In Reimagining Phuket I wrote that COVID-19 has given the island an opportunity to reinvent itself and build a greener future by introducing sustainable industries to the economy so that it is not solely dependent on mass tourism and real estate.
The question is where to begin? One place to start is the waste management infrastructure. To say that Phuket has a trash problem is an understatement. Before the pandemic struck it was producing 700 to 1,000 tonnes of waste per day. Most of this ends up in a landfill or being incinerated. However, four out of five of Phuket’s landfills are already full, and the two good incinerators only have a combined capacity of about 700 tonnes per day. There is a third broken incinerator, but it would cost B530 million to repair. However, from an environmental and health perspective burning and burying are not the best options, as both release greenhouse gases and toxins, which can lead to climate change, asthma, heart disease and cancer.
So what can we do? Meet Martin Hauke, a composting expert, originally from Germany, he has been a resident of Phuket since 2007. He is the inventor of the Mobile Aerated Floor (MAF) composting system, which comprises several pipes with holes in them that are arranged on the ground and connected to a blower. The pipes are covered in organic waste and then pumped full of air which promotes the growth of bacteria that break it down over eight weeks. What is left is nutrient-rich, high-quality compost that can be sold to farmers and gardeners.
Since 50-60% of municipal waste is organic, we could eliminate Phuket’s trash problem in an eco-friendly way, and at an estimated cost of B275mn, it costs a fraction of what it would to repair the incinerator. Combine it with a curbside recycling program and we could eliminate 80% to 90% of Phuket’s waste. Hauke’s system has also proven itself with over 30 projects throughout Germany and Australia.
These are some benefits of industrial composting:
1. A cleaner island - It would mean no more bins and bags with trash spilling out on the ground or animals knocking them over while looking for food, less odour from wet garbage, and fewer rats and other pests.
2. Jobs - Hauke estimates that between 100 to 200 new jobs to manage the system, collect and transport waste and make compost could be created. We can also combine the composting system with a recycling center and hazardous waste disposal to make a complete waste management facility.
3. Lower waste management costs - Composting costs a fraction of the B530mn to fix the incinerator, and it would pay for itself within 10 to 15 years by selling the compost. Hauke could set up a test site for a reasonable B1.5mn for a year and if approved we can slowly scale it up spreading the costs of building the facilities over several years.
4. Cleaner ocean and beaches - Bins that aren’t overflowing means less trash gets blown into the ocean, which means less plastic washing up on beaches. A UK study says 80% of ocean plastic comes from land. Using organic compost means that farmers no longer need to rely on chemical fertilizers and can use fewer pesticides, so they don’t end up in the ocean causing algae and sea urchin blooms.
5. Healthier food and higher profits - Using organic compost instead of chemical fertilizers leads to more microbes in the soil. This increases the farmer’s yield and produces food with more nutrients at a lower cost since farmers no longer need to buy fertilizer. It would also reduce pesticide use since healthier plants require less protection. Thailand is the fourth highest pesticide user in the world and the maximum residual levels are often over what are considered healthy levels.
6. Cleaner air - By composting we could not only eliminate toxins being released from incinerators, but we could also stop the burning of organic waste mixed with plastic that is so common around the island.
7. It fights climate change - Compost lowers greenhouse emissions in several ways. First, it eliminates organic waste from landfills which reduces methane leakage, which is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Second, it eliminates fertilizers, which release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than CO2. Finally, healthy soil means a better mycelial network (fungal root system) which handles 50 to 70% of the CO2 that trees and plants sequester.
8. Fewer droughts - Compost can hold 20 times its weight in water. This means that the soil absorbs more, which fills underground aquifers, ponds and lakes. Since some rain comes from these sources, compost can improve the water cycle.
9. It teaches science - Composting is an opportunity to teach about how microbes break down organic waste and turn it into something useful. This can reconnect people to an important natural process.
10. Economic benefits - Besides providing jobs, composting means a cleaner island with better infrastructure which could lead to more visitors and investors.
In the future soil could even power Phuket. The startup Bioo uses microbes to produce clean electricity which solves the pollution and intermittency problems that other renewables have.
From a cost-benefits perspective industrial composting is one of the best things we can do to make our island home cleaner, more sustainable, and livable and it will improve the economy while eliminating the trash problem.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.