The Indonesia government’s decision to categorise the palm oil industry’s solid waste as non-hazardous has triggered environmental concerns. The industry uses huge volumes of a powdered clay called bleaching earth to refine the clarity of palm oil and remove any odours. After the refining process, the spent bleaching earth, or SBE, retains some amount of residual oil — as high as 40% — and must be disposed of carefully to prevent it leaching into the soil or water table, or catching fire.

As such, since 2014 SBE has been categorised as hazardous waste, with clearly defined protocols for treating and disposing of it. This past February, however, the government declared that SBE with oil content of less than 3% is no longer considered hazardous waste.

The problem with this, activists say, is that poor monitoring of Indonesia’s palm oil industry — the world’s biggest — means companies can get away with dumping SBE that has higher oil content, and therefore poses great environmental and safety hazards.

“This will increase the risk because we no longer know the content of the [SBE] waste and how much is the likelihood of it being discharged into the environment,” said Nur Hidayati, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO.

“[When] it’s considered non-hazardous waste, the process [to obtain permission for] disposal could be the same as for other waste,” she added. “It can be disposed of in nature just by meeting the standard, without knowing the toxic content.”

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Boon For Business

The government’s move is part of a wider ongoing deregulation effort linked to a controversial piece of legislation passed last year. Known as the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, it’s been widely criticised by green activists, land rights defenders and Indigenous groups for rolling back environmental protections and favouring the interests of businesses over those of nature and traditional communities.

In its regulation issued Feb. 2 delisting SBE as hazardous waste, the government also declared fly ash and bottom ash from coal burning — which often contain heavy metals like mercury — as non-hazardous. That measure was seen as a capitulation to the coal industry, which has been pushing to be allowed to freely sell the ash to cement producers without the costly requirement of waste treatment.

In the case of SBE, the palm processing industry has readily taken credit for getting the waste delisted. And like coal ash, it’s also being eyed for use in cement production and the construction industry.

Sahat Sinaga, executive director of the Indonesian Vegetable Oil Refiners Association (GIMNI), said businesses had been lobbying the government since 2015 to get SBE taken off the list of hazardous waste. He called the listing unfair, given that in other jurisdictions, like Malaysia, the world’s No. 2 palm oil producer, and the European Union, SBE is not considered hazardous waste (although it still can’t be dumped in landfills).

“Bleaching earth is not a hazardous waste, [and] palm oil is not a hazardous waste, so when they’re mixed [and produce SBE], how can it be hazardous waste?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Sahat said the measures needed to treat SBE as hazardous waste imposed an onerous cost on companies. The delisting, he said will spur greater investment into treatment companies that can process refineries’ waste down to the 3% level.

“Because SBE was categorised as hazardous waste, it became a ghost,” Sahat said in an online discussion on March 18. “People were afraid [that] if they transport [SBE], there would be extra cost [incurred], and as a result, businesses don’t want to invest [in SBE processing].”

There are currently just two companies in Indonesia that process SBE. Given the size of the palm oil industry, there needs to be at least 22, Sahat said. He added it would require total investments of about $125 million to set up these new processing plants.

“Other countries can no longer judge the oil of Indonesia to be contaminated with hazardous waste,” he said.

Toxic, Not Toxic

Indonesia produced 778,894 tons of SBE in 2019, up from 637,476 tons in 2018, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. But the two companies that can treat it are only capable of processing a combined 116,000 tons of SBE per year.

As a result, most of the SBE generated at palm oil refineries is dumped into landfills or elsewhere illegally. In 2019, 48% of SBE wound up in landfills, up from 39% in 2017, according to data presented by Udin Hasanudin, a professor of agroindustry waste management at Lampung University in Sumatra.

“This shows that we still have a lot of work to do in managing SBE,” he said in a discussion in June 2020. “How [do we reduce] the amount that is being buried underground [in landfills] to a minimum. So we have to increase [the proportion of SBE] that is being processed [to be used for other purposes].”

There have been some reports of SBE being dumped illegally in residential areas. In December 2018, a pile of SBE across from an elementary school in northern Jakarta caught on fire under the heat from the sun.

The 3% limit rules out such incidents from occurring again, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry says in justifying the delisting.

“The oil content has to be below 3%,” Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, the ministry’s director-general of waste management, said in an online press conference on March 15. “If it’s more than 3%, it’s still [categorised as] hazardous waste product.”

She also noted that the delisting isn’t an abrupt change. Refiners have since April 2020 been allowed to file a request with the ministry to dump their SBE that’s been treated down to 3% oil content. Rosa said that as the number of requests grew, the ministry concluded that this particular grade of SBE is safe enough to be universally categorised as non-hazardous waste, and companies now no longer have to file a request on a case-by-case basis.

Rosa also said the government is pushing for more companies to reuse the treated SBE rather than dump it in landfills.

“With technological development, we have a principle called cradle to cradle,” she said. “It means that it’s better to utilise toxic hazardous waste, not eliminate or merely bury it. This also applies to SBE.”

‘The Safeguard is Gone’

Dwi Sawung, an energy campaigner with environmental watchdog Walhi, said that while in theory the new regulation will encourage companies to process their SBE into other products, in practice it could lead to more illegal dumping of SBE, with firms claiming their waste has been processed to reduce its oil content.

He also questioned the environment ministry’s argument that the waste needed to be delisted as hazardous before it could be processed for use as construction material. Companies were already doing this even when it was still on the list of hazardous waste, Dwi said.

“It could still be utilised as long as the toxic content was removed first,” he said at a press conference. “But when it is no longer categorised as hazardous waste product, the [environmental] safeguard is gone, and we don’t know how it is going to be managed. While developed countries don’t categorise [SBE] as hazardous waste, the management standards there are strict, on par with hazardous waste.”

He added the environment ministry now has the daunting task of ensuring that the SBE dumped from palm oil refineries or sold to cement producers actually falls under the 3% limit.

“How do we know that the oil content is really just 3%?” Dwi said. “Because it’s difficult [to monitor] on the ground.”

Rosa said the environment ministry is currently drafting a regulation that will govern the processing of SBE. She added that companies found in violation of the 3% limit will face legal action.

“Of course [SBE] will still be monitored because the requirements on how to utilise [SBE for other products] and dispose of it will be stipulated in the environmental impact analysis and [other] environmental documents,” Rosa said. “So these are the things that have to be obeyed by companies.”

The problem here, Dwi said, is that the EIA process has been weakened by the omnibus law. Previously, prevailing environmental statutes guaranteed public participation in the EIA process, with community members and civil society having a chance to weigh in. But the omnibus law, which trumps existing statutes, limits the participatory process to only those who will be directly impacted.

“We can no longer play a role [in the impact analysis],” Dwi said. “Environmental organisations like us can’t enter because [participation from parties not directly impact] is removed.”

Walhi’s Nur said the delisting of SBE as hazardous waste is yet more evidence that the omnibus law undermines environmental safeguards.

“What we’ve been worrying about all this time has been proven, with the omnibus law eliminating our basic rights, rights for information, and safeguards, and facilitating investments while ignoring prudence,” she said.

“Now that public participation has been limited, with only impacted communities being able to participate [in the environmental impact analysis], the risk for affected people will increase [and make it difficult for them] to understand what’s going on in their area and community.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Hans Nicholas Jong, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Featured image by: Flickr