Monday, 30 April 2007

Dirty Secrets of Incinerators

It's a very quiet day in campus. I think mainly because the students have finished their exams and gone off for their long vacation but also because many staff have taken the opportunity to take the day off to enjoy a long stretch of holidays (tomorrow and the day after being public holidays). So, most of the window units (aircon) around my office are off and I have been getting fantastic cool breeze with all my windows open. The day is downcast but cool and I feel happy because my Constructivist book is finally printed (after 2 years with the publisher) - and I am looking forward to attending the conference in Hong Kong on the 2nd May which incidentally is related to my book topic.

Who's telling the truth about incinerators? Many claim that their latest technology is efficient and non-polluting and can even generate electricity from plastics. I went to a CAP (Consumer Association of Penang) seminar this morning where (well, I don't know what to label him, so I will call him an 'activist') an activist with GreenAction based in San Francisco exposed many of the false claims by companies attempting to push various types of incinerator technology in the US. In fact, one of the companies claimed that they have an operational plant in the Kuala Lumpur area (which of course is not true). Bradley Angel gave a few tips on how to deal with these companies. Ask for the data or evidence to support their claims. So far, none have been able to produce the data. Zero emissions. Look for the tall chimney or emission stack (why have a stack if there is no emissions?).

What's the problem with incinerators, by whatever name or technology it is called (gasification, pyrolysis, plasma, catlytic cracking, hydrolysis/fermentation, anaerobic digestion)? Dioxin! And a few other pollutants such as heavy metals, ammonia, etc. Dioxin is produced when you burn plastic at high temperatures (between 200 and 400 degrees). There are claims that some technology do not produce dioxin because they used very high temperatures (like above 600 degrees) but the problem is that when the gases are discharged through the stacks (tall chimneys) the component gases recombine to form dioxin. We can overcome this if the gases are cooled down very very fast (from 600 straight to below 200) but there is no such technology yet (this information was provided by Dato Ong Hean Tee at the seminar). Dioxin is the result of the combination of chlorine-based compounds and hydrocarbons through burning. You get dioxin not only from incinerators but other industries which uses chlorine such as paper mills which uses chlorine for bleaching, the production of PVC plastics and pesticides.

What's the problem with dioxin? According to the American Chemistry Council, the release of dioxin into the environment by industry is now well controlled. The most dominant source of dioxin is now uncontrolled burning. The EPA confirms that dioxin is a cancer harzard.

What's happening back home? The proposed incinerator plant at Broga in the Klang Valley has been abandoned (for now). But there's a lot of chatter in Penang to introduce the incinerator here. That's why there was lots of reporters at the seminar. They can smell a story there but as Bradley said, the media plays are very important role to bring the issue to the public.

One interesting fact which was highlighted by an officer of the local authority is that you can't just have one. You need at least two because there is a lot of downtime for regular maintenance including complete shutdown to change the filters and clean up the chambers (they have to be shutdown yearly for about a month). And these babies run into several (hundred?) millions each + maintenance costs.

What's the solution? Wear smaller shoes - make your footprint smaller. Yes, reduce our consumption. Practice the 4Rs - refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. There's one more R - but it escapes me for the moment.

Hazardous waste on campus. I remember a scientist in USM was offered a free experimental incinerator several years back and he asked for permission to place it in our Minden Campus. I was horrified to hear that the university had even considered various unobtrusive locations to put the incinerator. Fortunately someone raised the alarm so the proposal was (or seems to have been) abandoned. But we do have alot of hazardous waste from the labs and the hospital. Bradley told me that he visited a facility which used microwave to disinfect hazardous materials (including hospital waste) without the need to incinerate them. That's one area we should be looking at.

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