultural workers, poultry growers, and laborers, the only job they could secure would be short-term construction jobs for the facility,” said Banta.
Tagunon has lost hope to fight for their homes and their right to proper relocation.
“If it’s going to smell, then what difference would it make? The river here stinks from poultry waste, so the smell of burning plastic is not going to matter. We’ll just be a place where you could inhale all the chemicals and bad odor. Let the government do whatever they want, we can’t do anything about it anymore,” Tagunon said hopelessly.
The 60-year-old resident however admitted that if they were to be properly consulted, she would prefer for the project not to push through.
“Of course, nobody would want to be exposed to that hazard, nobody would want to inhale all that waste. But we have already been displaced in the past, and it’s not like people like me still have a say,” she said.
A few meters away from Tagunon lives Esmelita Roxas* 70, who, like Tagunon, knows little about the project.
“I’m worried about the effects of the incinerator, but our barangay captain said that the technology worked in Japan. We’re just putting our trust in him,” said Roxas.
“And even if we’re against it, we can’t do anything about it because we’re only ordinary citizens. We’ll be fighting against powerful people. At this point, we’re only praying that if it pushes through, we won’t be left behind.”
Working zero-waste solutions
Ledesma and Banta said that the waste problem in Davao and the Philippines can be solved without burning plastics, especially when 50% of Davao’s waste is biodegradable, and while 200 to 300 tons of its landfill waste is food waste.
Davao-based agronomist Peter Damary of Limadol introduced using black soldier flies to handle food waste by developing a natural insect protein for poultry that utilizes biodegradable waste from the landfill.
They collect a total of 400-700 kgs of food waste from restaurants and households at Barangay Mintal and Barangay Tacunan four times a week which they feed to the black soldier flies in their facility.
Black soldier flies consume food waste and produce a byproduct called frass which is useful as feeds for poultry or as organic fertilizers.
“At the start, it was very difficult, because people didn’t really segregate their waste. They were used to dumping everything because no one was in charge of segregating, and collectors just combine already segregated waste with each other,” said Damary.
From only collecting 60 kilograms twice a week in February 2021, Damary’s small business now collects 150 kgs of food waste three or four times a week.
“We were able to address this problem by being strict about our collection. We took the time to educate households to segregate food waste, and eventually, they picked it up,” he added.
Today Limadol collects food waste from over 200 households and five restaurants around Barangay Mintal and Barangay Tacunan.
Damary said that their system works because they are consistent. According to him, people needed consistency so that they would be driven to follow.
He recalled that in the beginning, some households would still mix non-biodegradable waste with biodegradables, and to show their commitment, they didn’t pick up food waste that wasn’t well segregated.
“They eventually followed, and they are now very enthusiastic about it,” said Damary.
When food decomposes anaerobically in landfills, it creates methane, a major global warming gas.
According to the organization Extra Food, every 100 pounds of food waste in landfills produces 8.3 pounds of methane into the atmosphere. And in over 20 years, methane has 86 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.
“Methane from food waste contributes to the climate crisis, and if we have systems in place then this initiative will not only be beneficial for waste management but also climate mitigation,” explained Damary
An odorless landfill powered by a bio activator is also segregating tons of biodegradable waste from industrial companies and restaurants an hour away from Barangay Mintal.
Aimea Lumpay, plant manager of Davao Thermo Biotech, said that their composting facility uses a patented YMO activator from Japan.
“We mix our YMO activator with collected biodegradable waste to treat them together. By doing this, we hasten the composting of biodegradable waste and eliminate hazardous waste such as leachate from contaminating the environment,” explained Lumpay.
Biodegradables are converted into biofertilizers within 45 days, and the reaction of the food waste to the bio activator heats the mixture to a high temperature which destroys pathogenic bacteria, making their fertilizer organic, clean, and safe.
The biofertilizer from Davao Thermo Biotech is used in their trial farm across their four-hectare composting facility
Currently, Davao Thermo Biotech collects industrial waste from several poultry farms and restaurants. They treat 50MT of industry and food waste daily.
