BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand could become the garbage bin of the world, an expert on waste management and environmental protection has warned, as the government's policies to promote the waste-to-energy industry have already resulted in plastic waste imports to the country.
Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand director Penchom Saetang said the country's recent waste management trends run counter to correct waste management methods.
The government's current path will prevent a proper solution to waste management problems and unintentionally lead to waste from other countries being dumped in Thailand, she said.
Penchom singled out for criticism the promotion of private investment in small waste-to-energy projects across the country.
"Waste-to-energy is one of the most polluting methods for both waste management and power generation, because not only will burning garbage emit toxic pollutants, but the leftover ashes are also very hazardous and require very careful disposal in a secured landfill. And so building many small waste-to-energy plants is a very bad decision," Penchom said.
"I do not contest the advantages of waste-to-energy, as it is one of the acceptable measures to deal with unrecyclable waste, but we should have only a few big waste-to-energy plants that are properly equipped with all pollution control measures," she added.
Highlighting her concern over the small-size waste-to-energy projects now being promoted by the government, Penchom said it was not cost-effective for the investors to install expensive pollution-control systems. They are forced to reduce the money spent on environmental protection in order to keep their investment profitable.
According to the five-year waste management master plan, local administrative organisations are required to manage waste.
However, the private sector is also encouraged to invest in waste disposal plants, based on the assumption that they are more able and ready to properly oversee waste disposal.
Forty-four provinces meet the criteria, allowing them to initiate private-sector investment in waste-to-energy plants.
Those criteria include the availability of a feed-in powerline, ability to ensure a feedstock of at least 300 tonnes of garbage.
In contrast, a total of 102 areas in 49 provinces have the capacities for investment in refuse-derived fuel (RDF) processing plants.
For the less populated areas that have below 50 tonnes of waste generated per day, the authorities and residents are advised to locally process their waste into fertiliser and bury the leftover garbage in a local sanitary landfill.
As of the end of 2017, the Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency Department reported that there were 15 waste-to-energy plants operating - both biogas plants and waste incinerators - and generating a total 42.82 megawatts of electricity.
Nine of these waste-to-energy plants in Bangkok, Phuket, Samut Prakan, Tak, Saraburi, and Khon Kaen are waste incinerators operated by private companies.
Lack of waste segregation was another big problem that needed addressing to properly operate a waste-to-energy plant in Thailand, Penchom said.
The waste-to-energy plants in Hat Yai and Phuket, were burning all kinds of garbage for power, without segregation to pull out less flammable materials, thus causing serious environmental problems and also damaging the operational system of the plants, she said.
To get a better burn, "the operators of these plants then turn to external sources of higher quality waste and import plastic waste from other countries as fuel to supply the operation of their plants and keep their business running", she said.
If the trend continues, "Thailand will eventually be the waste disposal hub of the world, leaving only hazardous ashes, sicknesses from pollution and a contaminated environment for Thai people".
Plastic waste smuggling to Thailand is already underway, as demonstrated by recent media reports after officers on May 30 found four containers of plastic waste at Laem Chabang Seaport.
It was later identified that these plastic wastes had originated from 35 countries.
Penchom urged the related agencies not to prioritise generating electricity from waste, but to instead correctly tackle the country's waste by first reducing, reusing and recycling before turning the remaining unrecyclable waste into energy.
In an update on the progress of the country's waste management masterplan, inspector of Local Administration Department Suwit Chanhuan said that 5,731 local administrative organisations have already grouped together with nearby counterparts to form 324 clusters for the efficient enhancement of waste management.