As Tourism Rises in Bali, What to Do With Waste?




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SAN FRANCISCO — Bali once had a reputation as a tropical idyll. But the unfettered expansion of mass tourism on the island has created mountains of trash, overwhelming the ability of the Balinese, who traditionally wrapped and served food in palm leaves or other biodegradable plant material, to manage the mess. Plastic and other waste has simply been dumped or burned.

To deal with the problem, two conflicting waste management strategies have emerged. Each claims climate benefit and employment for the poor, each has received international recognition and each has suffered setbacks.

Bali Fokus, a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by Yuyun Ismawati, an environmental engineer, offers a community-based, low cost, decentralized approach. It teaches people in the towns of Denpasar, Gianyar and Badung to separate waste in their homes and in village facilities: organic waste is used to make compost and pig food. Bali Fokus also teaches women to make products out of recyclable materials that they can sell for profit.

Ms. Ismawati’s efforts have spread to several communities in Bali, and more than 40 others have asked to join the program next year, she said in an interview during a recent visit here to receive the Goldman Prize for environmental activism. Through Sanimas, a related project, Bali Fokus and other groups are also bringing sanitation to some 75 towns throughout Indonesia every year.

Ms. Ismawati is working to expand Bali Fokus both on the island and nationwide. She says it has the potential to provide a large-scale solution to waste management while empowering some of Indonesia’s poorest people.

The Balinese island authorities have been contributing to Bali Fokus and other nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that do similar work. The local government “will support all NGOs who are concerned with environmental protection in Bali,” said Made Sudarma, head of the Sarbagita Solid Waste Management Agency, a government office covering the towns of Denpasar, Badung, Gianyar and Tabaman, from which the acronym Sarbagita is derived.

But even as Bali Fokus was scaling up, the local government, under pressure to deal with the trash problem, sought industrial-scale solutions. In 2004 it awarded a contract to Navigat Organic Energy Indonesia, part of a Jakarta-based energy company, which proposed a technology it called Galfad, an acronym for gasification, landfill and anaerobic digestion. Its winning design would process 800 tons of daily waste from the four towns.

The first phase of the project, in which methane is captured from the landfill and burned to generate electricity, was completed in January. In the second phase, organic matter will be put into a sealed anaerobic digester, where it will be broken down into methane; in the third, trash will be subjected to extreme heat under oxygen-free conditions to produce a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

In 2007, Navigat Organic received backing through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, or C.D.M., which will offer carbon credits that the company can sell on the open market.

“Without the C.D.M. the project would not be viable,” said Bernt Bakken, the company public relations manager.

Navigat’s application for credits said the project would reduce greenhouse gases by destroying methane and by supplying energy generated from waste to the local grid, displacing power generated by fossil fuels. Methane retains 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When it burns, one molecule breaks down into a carbon dioxide molecule — 25 times less harmful — and two water molecules.

The village-scale programs of Bali Fokus also reduce landfill methane, and the project has received monetary support through voluntary carbon offsets. Still, small organizations like Bali Fokus have trouble gaining carbon credits through the C.D.M.

“You need to hire an international consulting firm on the order of $50,000 to $100,000 to try to shepherd your project through the process,” said Neil V. Tangri, waste and climate change campaigner for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a group to which Bali Fokus belongs. “It’s a very high barrier.”

Allegations of administrative and design failures in the C.D.M. program have led to calls for it to be altered or replaced in a new international climate treaty to update the Kyoto Protocol, the first phase of which ends in 2012.

Reports from environmental activist organizations like Forests & the European Union Research Network, or FERN, and from institutions including Stanford University have raised questions about the C.D.M. program’s ability to detect abuses in the credit award process, such as awards for projects already in progress; falsification of audit reports; and manipulation by companies of the data on which they base their credit claims.

Still, it is far from clear that the mechanism will be changed, because big business, which once complained about the bureaucracy, now supports it, said Daphne Wysham, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, an independent research organization in Washington that has also criticized the C.D.M. process. “It’s ironic that we’ve set up a profit-making system for the very industries — coal and nuclear — that need to see themselves replaced by really clean, green energy alternatives,” she said.

The C.D.M. process allows project managers to set both their own baselines and the methodology by which reductions in environmental harm should be measured. The managers thus have a financial incentive to set their baselines high, to help them show larger reductions and thus claim higher carbon credits.

Navigat’s application baseline was 800 tons of waste a day, and it is now trying to obtain certification for a baseline of 1,000 tons a day. Robert Eden, technical director of the project, said the higher figure reflected increased dumping into the landfill at Suwung, near Denpasar, because tourism on Bali was depressed when baseline measurements were first taken.

Far from being a benefit, the increase was a hurdle, delaying completion of the Galfad project, he said. “The C.D.M. authorities are concerned that we might be trying to bring in extra waste.”

The plant’s anaerobic digester and gasification units, which were scheduled to start operating in 2008 and 2009, respectively, have not yet been built; and the uncertainty over permits for the additional waste has prevented the company from securing loans to move forward on construction.

Environmental campaigners are not sorry to see the plant’s completion delayed. Indeed, they are irked that it is earning carbon credits at all, because, they say, it will release more greenhouse gases than if the work of Bali Fokus were expanded.

The Galfad technology would waste materials both in land-filling and gasification, Mr. Tangri, the anti-incinerator campaigner, said. Taking into account the whole product supply chain and life cycle, throwing away materials or burning them uses more energy than reuse, composting and recycling, he said.

Bali Fokus does a better job of reusing the waste stream, he contended.

Mr. Eden disagreed, explaining the company’s vision of the completed project. “Anything that we can recycle, we recycle,” he said. What goes to the gasification unit will be “beach wood and inert organics that have no use at all.”

“We’re not burning plastic; we’re not using supplementary fuel,” he said. “We get carbon credits because we’re generating renewable power out of waste materials, and when I say waste, I mean really, waste.”

Ms. Ismawati said a bigger issue was the question of who benefited from these projects, economically and from a waste services perspective. Governments had seized on carbon credits as a way to outsource their funding responsibility for waste management, without considering the relative merits of competing projects, she said.

“Giving hope of revenues for carbon credits from other countries is like making them wait for the fruit to come, when it’s falling in front of their eyes,” she said. “They are not improving the waste system, and all of the money will go back to the investors and not trickle down to local governments and communities.”

Mr. Eden disputed that. He said local benefits from Navigat’s project would include 200 jobs sorting and separating waste, and annual payments to the regional government at a rate based on the megawatts of power produced.

Those payments, however, are themselves problematic. The government’s financial interest in the success of the industrial project has jeopardized its support for Bali Fokus, according to Ms. Ismawati. “One of the heads of the environmental agency told me that they could no longer support our small-scale, low-cost, community-based approach because they need more waste coming to their landfill,” she said.

For now, neither Bali Fokus nor Navigat can handle all the island’s waste, and the trash mountains are continuing to grow.

“The question, then, is which one are we going to try to scale up?” Mr. Tangri asked. “One that is being backed by a company with powerful profit incentives and is getting carbon credits? Or the other, which is environmentally preferable, but is not?”

Mr. Eden says there is enough trash to go around. “To be honest, I didn’t know that Bali Fokus was doing composting,” he said. “They’re not a group that we would want to damage in any way. Maybe we need to see what they’re up to and see if we can’t align ourselves.”