A waste-to-energy plant in West Palm Beach, America.

A waste-to-energy plant in West Palm Beach, America.

Environmental and social sustainability is a cornerstone of economic growth and poverty reduction in every country. For Vietnam, it means mitigate and compensate the negative impacts that rapid industrialization and urbanization cause to the environment and local communities. One of such negative impacts is the ever-increasing amount of waste. As of right now, Vietnam annually generates over 28 millions tons of waste, with 76% of it being disposed in landfills. The landfill itself however is an imperfect solution, causing more health, economic, and security issues than it solves. Furthermore, in the very near future, these already over-burdened landfills will not likely to keep up with the amount of waste generated daily. Vietnam is facing an acute problem, one possessing the possibility to set back many progresses the country has made since the start of the 21st century.

One of the many proposals to the aforementioned problem is pushing the Waste-to-Energy (WTE) market. It is a sub-sector of the energy market comprised of thermal energy plants that use solid waste in place of fuel, as opposed to coal or nuclear materials. There is nothing new about burning waste for energy (the first electric generator of this type was built in 1874), but the technology has only recently entered Vietnam. Even then, it has already shown considerable promises toward solving two issues Vietnam faces: waste treatment and energy scarcity.

The waste treatment capability of WTE plants is very positive. About 80 to 90% of the waste burned is incinerated completely, while the last 10% is made up of scrap metal and ashes, both of which could be used as raw materials. For a small-to-medium WTE plant like the Tynes Bay Incinerator in Bermuda, such efficiency translates to 60,000 tons of solid waste being incinerated each year, generating 3800 kW. WTE plants generate negative carbon footprint, unlike the conventional coal- and gas-fired plants, while operating on a relatively similar mechanism and therefore requires less resources and time to build, operate and maintain.

These are valuable attributes especially when Vietnam is on the verge of facing an energy crisis. Forecasts tell that from now to 2030, energy demand will increase four-fold because of rapid urbanization. Power production in Vietnam is currently dominated by hydropower (41%), followed by natural gas (31%) and coal (6%). Due to limited domestic coal and gas resources, Vietnam’s fossil import dependency is expected to increase. While we have made considerable progresses on wind and solar power, large-scale production of green energy is still in the early stage. In this situation, WTE plants can help alleviate much of the scarcity and give us more time to pursuit other forms of sustainable energy.

Inside a Vietnamese WTE plant.

Inside a Vietnamese WTE plant.

As of now, only a few Vietnamese enterprises have entered the WTE market, but more and more are showing their interest. They are tempted by the low overhead cost and several other advantages of WTE plants such as locations (can work anywhere unlike solar panels or wind turbines), high selling price (1 kWh can sell for 10,05 cent), etc.

According to Mr. Đồng Minh Toàn, Chairman and CEO of BIGIMEXCO, a major investor in a WTE project at the Go Cat landfill (Ho Chi Minh City), the payback period of WTE plants is only half of conventional energy plants. In its first month of operation, the Go Cat WTE plant treated 500 tons of industrial waste and generated 7 mW for the national grid.

However, companies are being stymied by a particular proble. There are not many cities in Vietnam able to generate enough waste to keep a small-to-medium size WTE plant functioning 24/07. If any energy plant cannot operate round-the-clock, it is very difficult for them to make profit.

Admittedly, this is not a problem specific to Vietnam. Norway is now importing solid waste as fuel for its WTE plants without paying or paying very little as other European countries readily give them away. It is likely that Vietnam will have to look to other countries to find a solution to this matter.

Many provincial governments in Bac Ninh, Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, etc. have made attracting private investors to building WTE plants in their provinces a critical imperative. They hope that the Public-Private Partnership model would not only bring in the capital but also the technology and experience from foreign partners. There has been some very optimistic signs pointing to success, such as an 100 million loan facility agreement between ADB and China Everbright International Limited (CEIL) to build several WTE plants in Me Kong Delta cities. CEIL is one of the world’s leading integrated environmental protection companies and possesses 43 WTE projects in operation with a combined solid waste processing capacity of 39,100 tons per day.

In the case of Vietnam, the construction of the first industrial waste-to-energy plant in Soc Son, Hanoi, has been started on April 24, 2017. The plant’s equipments are provided by the Japanese corporation Hitachi Zosen. Out of $29 million invested in the project, $22.5 million is non-refundable aid from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a governmental organization that focuses on research and development of industrial technology in new energy solutions.

However, these projects have met several obstacles, of which the most problematic is the resistance from local communities. Beside environmental concerns, the people are afraid that their living standards and income sources will be negatively affected by the construction and resettlement process. Disagreements with the government and enterprises on compensation and entitlement policies have caused many communities to take the drastic approach of protesting and occupation, of which the most recent incident is still going on at the Nam Son Solid Waste Treatment Complex at Soc Son, Ha Noi.

By principle, the government and private entities have an obligation to minimize, mitigate, and compensate for adverse project impacts on affected people when avoidance is not possible. This is an agreed fact; however in practice it is fraught with misinformation and exploitation. Assistances either arrive at the wrong people, or are unbeneficial to the recipents. There is a need to communicate between the government, investors, and local communities to guarantee that the right resources would go to the right people, and help them improve or at least restore their pre-project living standards, incomes and productive capacity; at the same time, maintaining the existing social and cultural institutions of the communities.

It is beneficial in this case to point out that not only the governments and cooperation can exploit the opportunities brought about solid waste treatment, but so can microenterprises. This topic is very important to talk about, since currently a large number of people depend on scavenging landfills and selling the waste to make money. Therefore, concurrently with solving the landfill problem, the governments also need to help them finding a new source of income. One possible avenue is assisting microenterprises employing these people to become a part of the solid waste treatment progress.

Take the example of Smokey Mountain landfill in Manila, Philippine. In 2000, the government finished dissolving the slums and resettled their inhabitants to another area. The government and different NGO then made several efforts to help the resettles find new jobs. One of such efforts was started by the organization Sustainable Project Management with loan from ADB. Their project involved changing the business models of existing junk shops. First of all, the organization provided training for scavengers who had just lost their job. They would work as trash separators, and their products were sent to a local waste processing facility to be further separated, cleaned, and processed, and sold for a profit, then the rest is used as fuel for WTE plants. In 2014, six year after it started, the cooperatives which managed the waste processing facility earned $58,860 in annual revenue, and employed 150 trash separators.

Le Cong Vu