Vows and Crises, Thai communities face health risks in the name of “Clean Energy”

Sutee Homdet’s black hair gradually fell down one by one. Before they were put with the other collected hair in the ceremony, “shaving to protect homeland”. Hair is a sacred symbol for Thais and shaving signifies an important transition from men to monks in buddhism. 

Even though Sutee is a grown-up guy who has been holding a megaphone and speaking out the reasons they all come here on the street in the capital city of Thailand. Sutee’s eyes are glowing red.

They swear to their ancestors to protect their beloved hometown from the threat that comes in the name of a project of 21.5 megawatt waste to energy plants. The two plants producing almost 50 megawatt of electricity will be located next to the fence of Suthee’s house and other 14 families.

People from Na Bon District, Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south of Thailand make a living from rice farming and rubber plantation. They rely on water from canals that flow through the middle of the village. This 8,000-dwellers district is surrounded by valleys in all directions, so the town becomes like a basin where the wind blows down from the valley and circulates in the area.

In normal conditions, this environment is a gift. Some locals even joke that “Nabon Enchanté”, but news of the arrival of a power plant trunks this charming geography to the one more daunting. It will trap air and water pollution, imprisoning Nabon people to live in the midst of pollution.

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Sutee Homdet shaves his head in front of SCB bank headquarter in Bangkok. Hair is a sacred symbol for Thais representing the inheritance of their ancestors. Nabon people conduct the ceremony to inform their ancestors that they won’t let anything happen to their home. July 2021 (Photo: Nicha Wachpanich / GreenNews)

Glasgow pledges, the accelerator of “Waste to Energy”?

The “Nabon Clean Energy Power Plant” is a biomass power plant project. It generates electricity from the fuel of wood chips, palm bunches and tree bark, which will help “utilize the resources to the maximum benefit” and create jobs for local people by purchasing leftovers from agricultural products. Moreover, it will also turn household waste into RDF (Refuse-Derived Fuel).

But the Nabon anti-WtE network noticed that “The project mainly publicizes the biomass . As for garbage, they haven’t said much about it. We went to study the documents ourselves.” They found that the power plant would use household waste 20% of the total fuel which will be sent from Nong Khai, a town in Northeastern approximately 1,300  kilometers away.

This case is not happening only in Nabon, but it is spreading quietly across the country. In June this year, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency revealed that there are 44 Waste-to-Energy power plants that have been built and have already supplied power to the electrical system. This number doesn’t include many others that are under way.

The technology has gained popularity after 2014 when the Thai government declared that plastic waste is a national agenda and converting waste to electricity is one of the “proper” waste management methods. The data indicates that Thai people produce up to 25.37 million tons of waste per year, so the WtE project helps dealing with 7.2 million tons of waste or almost a third.

This project was presented as “kill two birds with one stone” because it not only helps to manage the waste problem, but also helps address the climate crisis. This is because landfill is a major source of methane emissions, accounting for 8.9% of total national greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover burning waste for energy also replaces the use of other types of fossil fuels. Thailand’s current 20-years Power Development Plan known as “PDP 2018” has categorized waste to energy as “Renewable energy”. It has been gradually gaining more proportion with a capacity of 400 megawatts.

Waste energy is a small puzzle in the big picture of long-term low-emission development. At the UN climate conference this early November in Glasgow, UK , Thailand announced to increase its share of renewable energy by more than 50% to reach greenhouse gas neutrality in 2065.

Yet even though it appears to be a tiny piece, this kind of project has been promoted by the government in many ways. The projects come in private-public partnership which the state helps to support the price of electricity throughout the 20-years implementation period. There is also a martial order letting the WtE projects to build factories without complying with the city plan regulations. It also allows plants with a production capacity less than 10 megawatts to not need to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment report.

Not so worth it for “solving climate change”

Throughout 2021, many Thai communities have protested against Waste to Energy projects as it meant that plastic, glass and paper had to be burned, which the locals nearby have to face health risks from various chemicals.

However, despite the advanced technology it is hard to avoid pollution. An undesirable byproduct is ash that is loaded with carcinogens like dioxin and heavy metal substances that are harmful to health both acutely and cumulatively.

“Even the Netherlands, which is an example many WtE supporters use as an example, end up with residual soil pollution despite using advanced technology. WtE isn’t perfect in terms of technology itself, not to mention our supervision and maintenance.I don’t think that Thai local authorities can manage good WtE.” sternly warned Penchom Sae-Tang, Director of EARTH.

The Ecological Alert and Recovery – Thailand has been following up on waste power plants in Thailand for 20 years. But over the past ten years, the number has significantly increased and many communities have raised their alarm.

“Sacrificing the minority for the most.” This Thai well-known saying may have popped up in conversations, but all the risks may not be worth it.

