ADB’s “just transition” harming waste pickers, environment

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is increasingly promoting waste-to-energy (WtE) projects in its energy and urban development portfolios as a way to achieve low-carbon economies and sustainable cities. However, according to GAIA Asia Pacific, this approach will have negative consequences for the environment and informal workers in the waste sector in the region. They are likely to be the hardest hit by the Bank’s preference for WtE incinerators as a waste and climate solution.

After months of civil society campaigning on the environmental and social risks of WtE, ADB has  approved its Energy Policy aimed at supporting low-carbon transition in the region still identifying WtE as a priority investment but emphasizing that  priority goes to reducing waste generation, then exploiting the options for reusing and recycling materials, then using waste to recover energy or usable materials and securing livelihoods . However, ADB approved a 20 million USD loan for a WtE project in Binh Duong Province, Vietnam without clearly following the order of priority. This is very disappointing because ADB’s previous 100 million loan WtE project in Can Tho (Vietnam) has failed to comply with its safeguards policy, particularly on dioxins monitoring — a highly toxic substance acknowledged by the Stockholm Convention and the World Health Organization (WHO).  WtE incinerators also figure as replacement fuel in ADB’s Energy Transition Mechanism (ETM) for repurposing of early-retired coal-fired power plants. 

WtE incinerators displace waste pickers that provide important roles in the segregation, collection, transport, storage, and recycling of waste. WtE plants are designed to operate and burn resources for at least 20 years. They are highly dependent on dry, mostly recyclables, especially plastic — which is derived from fossil fuel.  They rely on income from selling recyclable and as a result divert waste from landfills causing environmental pollution and methane emissions. “In some cases, the establishment of WtE incinerators can also lead to the displacement of waste pickers from their homes and communities, exacerbating their already precarious economic situation,” said Yobel Novian Putra, GAIA Asia Pacific’s Clean and Climate Energy Campaigner.  

The ADB must prioritize sustainable waste management solutions such as composting, recycling, and waste reduction programs. These solutions not only reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators, but they also create local job opportunities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, prioritizing sustainable solutions empowers communities to manage their waste and supports the informal waste sector, creating a more equitable and just transition.

“Financing for WtE incinerators works against waste pickers. ADB must recognize the rights of waste pickers including their  historical, social, and economic contributions they provide to society. To date, ADB’s WtE incinerator and waste management projects have not considered the impacts of their interventions on waste pickers’ livelihoods,” said Kabir Arora, National Coordinator of the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers. “Instead, they must support communities’ efforts towards recognition of waste pickers and a full range of programs to ensure that interventions are fair for waste pickers. 

AIW stressed that ADB’s just transition program must emphasize supporting waste pickers and other workers who are most vulnerable to occupation disruption from waste management investments and climate change. It must build and improve upon systems that waste pickers have already established while guaranteeing, better and decent work, social protection, more training opportunities, appropriate technology transfer, support for infrastructure and organizing of workers, and greater job security for workers at all stages of the waste sector. Arora further added that waste pickers groups must be part of the design, monitoring, and evaluation of projects. 

Putra stressed, “WtE incinerators are not a solution to the pressing issues of waste and energy. They release nearly 1.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere for every tonne of waste burnt. In many studies, an incinerator emits more greenhouse gas than a coal-fired power plant.”

These emissions also pose serious health risks to nearby communities, emitting harmful pollutants such as dioxins, furans, and heavy metals, which can cause respiratory problems, cancer, and developmental disorders. Moreover, the toxic ash and other waste products generated by such facilities pose a significant challenge for safe disposal.

Investing in WtE incinerators comes at a significant financial cost, increasing waste management expenses, and posing a significant financial risk to cities and municipalities. Taxpayers bear the burden of these costs through false subsidies taken from national and local government budgets to sustain the operation of incinerators for 20-25 years.

Further, Deputy Director of GAIA Asia Pacific Mayang Azurin, argued for the urgent need to redirect funding towards sustainable solutions. “Continued financing of WtE incinerators, carbon storage, and other false solutions is not the path to  decarbonization and Asia’s recovery and energy transition,” she said. “There is no time to waste. It is urgent that we prioritize the health of our planet and communities over corporate interests.”

GAIA AP urges ADB to reaffirm its commitment to sustainable development and shift funding towards proven zero waste solutions. GAIA calls ADB to cease funding harmful waste-to-energy incinerators and prioritize sustainable waste management solutions that empower communities and protect the health of the environment  and communities.


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