Trash Problems in Paradise

  • Share
  • Read Later

A General Electric biogas engine, still bearing the decorations from a blessing ceremony, is installed near a landfill on Bali and used to convert methane gases to electricity.

One of the surest signs that you're in a developing country is the trash beneath your feet, which has less to do with bad habits than the fact that arranging garbage pickup and disposal is a low and expensive priority for a poor government. And the Indonesian island of Bali, despite its breathtaking natural beauty, is no exception.

Outside the compulsively groomed resort areas, garbage grows in small piles on the side of streets on the island's growing urban areas, festering in the tropical sun. Much of what is collected finds its way to the TPA Suwung landfill, about 10 km outside the sprawling provincial capital of Denpasar. Every day trucks add up to 800 metric tons of waste to quivering piles of tattered cloth, leftover food and the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. Virtually the only waste management at Suwung comes in the form of scavengers who brave the heat to comb through the mountains of trash for anything salable. Meanwhile the landfill grows by the day, with the garbage leaking into a nearby mangrove forest, decomposing to release foul-smelling methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But that's beginning to change, thanks to the clean development mechanism (CDM), a Kyoto Protocol policy that has rich countries funding greenhouse gas reductions in poor nations like Indonesia. With technical support from the U.S. giant General Electric — along with companies in Japan, Austria and the U.K. — Suwung is installing equipment that will capture the landfill gases and convert them to electricity.

The benefits will be multiple: not only will the people of Bali get clean power, but less methane will reach the atmosphere, helping to reduce global warming. The local waste company that owns the landfill will be able to sell those greenhouse gas reductions on the international carbon market, and the entire process will keep Suwung's size sustainable, controlling Bali's growing litter problem. "In Bali, they are aware that if they don't take care of their waste, the tourists will go away," says Bernt Harald Bakken, a Norwegian manager at PT Navigat Organic Energy Indonesia, the local company that is running the project. "So there's a strong commitment to keep Bali clean."

Construction is still in its early stages. Bakken says the project should have been further along, but, as he notes with a shrug, "This is Indonesia." Still, as Bakken walks through the waves of waste, he gestures to the half-built beginnings of the project: eleven concrete cells that will each contain up to 12,000 cubic meters (15,695 cubic yards) of organic waste. (The landfill will employ the scavengers who now roam the garbage heaps to pick out inorganic waste, which doesn't produce biogas.) Once waste is packed inside the airtight cells, anaerobic digestion by bacteria will generate gases that will be pumped to a biogas engine, then burned to produce steam to generate electricity. GE provided the engine at below-market cost, as part of the company's Ecomagination environmental initiatives. "This is something GE will invest heavily in," says Gatot Prawiro, GE's Indonesian country executive, who notes that the project will reduce carbon dioxide by the equivalent of 1,000 cars a year.

The landfill gas plant will initially produce about 1 MW of power, starting in 2008, with a maximum capacity of some 10 MW — enough to deliver electricity to around 700 Bali households. Those numbers might seem small, and while the Suwung project is a nice start, that modest scale is part of the problem. CDM projects are one of the most promising ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries — all the more important, given that most of the increase in carbon dioxide in the near future will come from outside the developed world. But while funders are flocking to CDM, with over 1,500 projects in the pipeline by the end of 2006, the vast majority of those are in rapidly growing China and to a lesser extent India. Indonesia — a country of 234 million, which hosted the U.N.'s climate change conference in December — is involved in just 2% of global CDM projects. That needs to increase, and fast, for Indonesia and the rest of the world.

For now, the Suwung project is a nice start, and one that will directly benefit the residents of Bali. As Bakken leads a tour around the edges of the landfill, he points out a trash-strewn creek flowing between the raw piles of waste and a surprisingly vibrant thatch of mangroves. Sprigs of jatropha — a tropical shrub that can be harvested to produce clean biodiesel — are already growing on the slopes of garbage. "We're going to green this landfill," says Bakken. "One day this is going to be a park." Squint enough — and hold your nose against the smell — and you can just see it.