“Waste power plants are not the solution to climate change because plastic waste is fossil fuels. So burning waste produces carbon dioxide.” Penchom insisted

She stressed that burning waste could worsen the climate crisis because the waste separation system in Thailand is not good enough. The wet dusty waste may break down the incinerators and end up piling up and emitting methane. There are also successful alternatives models to reduce methane such as capturing the gas at the landfill and converting it to LPG. 

“Waste management is shifting to ‘less burn, more recycle’ across the world. Thailand should be aware of this point as well.”

Garbage Mountain, Sri Songkhram District, Nakhon Phanom. Only about 70 kilometers away from this point, the 9.5 megawatt Wanon Niwat waste power plant project is to be built soon despite the locals’s concerns that the area is a watershed. October 2021 (Photo: Nicha Wachpanich / GreenNews)

Surging waves across continents

All these complexities are not happening only for Thailand, but also in its neighboring countries in ASEAN region. EARTH is part of Global Alliance for Incinerators Alternatives (GAIA) that is joined by many environmental groups.

Asia-Pacific has the most waste-burning in the world, with as many as 1,120 incinerators. Vietnam plans to build the world’s second-largest waste-to-energy plant in Hanoi while the southern neighbor like the Philippines has dozens of new waste power plants across the archipelago. Many communities have sued the state for violating clean air rights and fundamental human rights in the constitution.

This objection may be considered as only small waves compared to the current promotion Waste to Energy both nationally and internationally. The Asian Development Bank has announced its policy to support investment in renewable energy in Thailand and ASEAN. This includes waste energy.

“The reason why these international banks still support this kind of technology is because they want to find a market for draining old technology that developed countries don’t need anymore,” Penchom analyzed.

Two years ago, the EU removed WtE from its list of sustainable development activities, just as Australia deleted it from its energy policy.

At the latest international Climate Conference, GAIA also noted the correlation linking plastics business to the climate change decision-making stage. The company that produces the most plastic waste in the world, Unilever, is a sponsor of COP26.

On the Nabon side, throughout a whole week of protesting the WtE project at relevant agencies in the capital city, they settled overnight in front of the Siam Commercial Bank main office. SCB owns 30% shares of the project.

Plastic Waste Marker Index indicates that SCB ranked 24th in the world as a financial institution that supports plastics capital.

Four months after the Nabons submitted a letter of objection to the Nabon power plant project in July, they said there was no response from the bank.

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“SCB, Don’t make profit by destroying people’s lives” Nabon network settles in front of Siam Commercial Bank’s head office in Bangkok. (Photo: Nicha Wachpanich / GreenNews)

“The price to pay” next step to think about

Nowadays, environmental issues have become more complicated. when everything has been price tagged to urge actions.

The most progress outcome from the latest UN Climate Conference is the carbon trading mechanism in which the polluters can trade carbon credit with countries with remaining greenhouse gas quotas. The countries selling carbon credits are considered as having potential to store greenhouse gases such as forest areas and possibly “waste to energy” as well.

At present, it is not clearly stated whether WtE can be calculated in the carbon mechanism. Another significant question is whether it will have a status as “Clean energy” that helps offset carbon or “Fossil energy” that is responsible for global warming.

“The existing waste incinerators must be included in the carbon market because they pose a great threat to our climate and to exclude all WTE incineration from all forms of climate financing.” insisted Yobel Novian Putra, Indonesian Climate and Clean Energy Campaign Officer for GAIA Asia-Pacific

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The Nabon Power Plant project is reconfiguring the area, November 2021 (Photo: Preeda Kongpan / Human Rights Commission)

As for Thailand Energy Agency, Dr.Banthoon Setthasirot, the Energy Regulatory Commission, told Greennews that they have not yet discussed the carbon credit system that will be implemented after COP26. However, he expects that WtE could be counted as offsets for carbon credits because the previous climate mechanism like Clean Development Mechanism also included waste to energy.

While the value of the waste energy business is rising , the social and environmental impact costs may be underestimated? The closest compensation mechanism for those affected by climate crises known as “Loss & Damage” does not include people who are affected by projects claiming to do so for the climate. 

The existing protection for Nabon people and likewise are the national environmental regulations which have been criticized that may not be enough. 

“Many people oppose waste to energy because of the problems that understandard waste power plants in the old time have left which has become a stigma for Thai people. Today’s technology is much better. WtE is an immediate necessity to create a circular economy,” Banthoon explains.

He stressed that the Energy Regulatory Authority will monitor the impacts according to environmental standards and engage people at the beginning of the projects.

“If we don’t burn and dispose waste properly, I think that is even more terrifying for our climate”

Bangkok-based journalist covering environmental stories from policymaking table to the the river bank communities. Nicha believes everybody deserves to know what’s going on with their life and how the changing climate is affecting us all. She sees that it’s time people know about the global negotiations and how they will impact on the local scale.