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Forget Payatas or Smokey Mountain: This is the Future of Landfills

Pera sa basura, literally.
IMAGE MCWM CORP.
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About 20 minutes down a paved road from the national highway in Capas, Tarlac is a literal mountain of trash. It’s not exactly unwanted, even though there are small communities around the area called Sitio Kalangitan. Some residents even work there. This is the landfill inside the hundred-hectare facility of Metro Clark Waste Management Corp. (MCWM). 

Upon entry, first-time visitors might not even know that they’re inside a compound that collects and processes the refuse of practically the whole of Central Luzon. Unless you’re actually on top of the garbage heap, the surrounding areas are lush with trees and vegetation, and the air is what you would expect in the province: fresh and unspoiled. There are buildings that house the company’s offices as well as a few other structures scattered around the perimeter. Clearly this isn’t the landfill of the Smokey Mountain or Payatas variety.

The landfill in Capas, Tarlac 

Photo by MCWM.
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For most of us, the only time we ever think about garbage is when we have to throw it out. If we’re responsible citizens, waste collected at home is divided into biodegradable and non-biodegradable—and perhaps a third pile for recyclable trash. (If we’re uncivilized or just can’t be bothered, they all go inside the same bin, but that’s another story). We place them outside our homes for the garbagemen to pick up at certain times of the day or week, and promptly forget about them until the next time the trash needs to be thrown out.

Not many people would willingly associate themselves with literal filth, but somebody has to, and that’s exactly what MCWM does. The company, which was founded in 2002, is the first engineered sanitary landfill in the country. What that essentially means is that it utilizes a system that contains the trash inside a compact surface area so that there’s little to no effect on its surroundings.

A bird's eye view of the facility

Photo by MCWM Corp..
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The first engineered landfill in the Philippines

How they do it is through a series of layers whose main purpose is to prevent leachate—the liquid that has passed through the waste—from escaping through the soil and contaminating the groundwater. There are two layers of clay (re-compacted and geo-synthetic); a layer of HDPE liner plastic that is 2.5 millimeters thick, which is above the standards required by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); a layer of geo-net plastic webbing and a filter fabric used to protect the leachate collection system; and layers of gravel and sand.

There are pipes running underneath made with reinforced high-density polyethylene. These are used to collect the leachate and transport it to nearby treatment facilities, where it undergoes processing until it is safe enough to be released into the environment.

Grass is used in the treatment of leachate water

Photo by MCWM Corp..
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There are, of course, other landfills where waste from other parts of the country, particularly Metro Manila, end up, but MWCM says only their facility employs such a sophisticated system that can be considered world-class. 

“Other landfills, they don’t use liners, because it costs more and they’re just looking more for income,” says Michael Siebeneiger, VP for Operations. “It is really a shame. Basically, it's not a landfill because they are not doing what we're doing. We're working on a European standard.” 

A garbage compactor runs through the waste in the landfill. Note the plastic lining on top of the soil

Photo by MCWM Corp..

History of Metro Clark Waste Management Corp.

After Republic Act 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Program, was enacted in 2000, open dumpsites—or a “disposal area wherein the solid wastes are indiscriminately thrown or disposed of without due planning and consideration for environmental and health standards”—became illegal. That paved the way for the establishment in 2002 of MWCM, which is a joint venture between the Clark Development Corporation and the German conglomerates BN Ingenieure GmbH and Heers & Brockstedt Umwelttechnik GmbH. 

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The idea was to set up an engineered landfill that was the first-of-its-kind in the country. The initial investment to build the landfill was $215 million or about P11 billion.

“(Before) RA 9003 was implemented, people would throw their garbage anywhere they wanted to throw it,” says Victoria Gaetos, EVP of MWCM. “(No one) really paid to dispose of their garbage properly. At the time, (waste disposal) wasn’t a very lucrative thing to get into. So it’s only now when they have become very strict in enforcement of the law that people realize that they have to throw their garbage into a sanitary, properly managed landfill.”

When MWCM was first set up, the agreement was for the company to receive and process the refuse only of Tarlac and the Clark Special Economic Zone. But it quickly became evident that it needed to take in more clients, and consequently more trash, for the facility to become sustainable and profitable. Eventually it was allowed to accept and process waste from other local government units in Central and Northern Luzon.

Today, Gaetos says the company’s clients include as many as 137 LGUs from all across Central Luzon, Pangasinan in Region 1, and all the way up in Tuba, La Trinidad, and Baguio in the Cordillera Administrative Region. The company also has over 100 industrial clients, and an additional 600 locators from Clark Freeport Zone and around 250 locators from the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA).

Trucks are weighed each time they enter and exit the facility

Photo by MCWM Corp..
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How the business works

As a landfill, MWCM’s business model is pretty straightforward: clients pay to dump their waste in its facility. When clients bring in their garbage using their own trucks, they pay only a disposal fee. For those who don’t have their own trucks, MWCM can pick up their waste for them, and they then pay a hauling fee on top of the disposal fee.  

