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Japan seeks to expand regional WtE influence

Japan has long made use of extensive use of waste-to-energy (WtE) plants in dealing with its municipal waste. As a result, the country has built extensive local expertise for the design, building, equipping and maintenance of waste plants. Now, the Japanese government is working in partnership with these companies to extend the use of WtE to other countries across South East Asia. According to a report in the Nikkei last month, the Japanese Environment Ministry is seeking to create public-private partnerships with ten cities across the region by 2023.

Countries being targeted are on the lower income level of the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China is not on the list, although the drivers for waste management are much the same as in China’s eastern cities. Other Asian cities such as Jakarta, Manila, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are experiencing rapid growth in population and income levels, while still relying on outdated and inadequate means of dealing with waste. This often involves dumping on land or in seas/rivers, which is at best poorly-regulated. Managed landfill, where it exists, is often not adequate in terms of capacity or environmental control, and there is often little political will or geographic scope to expand it.

A related imperative is the controversy over plastic waste. Following China’s import ban in 2018, other developing countries have been accepting plastic and other waste from developed countries, which they are even less capable of dealing with than China in a manner acceptable to the environmental standards of the West. We’ve all seen the pictures. It’s a fair point to say that it would be best all round if developed countries stopped exporting waste at all and sought to boost their domestic recycling capacity instead. That’s the direction things are moving, but right now, we are where we are.

Promotion of WtE across Asia therefore makes sense on a number of levels. It’s naturally good business for Japanese companies, and promises a relatively quick fix for cities seeking to dispose of waste – both domestic and imported – in a more responsible manner. It hardly need be said that there are many who will point out the drawbacks of WtE, but such a plan has form. It’s what is happening in most of China’s cities right now, the wealthy states of Hong Kong and Singapore are following suit, and it’s what Japan has been doing for decades.

What’s the current state of play across South East Asia? The AcuComm database lists around 23 WtE plant investments in the three countries mentioned above (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam). Most are in various stages of planning, with only a handful being under construction. There are six active projects in Indonesia, of which five are located in and around Jakarta. The sixth is in Jambi City. Most are at an early stage and the only identified overseas company involved is Babcock & Wilcox Volund, which was selected as equipment supplier for a proposed plant in Jakarta in 2017.

There are eight projects in the Philippines, spread across the country. All are at the planning stage. The Japan International Cooperation Agency is involved with one project, a 12 MW facility in Davao. This is being developed in collaboration with the Tokyo-based EX Research Institute and Nippon Steel & Sumikin Engineering. Construction is due to begin by the end of 2019, with commissioning due in 2023. Japan already has competition in the Philippines; Covanta and China Everbright are also actively pursuing projects in the country.

There are around nine projects in Vietnam, although there appears not to be any major Japanese involvement as yet. One project is operational, a 7.5 MW plant in Can Tho, southern Vietnam, is already operational; it was constructed by China Everbright. The Finnish company, Watrec, is involved with a couple of proposed sites in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but these are at an earlier stage of development.

As yet, therefore, Japanese companies are not to the fore in the region. There are many potential pitfalls in all three countries, regarding funding, bureaucracy and sustainability of WtE plants, and as highlighted above, there are at present few concrete development proposals. The Japanese government and industry have clearly decided the region is worth investing time and attention in, but they already face competition from non-Japanese suppliers.

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