Waste-to-Energy in Island Communities: A VOPO Initiative

Since plastic was invented in the late 19th century we have created about 9.2 billion tons of this stuff (Geyer et al., 2017). Of which, about 9 percent has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent has been accumulating in nature and landfills (Geyer et al., 2017). Now we must deal with it.

The toothpaste is out of the tube and it isn’t going back in!

Because of its material properties, plastic does not biodegrade. It breaks down into smaller pieces, creating microplastics (Gross, 2015). These tiny pieces of plastic, often invisible to the human eye, have been found everywhere. From the faraway icecaps of the Artic to the deepest parts of the ocean floor.

Plastic has been demonized by important environmental campaigns, however, we have created a society that depends on it. It is used for all sorts of things, from medical heart devices to jet planes, from helmets to airbags. Yet the majority of plastic products have a much shorter working life. More than 40 percent of plastic products are used just once then tossed (Geyer, 2017).

Where is it all coming from?

The majority of ocean plastic waste comes from coastal regions in Asia. In 2015, Engineering professor Jenna Jambeck asserted in the journal Science that over 80 percent of the total ocean plastic waste actually comes from land-based sources (rivers, land and coastlines). Of this, more than half derives from only 5 countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Thailand (Jambeck et al., 2015). These countries have succeeded at achieving significant economic growth in recent years and are at a stage where consumer demand for safe and disposable products have surpassed the availability of local waste management infrastructure (Mckindey, 2016). Of the land-based leakage, the 2016 McKinsey report found that 75 percent comes from uncollected waste, while the remaining 25 percent leaks from within the waste-management system itself. Ocean plastic waste is creating a catastrophic impact on ecosystems, living organisms, human health and economies (Chen et al., 2017; Lebreton et al., 2017 & Jambeck et al., 2015).. Waste technology, systems and education programs are needed. Fast. Before we drown ourselves in all the plastic.

 Source: World Economic Forum

Source: World Economic Forum

Calculating how much plastic waste ends up in the oceans is very difficult. Jambeck shocked the world when she estimated that between 5 to 14 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans every year. All this synthetic waste is dumped on land, beaches and in rivers, finding its way to the oceans. So, we ask, how long will it take for all this plastic waste to biodegrade in the oceans? Anywhere between 450 years to forever (Kubowicz, 2017). We don’t know.

Managing plastic in remote island communities.

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Island communities across Asia Pacific face significant waste management challenges driven by the tyranny of distance and economies of scale (Becker, 2012). Based on VOPO’s work across Asia Pacific, it was identified that these communities are becoming culturally dependent on products packaged in plastic. Examples include: rice, snacks, coffee, creamer, detergent and shampoo, etc. However, these populations generally lack the infrastructure, cultural education and knowledge to manage the consequences of this shift. Hence, the need to prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans.

Much of the growth in coastal areas of Asia is said to occur outside the formal planning process, and nearly a third of the urban population in developing countries live in settlements lacking city services, including solid-waste disposal (Tibbetts, 2015; International Federation of Surveyors, 2010).

There are three determinants of a country’s land-based contribution to ocean plastic waste (Jambeck et al., 2015). First, a nation’s population density within 50 kilometers of the coast For example, about 74 percent of Indonesia’s population and 83 percent of the Philippine’s population live in island coastal regions (Tibbetts, 2015). The second determinant is the amount of waste generated per capita, and the plastic composition of it. In the Solomon Islands 14 percent of the total waste generated per person is plastic (VOPO, 2018). The third determinant is how much of the country’s waste is mismanaged. The further away from cities, the higher the likelihood is of waste to be mismanaged. It was estimated that Indonesia has the second highest percentage of mismanaged plastic waste in the world, contributing between 0.48 to 1.29 million tons per year of ocean plastic waste (Jambeck et al., 2015).

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Seeking solutions.

A lot of people are waiting for a new, sexy solution that will solve the ocean plastic waste debacle. An innovative recycling technology or biodegradable plastic that will disrupt the industry and put a stop to the ocean Armageddon. While we wait, the mountain piles.

Another, less glamorous option, proven to work in the world’s cleanest countries, is to collect it all and treat it. Waste-to-Energy is an effective technique to treat huge amounts of unrecyclable municipal solid waste as an alternative to landfills. For example, around 80% of Japan’s solid municipal waste is treated using WtE technology, whereas in Sweden is 49%. Waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW) is the process of generating energy in the form of heat and/or electricity from the primary treatment of waste. This project will seek to use Waste-to-Energy Microplants at a community-level to boil water for safe drinking water.