The company charges by the ton if clients bring in their own trucks, but they charge by cubic meters if they have to do the hauling. 

“The cost of hauling is the same whether the bin is full or not,” Gaetos explains. “So for example if the 16-ton truck carries only about five tons, and you charge by the ton, then we lose in the hauling. So if we haul it, then we charge them by cubic meters.”

Distance also plays a factor in how much clients pay.

“For example, for a town like Rizal, Nueva Ecija (about 85 kilometers away from Capas), that’s around P780 per cubic meter. That includes the hauling, the free use of the bins, and the disposal fee.” Gaetos adds that the town can usually fill up a 16-ton truck once a week. 

MWCM has about 28 trucks of varying sizes, all maintained by a professionalized motor pool

Photo by MCWM Corp..
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Cabanatuan, meanwhile, which is a big city, produces about four tractor trailers of waste that MCWM needs to pick up every day. Depending on their needs, some clients need to have their waste hauled daily, while some only need it once or twice a week. The company then needs to manage its fleet so it can go out and haul waste at a pre-set schedule.

“Sometimes, clients fill up their bins earlier than scheduled and they call us to take it away,” Gaetos says. “We try to see if we can accommodate, because we sometimes have spare trucks, like if there are breakdowns and the like. If there aren’t any free trucks, we call other clients and ask if we can switch schedules.”

Gaetos, who has been with the company since 2017, says MWCM’s operations has expanded tremendously since its beginnings in the early 2000s. The facility is now accepting up to 3,500 tons of waste daily, although she says that they can manage up to 4,000 tons per day. The company has around 28 trucks of varying sizes, and there are a total of about 300 employees, over half of whom work in the fleet department—drivers, helpers, and site operators. They work in shifts, so operations continue pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Only 25 hectares of the facility's 70 useable hectares is currently being utlized so there's plenty of room to grow.

The copany isn't without its challenges. In 2017, a local government official ordered the closure of the access road where trucks pass to get to the facility. Despite pleas from the company, the official didn;t budge, and MWCM was forced to halt operation for a few weeks. The only solution was to build another access road, so the company met with the governor of Tarlac and the mayor of Capas and proposed building a new road. It was a significant expense, but one that the company needed to do to ensure its survival.

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Now, with such a steady stream of income—waste, in this case, seems to be an unlimited resource—MWCM is currently in a healthy state financially. Gaetos says that the company has been “very profitable” since 2017. But that wasn’t always the case. In the early days, when the priority was more about bringing in the tonnage rather than ensuring that they’ll actually be paid for, the company had to deal with clients who reneged on their obligations. The company has since learned its lesson.

“If you want to get paid, you don't lend to people who cannot pay,” Gaetos says. “Simple.”

Workers lay out HDPE lining in a new "cell," or landfill inside the compound

Photo by MCWM Corp..

Fortunately, collections isn’t such an issue these days. The executive says most of their clients don’t want their waste disposal process disrupted, particularly with the DENR becoming much more vigilant about compliance with environmental rules. 

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“If you are a local executive (and you have issues with waste management), mao-Ombudsman ka,” she says. “And if you are an industrial client and you have problems with disposing your waste, you might find your operations halted. So what clients are looking for is a stable and consistently performing landfill.”

Energy and expansion

As with all landfills, MWCM’s facility produces methane gas as the waste decomposes. But Siebeneiger says that what they are producing is not enough for commercial or practical use, so they are forced to just release it through controlled combustion. Waste to energy—or producing and harnessing useable heat, electricity or fuel from solid waste—is the next step in managing the country’s waste problem, but unless legislation is passed making it legal and safe it doesn’t look like this is going to become a reality anytime soon.

Only about 25 hectares of the facility's 70 useable hectares is currently being utilized, so there's plenty of room for expansion

Photo by MCWM.
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House Bill 7829 or the Waste Treatment Technology Act is pending in the Lower House, same with a Senate version. The bill seeks to amend Republic Act 8749 or the Clean Air Act of 1999, and aims to allow the use of any waste-toenergy technology, including incineration, as long as it does not produce poisonous or toxic fumes. Environmental groups are firmly against the bill.

“We can understand them and their position, but it really depends on who is going to undertake the project,” Gaetos says. “There are safeguards there actually.” 

According to the National Solid Waste Management Commission, there were 403 open and 108 uncontrolled dumpsites operating across the country as of 2018, while less than 15 percent of local government units had access to 118 sanitary landfills in 2016. The DENR has expressed hopes that more engineered sanitary landfills will be built before 2022 to address the growing problem of solid waste managementt in the country.

As for MWCM, the company is looking to expand its operations. In February this year, it had already announced a P300 million investment to add seven more hectares to its facility, which it hopes to complete this year. It also has plans to open a new facility outside of its main hub in Tarlac. This, the company vows, is yet another concrete step to address the country’s garbage problem towards a future that’s cleaner and safer.

Given its proof of concept in Sitio Kalangitan in Capas, that’s not such a farfetched promise.

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Paul John Caña
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