Time ticking for Payatas landfill

Pia Ranada

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A new landfill could quadruple Quezon City's expenses on garbage collection

LANDFILL. The QC government's contract for the Payatas landfill ends in June 30, 2014. All photos by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The repository of all the garbage generated by Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila, can no longer be used after June 30, 2014.

In fact, the contract of the city with the private entity that controls and develops the Payatas landfill expired last December 2013, according to Andrea Po of the QC Environment Protection and Waste Management Department (EPWMD). But with the blessing of Mayor Herbert Bautista, it was extended for another 6 months.

Now there are less than 4 months left for the landfill which now holds more than 1.3 million tons of trash.

The city government is rushing to find a new place to dump the more than 438,000 tons of garbage the city generates every year. That’s around 146,000 dump trucks.  

“Even before the 3-year contract started, we already began looking for another disposal facility because we know that the capacity of land is limited,” Po told Rappler.

Mounds of garbage must maintain a 23-degree slope. Anything steeper will mean landslides and other safety hazards.

Existing landfills are being considered but all of them are outside the city. The Rodriguez landfill in Montalban for example, is the one being used by other cities like Manila. There is also the Clark landfill in Pampanga. 

So far, the QC government has been unable to find a nearby site, something that worries Po because distance means money. The farther the landfill, the more the city will have to spend on garbage collection.

“If it’s far, that’s additional hauling cost on our part. More gas, more trucks, more haulers, more people will be needed.”

Money in trash

The government already spends around P998 million a year on garbage. Of that, P776 million is spent on collection – paying 6 contractors to pick up all the city’s garbage and bring them to the Payatas landfill. P222 million goes to paying for the landfill itself which is run by IPM Environmental Services Inc, another private contractor. In 2012,it was the Metro Manila city that spent the most on “environmental or sanitary services,” according to the Commission on Audit.

If QC moves operations to the Montalban landfill, garbage expenses could quadruple. And that’s assuming the amount of garbage generated by the city will remain the same.

With its growing population and increasing number of commercial and residential developments, Po sees the 1,200 tons of garbage ending up in the landfill daily reaching 2,000 tons daily in a few years.

Will QC residents carry the burden? 

Po says the EPWMD is still computing the additional cost of using a landfill outside the city. Only when they have the exact figure can they determine the next steps. 

PICKING THROUGH TRASH. Only waste pickers from an accredited cooperative are allowed to search through the garbage in the Payatas landfill

The garbage expenses are currently being paid for by taxpayer’s money. Only business establishments have to pay an additional fee. But only last December 2013, the QC government issued an ordinance requiring residents to pay a garbage collection fee ranging from P100 to P500 a year depending on the land area occupied by the resident’s house.

The ordinance was blocked by the Supreme Court in February. 

New, old garbage management

The Payatas landfill being used today is not the same dumpsite made infamous by photos of child garbage pickers and the 2000 landslide that killed around 300 people. 

That old dumpsite, established in the 1970s and used until 2010, overlooks the new landfill. 

The old dumpsite looks nothing like the almost iconic oozing mountain of rubbish it used to be. Grass, hedges and young trees now grow over the soil covering the trash. It now looks more like a regular mountain watching over nearby houses and the La Mesa dam area. The only clue to its past are plastic bags poking out of the soil.

Waste pickers can still be found searching through the heaps of trash, but now only pickers aged 14 years old and above from an accredited cooperative can enter the site. 

Before the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (Republic Act 9003), Payatas was only a dumpsite, meaning dump trucks would continuously dump trash and record what was being deposited. 

But the law mandated that all dumpsites be closed and rehabilitated. Dumping could only be done in “sanitary” landfills which have a stricter system of managing waste.

These kinds of landfills make use of liners which are gigantic tarps spread over the landfill before garbage is unloaded. The tarps keep leachate (harmful substances from garbage) from seeping into the ground and reaching ground water. 

The leachate is then treated in a facility within the landfill. 

SITE OF A TRAGEDY. The area where the deadly Payatas landslide happened in 2000 was covered by soil, grass and trees like the rest of the old dumpsite

Large tubes can be found emerging like giant worms from both the old dumpsite and the landfill. These tubes extract the methane gas from the garbage and bring them to the bio-gas plant also within the Payatas compound. The methane is used to generate electricity which is sold to Meralco and supplies to the grid.

The city government gets 5% of the plant’s earnings. Po said that since the start of the plant’s operations in March 2013, it has remitted around P700,000 to QC Hall.

Payatas Operations Group engineer Louie Sabater still thinks the landfill has its life ahead of it.

“We’re working out another extension. It depends on the site if it still has a capacity to accept garbage. Based on some studies we commissioned, it has 5 years more but there are things that have to be done, like expansion of the landfill or ways to compact the garbage to extend its life span. We’ll see if we can do those things,” he told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.

He also said the standard minimum slope of 23 degrees is “too conservative.”

“The mountain of garbage can go as steep as 45 degrees without any safety issues.” – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.