Waste to Safe Drinking Water.

The WtE’s energy output will be heat. This heat is used to boil water for safe drinking for the host community. The Microplant will have a heat exchanger that uses heat from the hot gas exhaust and transfers it to the body of water. Fixing two bugs with one line of code.

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A piece of the PUZZLE.

It is important to point out that WtE is key piece to the ocean plastic puzzle. A suite of solutions are required to eradicate the problem. Some including, but not limited to:

  • Product bans.
  • Container deposit schemes.
  • Constant delivery of behaviour changing education programs.
  • Improved labelling of plastic type in products.
  • Increase investment in materials recycling facilities.
  • Growth in the plastic recycling infrastructure and industry.
  • Capacity-building and training of plastic recycling technology.
  • Improved efficiency of waste collection and transport systems.
  • Support waste-pickers.
  • Product industry fees.
  • Enforcement and legal frameworks (fines, criminal penalties).
  • Low-value-plastic subsidy.

The problem is that this requires MONEY and TIME. Mckinsey 2016 modelled 21 solutions independent to one another based on ease of implementation and plastic leakage-reduction potential. The best initiatives are circled below:  

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VOPO works in waste management and ocean plastic waste across Asia Pacific. With a team of global experts, we have devised a master plan that will help island communities manage their plastic waste. This includes three elements: Technology, System and Education. On December 2018 we will conduct a research expedition to study whether WtE Microplants is a viable solution to prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the Mentawai Islands.

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What does the master plan entail?

Technology: Waste-to-Energy Microplants

Waste-to-Energy is an effective technology to treat plastic waste (Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, 1995; McKinsey, 2016; Tibbetts, 2015; Gear et al., 2018; Sun, 2017; Ramos & Rouboa, 2017; Themelis, 2009) and thereby, prevent ocean plastic pollution. Currently, it is used to treat municipal solid waste at a large-scale using the traditional industrial model. Waste to Energy (WTE), is a technology that converts non-recyclable waste into usable forms of energy including heat, fuels and electricity. WTE can occur through a number of processes such as incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery. 

The energy output from the microplant will be used to create safe drinking water for the host community. Low-pressure steam and waste heat are used synergistically in order to treat collected rainwater. The net effect is improved thermal efficiency for the complex and a source of drinking water.

System: Waste Collection and Transportation

Like new foods to a toddler, the technology around waste management needs to be introduced gradually. Key collection points, storage systems and transport routes will be mapped using GIS software and drone imagery. Available shipping movement will be analyzed to develop routes and schedules.

Education: Behavior Changing & Culturally Engaging

Using traditional Mentawai knowledge and modern surf culture we have developed a fun and engaging environmental program that illustrates the importance of waste management for the protection of their world. The participants become custodians of their natural environment, activaly seeking its protection.


What are the project Milestones?

2018: Mentawai Expedition
Successfully completed a research expedition to collect data, engage with the community, meet with the local government and seek out opportunities/challenges to reduce ocean plastic waste in the Mentawai Islands by 80 percent in 2 years.

2018: Feasibility Study
VOPO needs to investigate whether the waste management technology was indeed an effective method to treat plastic waste and will have a positive impact on the community. By performing a broad-scoped feasibility study, covering areas including engineering, psychology and recycling.

2019: Model Testing
Deployment of the technology in the Mentawai to test capacity, operations and QC/QA.

2019: Road to a Clean Mentawai
After deployment of pilot technology, we will begin by collecting and treating municipal solid waste across identified communities.

2019: Mentawai Scale-up
Once the technology has been tested and potential operational issues fixed we will scale it up across all Mentawai islands.

Join the Research Expedition!

If this project is of interest, we invite you to support it through its various stages by joining VOPO’s Mentawai wilderness impact expeditions.


1 Dec - 10 Dec, 2018

Join us for a wilderness impact expedition where you will be intimately connected to Mentawai ancient wisdom and culture whilst conducting a feaisbility for a technology to prevent plastic from entering the oceans. 

Author: Erik Sumarkho

Editor: Louise Mellis

Photojournalist: Jax Oliver


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