They also have a few household subscribers, and the technology can also be adapted at a household level, but the problem is not a lot of homes are willing to pay to have their garbage collected and treated so they don’t end up in landfills.
“As of now, we have 55 households subscribed to our waste management facility. We pick up their biodegradable waste for them, and in exchange, we give them one of our products which they can use for their gardens at home,” said Lumpay.
Banta said that the projects of Limadol and Davao Thermo Biotech prove that there are already working zero-waste solutions that are less harmful to the environment being implemented.
“Instead of using people’s money to fund environmentally destructive projects, the government should instead invest in solutions that are already in place,” said Banta.
“The projects of Limadol and Davao Thermo Biotech need not have huge large facilities, and if these are implemented on a large scale, then there would not even be a need to construct WTE facilities,” added Banta.
The Plastic-Free Pilipinas Project regional coordinator also emphasized that while these initiatives work for biodegradable wastes, the problem of non-biodegradable waste can be addressed by strict implementation of banning single-use plastics and pressuring corporations to replace their packaging.
Corporations should invest in solutions that are centered on reuse-based packaging such as refillable. They can show this by not relying on false “green” solutions but committing to establishing sustainable systems.
Banta also said that before the sachet economy reached the Philippines, Filipino communities already had a culture of refilling in sari-sari stores, but because of the shift in packaging by fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies, this changed.
“Didn’t we have that deposit system for carbonated drinks in glass bottles before? It was even practiced in far-flung rural communities. We can enforce zero-waste solutions, but corporations and lawmakers lack the will,” said Banta.
Seventy-two percent of the 2022 national budget for solid waste management will be dedicated to the WTE of Davao.
“That’s too much of a budget for a regional project that is environmentally destructive. Imagine if we reallocate our budget and invest in low-cost zero-waste solutions that are already in place,” said Banta.
She also stressed that a large part of the money could have also been used for training waste workers in zero-waste projects, giving them the proper solid waste management training, and increasing their salaries and benefits.
“Waste management plays a large role in the climate crisis because the life cycle of a product or waste is already producing carbon emissions, which is why just energy transition also means hiring more waste workers, integrating waste workers in zero-waste projects, and institutionalizing their work,” said Banta.
Role of waste pickers in the climate crisis
Back in New Carmen, Romero said that while he isn’t familiar with climate change, he’s sure that their work as waste pickers contributes to addressing the waste problem.
“I’m not sure about numbers, but perhaps, waste pickers like me address climate change by 50% because we recycle everything that we could find,” said Romero.
Beyond the destructive environmental repercussions of the WTE project, Banta and Ledesma are also concerned about the consequences to workers in the formal and informal waste industry.
“We already have people doing the waste picking and the recycling, and there are also groups who upcycle, recycle, and compost. What will happen to them when this project is given a go signal?” asked Banta.
Romero said that instead of removing them from their livelihood, the local government can show their appreciation by providing them the support that they need to continue doing their livelihood.
“We aren’t protected from our jobs, we go to work without proper equipment, we even step our bare feet on broken glass just so we could find a living, but still we can recycle a relevant amount of waste without much help,” he said.
“What we need is an aid in terms of food, shelter, and even medicine because we earn so little, so that we may continue working,” added Romero.
Romero recalled that their measly income isn’t even enough for his family to afford electricity. But at least he finds disposed candles in the landfill which they recycle and lights at night.
“Sometimes we even find broken solar panels in the landfill. We fix them, and they give our homes power and electricity,” said Romero.
Ledesma said that waste pickers are knowledgeable of the integrity of materials found in disposal sites, that’s why they should play a significant role in redesigning systems.
“Without us, nobody would dare touch our wastes. And if we’re displaced of our livelihood, you’re also removing hands directly reversing climate change,” said Romero.
*Names were changed to protect identities
This story was supported by Climate Tracker and FES Philippines, through our joint Just Transition in the Philippines Journalism Fellowship