Why informal workers oppose waste-to-energy technology in Southeast Asia

Pris Polly Lengkong, president of Ikatan Pemulung Indonesia (IPI), which aims to give a voice to the millions of informal workers in the industry, said scavengers have been working hard for little pay, managing the country’s growing Waste crisis, separating recyclable waste and creating economic value.

“Scavengers are experts,” Price said. “They themselves reduce waste.”

But the Indonesian government has no plans to empower scavengers or expand recycling and giant systems to tackle the country’s waste problem. Instead, it is looking for a technology that has long been used in Europe, Japan and South Korea: incineration or waste-to-energy. The technology uses high temperatures to burn waste, reducing its mass and generating electricity — and its expansion worries Pris.

“If the government were to build a waste incinerator, it would be a waste of money. The money would be better spent helping waste scavengers become more prosperous,” Price said.

The Indonesian government is pushing to use incineration nationwide, with President Joko Widodo signing a presidential statute in 2018 to speed up deployment in 12 major cities across the country. Two of them already have operations in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, and Surabaya, the country’s second-largest city, while several others are planned in the capital, Jakarta, as well as in Bali, Makassar, Surabaya and Palembang.

Indonesia is not alone. In Thailand, the Philippines and Bangladesh, governments, development funders (including the Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Korea Institute of Environmental Industrial Technology) and companies are promoting incineration as a solution to the region’s waste management challenges.According to the information collected Equal timeIn these three countries alone, at least 30 incinerators are newly built, under construction or planned. But for scavengers, the main concern is the possibility of losing their livelihoods.

“Even if you have a program to involve scavengers, you can only involve a small portion of the existing workforce,” said Kabir Arora, coordinator of the Global Scavengers Alliance, which gets women in informal employment Support for: Globalization and Organization (WIEGO), a global network focused on empowering the working poor.

Equally worrying is that incinerators require high-calorie waste to operate effectively, and in Southeast Asia, plastic is mostly plastic – materials that garbage collectors can collect for recycling to generate income.

“When you build an incinerator, you steal the scavenger’s livelihood,” Arora said. “When you finally start burning waste, you need combustible waste and materials like PET bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene. These are very flammable materials and also have a high value in the market.”

When WIEGO’s members take into account environmental concerns (incinerators produce large emissions, including toxic dioxins and bottom ash waste), all members of the alliance (including IPI) have reached a clear position.

“We are against incineration … it’s not the best way to deal with waste, whether it’s plastic waste or any kind of waste,” Arora said.

Japan: Actively promoting waste-to-energy technology

Members of WIEGO, including IPI, as well as members from India and Bangladesh, worked together to identify a common position and translate it into action. “The scavenger group has succeeded in building a strong coalition to boycott incinerators around the world,” Arora said.

As part of this, scavengers are working with community members and environmentalists to actively oppose burning schemes in Southeast Asia. In Davao, Philippines, a Japanese government-backed incineration project has faced widespread opposition from environmentalists, and more than 100 waste pickers have lost their livelihoods as landfills closed.

In fact, Japan is one of the main sources of incineration technology. Japanese companies — including Hitachi Shipbuilding, JFE Engineering, Marubeni, Mitsubishi and others, which have three projects in Thailand — are looking to export their technology to the region, with little room to build more incinerators at home. In fact, since Japan hosted the G20 summit in 2019, the Japanese government has been actively promoting waste-to-energy technology in Southeast Asia.

However, in Japan itself, which has more than 1,000 incinerators, workers play a more active role in the system through recognized unions. In the Greater Tokyo area, there are 21 incinerators in operation, consuming up to 2.7 million tons of waste and generating 1,304 megawatts of electricity in 2019. They require constant, 24-hour attention and a reliable waste stream to operate efficiently.

The workers at these facilities are not informal, but are represented by a union, the Tokyo Sanitation Workers Union, which includes garbage collectors who collect waste throughout the metropolis and bring it to incinerators, as well as highly skilled technicians who operate the facilities .

Yoshikatsu Nishimura, an incinerator technician and a member of the executive committee of the Tokyo Sanitation Union, said unions have played a key role in improving safety conditions in incinerators, so that since 1976, no union employee has been involved in a work-related accident.

They even produced a safety guide that explained the risks to workers and how to deal with the property – something management failed to provide – and pushed staff to work as a team so that there was always backup in case of an emergency.

“If you don’t pay attention to management, it’s easy for them to sacrifice safety and prioritize profits, which can cost workers their lives,” Nishimura said.

In developed countries such as Japan or Denmark and Sweden, where garbage collectors are often full-time workers, represented by unions, and receive health benefits, the way incinerators operate is similar to how incinerators operate in developing countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Sweden. big difference. The Philippines has so many informal sector workers and so few public sector unions. Combined with the disparate waste streams, and concerns about pollution control, Arora came to a clear conclusion.

“These technologies have nothing to do with us,” Arora said. “To me sitting in the global south, burning and incinerating garbage doesn’t make sense.”

Likewise, workers who collect waste or run incinerators in Indonesia are less likely to be unionized than they are in Japan. In fact, when the government planned to build an incinerator in Bekasi, the waste pickers were not even invited to discuss the plan with the government.

“Maybe they were afraid, and if we were invited, maybe we would protest,” Price said, adding that they would only protest their lack of participation.

Therefore, IPI is against all incineration in Indonesia. “In our view, incinerators are a waste of money. Incineration kills the welfare of scavengers because they can no longer find recyclable waste such as plastics.”

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