Skip to content Skip to footer

Garbage In, Garbage Out: Struggling Haiti Signs Costly Private Deal

The Haitian government risks signing the state and the taxpayers up for a very costly deal.

A garbage truck passing in Haiti. (Photo: hoyasmeg)

Truthout doesn’t take corporate funding – that’s how we’re able to confront the forces of greed and regression, with no strings attached. Instead, we need your support: make a donation today by clicking here.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – “Garbage in, garbage out,” or GIGO, is a computer science term meaning that if the original data is erroneous, even the most sophisticated computer program will produce erroneous results. Perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, Haitian officials, the Haitian people and Haiti’s garbage are caught in the middle of a potentially expensive and risky GIGO scenario.

A foreign company that hopes to set up a trash-to-electricity incinerator in Haiti has misled the Haitian public, and perhaps Haitian authorities, with what appear to be false claims and deliberate attempts to avoid answering key questions raised in a January 22 article by the investigative journalism partnership Haiti Grassroots Watch.

In a text sent to Haiti’s daily Le Nouvelliste and published on February 8 with the title “Le projet Phoenix précise,” (“The Phoenix Project Offers Precision”) the Pittsburgh-based International Electric Power (IEP) company made claims that largely obscure, rather than clarify, its Phoenix Project and the criticisms and risks which surround it. [The text – as relayed by Le Nouvelliste – is available here, in French.]

What is the Phoenix Project?

The Phoenix Project is a planned public-private company that would collect garbage from the capital region and then burn it to allegedly provide 30 megawatts (MW) of electricity available for sale to Haiti’s state electricity company. The initial cost of the venture is about US$250 million, according to IEP, which is seeking a loan from the US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Once built – by a Spanish company previously chosen by IEP, rather than via an open bidding process – the capital’s garbage would be picked up by public and private garbage collection entities and brought to the plant, sorted[1] and then relevant portions burned.

The Haitian government would own 10 percent of the eventual company, and would receive 50 percent of the after-tax profits (presumably once the US$250 million loan has been paid off), according to IEP. Boucard Waste Management and other Haitian private sector players are part of the deal.

Some members of the Haitian government support the project. [However, a high-level government official involved with solid waste disposal rejected the project. See this report.] IEP officials told HGW that authorities have already signed two memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that commit to making two payments to the new company for 30 years: one, required, would be a sum to operate the plant, and another, optional, for any electricity purchased. The state would also donate land north of Port-au-Prince. HGW was denied its request to see the MOUs, but Haiti’s Minister Delegate for Energy Security, René Jean Jumeau, confirmed that the project “is part of our Action Plan for the Development of Electricity.”

“We aim to build factories that will turn trash into energy all over the country,” he told HGW on October 10 2012.

The five-year-old IEP has never built or operated a “waste-to-energy” (WtE) plant, and according to the company website, the principal staff members do not have direct experience with the business either. (Nevertheless, in the February 8 text, IEP claimed its team has “proven expertise in the collection of solid waste and its transformation into electricity.”)

The firm slated to build the plant – Ros Roca of Spain – does have expertise. It built a giant WtE combustion plant in Mallorca, Spain. Interestingly, it turns out the Ros Roca plant is too big. Households on the island of Mallorca do not produce enough garbage. Therefore, the plant’s owners, who do not include Ros Roca, are now importing 100,000 tons of garbage per year from all over Europe to make up for the shortfall, despite the strong opposition of some local officials and several citizens groups.

In Haiti and abroad – with documents, meetings, junkets to Mallorca for government officials, public relations campaigns and interviews – IEP has promoted the Phoenix Project as the answer to both the capital’s garbage problems and the country’s need for more electricity. The company also claims that the combustion plant will not cause any environmental or health dangers, that it will eventually eliminate the practice of open-air burning of garbage as well as the problem of blocking drainage canals,” and will create 1,800 “high-quality, skilled jobs” and also “at least 10,000 jobs,” presumably related to garbage collection. (The February 8 text lowers the numbers, claiming 1,600 “well-paying” jobs.)

Disturbing discoveries, glaring contradictions

In its two-month investigation, Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) discovered a number of contradictions between IEP’s various claims and the reality on the ground in Haiti and in similar, low-income countries.

Based on the evidence collected, the journalists concluded that Haiti’s “municipal solid waste,” or “MSW,” would likely not be able to produce 30 MW of electricity. Journalists also raised questions about the health and environmental risks associated with incineration or combustion plants. Finally, journalists noted that the project would commit the government and people of Haiti to 30 years of payments to a company mostly controlled by profit-seeking investors.

HGW also discovered that the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), headed by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive (2010 and 2011), twice rejected the project. Two staffers at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) who had seen the Phoenix proposal and were familiar with the IHRC both confirmed the rejections. One of them told HGW: “both the World Bank and the IDB studied the project and both of them rejected it because it would be terrible for Haiti.” [For more, see Phoenix Project… Born Again?]

1 – Haiti’s waste likely not suited for a combustion plant

On its website and in its February 8 text, IEP claims that Haiti’s MSW has the “caloric value” necessary to produce electricity. HGW’s research found this to be unlikely.

A recent (2010) study by the US government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on the various WtE technologies that would most appropriate for Haiti’s garbage recommended bio-digestion, not combustion.

NREL noted that Haiti’s garbage “is estimated to contain between 65% and 75% organics… Food waste typically does not make a good fuel or feedstock for combustion or gasification systems. This is because the waste has high moisture content.”

In its February 8 text, IEP said that these figures – “between 65% and 75% organics” – were out of date. The company repeated its claim that “the composition and caloric value [of the capital’s MSW] exceed what is necessary for producing 30 MW, even in rainy season,” and also implied to readers that both the NREL and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) agreed.

