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Southeast Asia's trash, Japan Inc.'s power-generating treasure

Public-private deals put waste to use in Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia

Some of Southeast Asia's plastic waste, like this stuff in Thailand, ends up in recycling centers, but a lot of it is discarded haphazardly and finds its way into the ocean. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are emerging as fertile markets for waste-to-power plants, and Japan hopes to use its expertise in the field to capitalize on the opportunity.

The Japanese government is forming public-private partnerships to boost exports of the plants to the region. Partners include the Osaka city office and other municipalities as well as Hitachi Zosen and JFE Engineering.

The partners will also provide buyers with collection, separation, recycling and waste-reduction solutions honed in Japan.

The Environment Ministry plans to designate some 10 communities in Southeast Asia as waste-to-energy models by fiscal 2023.

The seas around Southeast Asia are littered with plastic and other refuse, choking marine life and harming ecosystems.

In Japan, which has been wrestling with waste problems since its economy started booming in the 1960s, companies have developed trash-incinerating power plants that can help reduce air pollution.

According to the ministry, Japan has some 380 waste-to-energy plants, accounting for more than 30% of the country's refuse incineration facilities. Their number has increased more than 20% over the past decade, contributing to the accumulation of operational know-how.

In Southeast Asia, waste-to-power plants have been introduced on a trial basis in countries such as Singapore and Thailand. There are 10 or so across the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The technology is being held back in the region due to high costs. Nevertheless it has been drawing strong attention lately as Southeast Asia's economic boom brings with it uninvited environmental ills.

The International Finance Corp., a member of the World Bank Group, forecasts that the global market for these plants will expand to $80 billion in 2022 from $7.4 billion in 2013. While China is aggressively marketing its waste-to-energy technology, Japan is offering combination packages that include waste disposal systems, personnel training as well as recycling and other services.

Hitachi Zosen, JFE Engineering, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other Japanese exporters are expected to join consortia to bid for plant orders in Southeast Asia.

The ministry has set aside 2 billion yen ($18.49 million) in its fiscal 2019 budget to support field surveys and other pre-bid activities. It plans to subsidize half of all initial expenses through the Joint Credibility Mechanism.

The mechanism is meant to foster cooperation in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by allowing Japan and a recipient country to share the emissions-offset credits.

The public-private program is also aimed at deepening Japan's relations with other countries by providing them with easier-on-the-environment technologies. Japan is expected to tout the program as an effort to cope with plastic waste at the Group of 20 summit at the end of this month in Osaka.

As Southeast Asia sorts through more and more plastic waste, it is running out of dumps and landfills to put it all. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Through the program, Japan will try to match recipient countries' needs with its exports. For the Philippines -- which suffers from fires, foul odors and other social problems as trash piles up because of a lack of landfill sites -- Japan will offer waste management technology to prevent emissions of dioxin and other harmful substances.

The ministry will join hands with the municipal governments of Kitakyushu, Yokohama and Osaka to propose a system that incorporates the three cities' collection, separation and other waste management expertise. It hopes to win orders mainly from the Philippine cities of Davao, Quezon and Cebu.

Companies such as Nippon Steel Engineering are already doing preliminary studies and are expected to take part in the bidding.

Vietnam is contending with serious groundwater contamination. Japan's Environment Ministry plans to work with Hitachi Zosen, which has experience with similar situations elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The public and private sector partners intend to come up with a proposal to develop water and sewage systems. The ministry plans to use Hanoi as a model city for the initiative.

Indonesia has a similar problem -- more waste than it can bury. As a result, plastic waste and toxins are flowing into the ocean. Japan's Environment Ministry is already surveying the total amount and kinds of waste in the country, in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

In West Java, the ministry will support a consortium's proposal for an urban waste-management project for which bidding is to take place by the end of this year.

The ministry hopes a successful bid will pave the way for more orders. The Indonesian government is promoting similar projects in 12 areas.

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