MANILA // Every morning a yellow van enters the slums of Payatas on the outskirts of the Philippines capital and picks up a dozen or so women, armed with their family's washing, ironing boards and irons. They are driven up a dusty road and deposited at an open air facility on the side of what was once the country's biggest refuse dump.
Here they take advantage of the free electricity generated from the methane gas collected at the dump to do their ironing. It is all part of a renewable energy programme started by the Quezon City council eight years ago after what has become known as the Payatas tragedy. On July 10, 2000, after days of torrential rain, more than 300 people living on the side of the dump were killed when an avalanche of trash buried their hovels.
For 30 years much of Manila's rubbish was dumped in Payatas. It was an unregulated eyesore and could be smelt miles away depending on which way the wind was blowing. Today, the new Payatas has become a model of efficiency and renewable energy where deadly methane gas from decades of rotting refuse is turned into electricity powering the dump's facilities, street lights around Payatas and a plastics-recycling plant.
The mayor of Quezon City, Sonny Belmonte, whose precinct covers Payatas, took a particular interest in the operations shortly after he assumed office in 2001. His first act was to close the site of the old dump and ordered all squatters to be relocated. The dump resembled a pyramid with its base covering 10 hectares and rising more than 30 metres. He then moved to collect the methane and turn it into energy that would benefit the poor residents of Payatas who make their living off the garbage.
Last year the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation described the dump site and its methane power plant as a "good example of sustainable waste management". The plant, which opened two years ago, is the first in the Philippines to be registered by the Clean Development Mechanism project under the Kyoto Protocol in solid-waste management. Nearby, a new rubbish site has grown - it covers 12 hectares - but this time under strict safety rules and regulations. Children under 14 have been barred from scavenging and the numbers allowed to pick over the 1,200 tonnes of waste delivered daily are limited.
At the site of the old dump, the slopes have been graded back making them gentler, grass and shrubs planted and black pipes sunk into the ground sucking out methane gas and piping it to the power station where it is turned into electricity. The plant is also earning the Philippines its first carbon credits for a waste-to-energy project under the Kyoto Protocol. Last year the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, suggested that washing machines be brought in so the women of Payatas could start a commercial laundry business taking advantage of the free electricity. As yet no washing machines have arrived.
Jane Tolentino, 43, a mother of four, is one of many women taking advantage of the free electricity to do her ironing. Once every two weeks she makes the trip to the ironing station and catches up on the local gossip. "I spend two to three hours doing the family ironing then go home." About 20 women a day use the facility for their ironing. Mrs Tolentino said she has managed to cut her family's electricity bill of 1,500 pesos (Dh120) a month by one-third.
"At least it's free and I don't mind the travel. It's not far anyway," she said. Louie Sabater, an engineer with the Payatas Operations Group, said the plant has a generating capacity of 200 kilowatts a day, "enough to light all the street lights in Payatas, a community of some 3,500 families, about 21,500 people, a small factory where waste plastic is recycled and the dump site". He said it is envisaged that eventually the plant will produce 500kW of electricity a day.
"When we reach that stage we intend to sell the excess power to the grid and the people of Payatas will be able to get electricity at a much cheaper rate than which is normally charged - at least that is our objective." The power plant was set up two years ago by Pangaea Green Energy as an environmental project to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Mr Sabater, the plant last year earned 30,000 carbon credits worth around 30 million pesos.
For many environmentalists the Payatas plant is being seen as a model of what can be done in terms of alternative energy sources, especially in a country such as the Philippines, which has a serious shortage of electricity and not been helped by a severe drought.