Contacted in February, neither NREL nor the UN program would confirm the claim. Both said they are in the process of producing reports for the Haitian government, which are not yet complete.

IEP has also claimed that its own research confirms Haiti’s garbage would produce the 30 MW. However, as with other issues related to the project, there is little transparency surrounding the alleged study, which was conducted by the very firms who stand to benefit if the project is funded.

HGW decided to do its own research and discovered that a very recent study (2012) from the World Bank, “What a Waste – A Global Review of Waste Management” [PDF], says that for “low income countries,” combustion of waste to produce electricity is “not common” and “generally not successful because of high capital, technical, and operation cost, high moisture content in the waste and high percentage of inerts.”

Chart from 2012 World Bank report showing that in “low income
countries,” about 64 % of municipal solid waste is organic.
Source : What a Waste report

Chart from 2012 World Bank report showing that in the year 2025, in “low income countries,”
about 62 % of municipal solid waste will be organic. Source : What a Waste report

The study noted that low-income countries typically have garbage that is about 64 percent organic, a figure only slightly lower than the 65 to 75 percent numbers in 2010 NREL report.

2 – Environmental Risks

In its February 8 text, IEP sniped that anyone raising questions about the risks associated with incineration have an “a biased opinion.”

Incineration or combustion plants today are clearly cleaner than in the past, but only if expensive technology is used and only if they are continually subjected to rigorous and expensive monitoring. The HGW article highlighted some of the risks associated with incineration and speculated that a government which fails to enforce its most simple, low-tech environmental regulations – like one banning tree-cutting or another banning the use of Styrofoam food containers – would not be able to enforce the kinds of rules countries like Denmark and Germany uphold.

IEP also claimed that “industrial incineration is more and more popular in European Union countries.”

While it is true that there are hundreds of WtE combustion plants in Europe, as well as in the US, it is not true that they are becoming “more and more popular” there. In 2007, the European Parliament voted to prioritize recycling over incineration, and in 2011, the European Commission published a “Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe” which says that by 2020, there should be no incineration of any garbage that could be turned into compost or recycled.

Finally, IEP said that its project would be cleaner than the open-air garbage burning common across Haiti. While that might be true, there are many other ways to stop open-air burning, including: passing and enforcing a law and/or developing a comprehensive waste management plan that includes composting and/or biodigestion and/or landfills.

Chart from 2012 World Bank report showing that incineration is the next-to-last
choice for dealing with municipal solid waste. Source : What a Waste report

There are many other environmental considerations that need to be studied before approving or rejecting a WtE combustion plant, including the fact that for many materials, burning produces more greenhouse gas emissions than would recycling.

3 – Costs

One of the risks raised by HGW journalists is the financial commitment entailed. In its February 8 text, IEP used an economic argument of its own, claiming that the Phoenix Project would produce “cheap energy.”

A recent (2010) report from the US Department of Energy says just the opposite.

Studying the “capital costs” and “operating costs” for various electricity-generation plants or methods, including what it calls “MSW plants” (garbage combustion plants), wind farms, solar farms, and biodigestion, the “Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generation” states that, contrary to IEP’s claims, MSW plants one of the most expensive installations to build and operate when compared with other technologies.

Building a 50 MW plant, like the Phoenix Project but a little larger, would cost US$8,232 (2010 dollars) for each kilowatt (kW) of capacity, with fixed operating costs at US$376 (2010 dollars) per kW.

In stark contrast, a 50 MW “bubbling fluidized bed” biomass installation would cost US$4,755 (2010 dollars) for each kW of capacity, and have fixed operating costs of about $100 (2010 dollars) per kW.

Finally, a 150 MW solar photovoltaic installation would cost US$4,755 (2010 dollars) per kW to set up and have only about US$17 (2010 dollars) of fixed operating costs per kW.

GIGO and Haiti’s garbage

HGW cannot claim complete expertise in the area of trash-to-energy technologies. But the GIGO axiom clearly applies to the Phoenix project. With incomplete and erroneous data, the Haitian state and the Haitian people are at risk of making a costly error.

The studies cited above prove, irrefutably, that the Phoenix Project is certainly not the only “solution” to the country’s garbage and energy challenges. It is, in fact, probably the most risk-laden and expensive choice. For countries like Haiti, the World Bank and others usually recommend recycling and “recovery” via composting or via biodigestion, which produces both energy (methane that can be burned) and “soil amendment” (nutrients that can be added to the soil).

The precedent being set in Mallorca offers another reason for pause. Perhaps the Phoenix Project plant is being built with foreign garbage in mind? Haiti already had a close call with imported trash from IEP’s home state, Pennsylvania.

In 1988, the Khian Sea barge anchored off Gonaives and unloaded some 4,000 tons of its 15,000-ton toxic cargo: ash from a City of Philadelphia incinerator. Ten years of tireless advocacy by citizens groups and courageous reporting from Radio Haïti Inter journalists finally succeeded in forcing the city of Philadelphia and its contractors to reload its toxic cargo. The Khian Sea captain dumped the rest of the ash in the middle of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. [See these reports: IPS and Counterpunch]

Without a complete understanding of all the facts, the data, the costs and the risks surrounding various methods for dealing with its municipal solid waste and its energy challenges, the Haitian government risks signing the state and the taxpayers up for a very costly deal. Government authorities and the agencies advising it need to put all their cards on the table, reveal all possible conflicts of interest in the project, and the NREL and UNEP need to publish their results sooner rather than later.

Briefly, we wanted to update you on where Truthout stands this month.

To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.

To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.

We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.

We’ve launched a campaign to raise $44,000 in the next 7 days. Please consider making a donation today.