It’s no secret that the Philippines has a garbage problem. A World Wildlife Fund report in 2020 stated that only 33 per cent of the country’s garbage is disposed of in landfills, with only nine per cent of this going to recycling centers.
What if some of this could be turned into soil-nourishing fertilizer?
This is what Davao Thermo Biotech Corporation (DTBC) is trying to do.
The company began in 2014 when its founders, husband and wife Robert “Dr. Bo” and Olive Puentespina, acquired the technology to turn biodegradable waste into biofertilizer, which is a type of fertilizer that contains live microbes to aid in boosting soil health. “We don’t use any chemicals, we don’t use any machinery, all we do is compost,” says Olive Puentespina, Davao Thermo Biotech Corporation’s CEO, having taken over after her husband’s passing in 2021.
This is done through thermophilic aerobic composting, a high-temperature process that uses bacteria as an activator. This particular technology is patented in Japan and turns biodegradable waste in 45 to 50 days.
Thinking of waste differently
DTBC works with clients all over Mindanao. Their trucks pick up institutional biodegradable waste from clients such as poultry farms, commissaries, and condiment producers. The waste, which is already segregated, can come in the form of food scraps, chicken feathers, and used cooking oil. The segregation is important because it makes it easier for the bacteria to work on.
“The businesses that we love to build with are businesses who are compliant with DENR,” Puentespina says. “Since we’re compliant, we’re also restricted to dealing with people who… have those mandates already in their organization.”
It wasn’t easy getting folks on board at first. Waste management isn’t really something a lot of people think of in the Philippines, and most people understand it as simply trash getting dumped in a landfill. It’s not understood that aside from being unsightly and smelly, they are breeding grounds for pests and disease, produce greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane, and contribute to environmental and noise pollution, not to mention prevent land from being used for other, healthier pursuits. When DTBC started, the concept of paying a company to take away one’s waste was almost alien.
Now, aside from attracting clients through marketing and word of mouth, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) sometimes recommends companies in need of waste disposal services.
A streamlined process
Once a company has expressed interest in using DTBC’s services, DTBC does a site inspection to find out how much waste is being generated and what kind of collection vessel they need to send over. Puentespina emphasizes that all their trucks are covered and made from aluminum to minimize spillage.
Once the waste gets to the facility, it is weighed (“…only what we weigh you will be paying for,” Puentespina says), mixed with activators, and assigned a bay where it will sit for 45 to 50 days while the bacteria does its work. Each bay can take around 70 to 100 tons of waste. The bays are aerated regularly and their temperatures and moisture contents are regularly monitored. The mounds usually start with temperatures of about 20-25°C, but this can go up to as high as 80-100°C as the bacteria breaks down the organic material. The high temperatures also mean that the mound is being sanitized and any pathogens contained within are killed. After the process is complete, samples are taken to check for its NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) content. Once standards have been met, the biofertilizer is either bagged or turned into other products such as enriched potting mix or compost starter, all of which are sold under the brand Dr. Bo’s Farm Essentials.
“…over the last five six years of our existence, we were able to divert over 300 million kilos of biodegradable mix that would have gone to landfills,” Puentespina says in Taglish.
The potting mix and compost starter are sold through a distributor and through a hardware chain, but buyers can also contact DTBC directly to purchase. The biofertilizer is currently in the last stages of re-registration with the FDA (Food and Drug Authority) and should be available again soon.
The Yellow Drum Project
Private households can also avail of DTBC’s services. The company launched the Yellow Drum Project (YDP) during the pandemic to help households manage their organic waste. YDP is a door to door waste management collection system. Subscribed customers get a yellow 60 liter drum and a bag of compost starter to manage the smell of the organic waste that will go into the drum. After the drum is filled, which usually takes 1 to 1 ½ months, the customer calls the company to have the drum picked up. On the third pickup, the customer gets a gift of either compost starter or potting mix.
Puentespina shares that they are in talks with certain villages who want to promote zero waste. “Because [under] RA 9003, you’re actually encouraged to do composting yourself at home,” she says, citing the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.
Biofertilizers for healthier soil
The waste management is just part of the whole process. The company also regularly engages in efficacy trials for their biofertilizer products. Puentespina shares that one of these involved using the biofertilizer on one hectare of a fusarium-infected banana plantation.
Also called Panama disease, fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungal disease that has caused widespread damage to banana plantations globally. The farmer who volunteered his lot predicted that his banana plants were going to die within three months anyway, given the severity of the infection. “We used three applications and… they were able to harvest,” Puentespina shares, adding that the biofertilizer application was done in conjunction with the plantation’s regular conventional farming regimen. “…the biofertilizer will heal the soil… so that it will be able to take in the chemicals that you put [in].”
She specifies that this evidence is still anecdotal, but also promising. “Even though it’s not scientific because it’s just on one hectare with about 1000 plants, compared to about 20,000 hectares of banana in the whole Philippines… but with what we saw, I am now emboldened to try and offer it to bigger banana plantations to give us a chance to do something,” she says. “Now we’re engaging with… banana corporations who are giving us a chance for them to do trials.”
DTBC also has collaborations with institutions like DOST (Department of Science and Technology), UP Mindanao, and the Philippine Geothermal Center. “We tried it in UP Mindanao on black rice. The performance was good but we’re still waiting for the results, which will come out when the research is published,” Punentespina shares. “We [aso] tried it with… irrigated riceland, [and] we were able to fix the pH from 5.5 to 6.8, increasing their yield.”
They’re also trying it with cacao, specifically in the Malagos cacao plantation, which the Punetnespina family owns and operates.
“I’m not averse to chemical versus organic [farming],” Puentespina says. “Each farmer has their own philosophy. Regenerative agriculture or intensive agriculture, for me, let’s give everyone the chance to do their thing.”
Towards a sustainable future
DTBC plans to continue marketing their services until they can fill up their facility;s capacity. “Once you fill up the capacity, your production cost gets lower, so you can either sell your fertilizer lower or sell your services lower because it’s more efficient,” Puentespina says. “We can actually build more [facilities], especially in the area where there is waste generated in small spaces. We can [also] situate [ourselves] in the rice granary. In the food basket, or wherever in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. That’s where we want to be….”
They’re also looking for partners who are interested in building waste processing facilities in other areas in the Philippines.
“The overarching dream between my husband and I and the whole family is… of a waste-free Philippines…. We know that because of awareness, plastics, cans, glass bottles, and paper get recycled, but nobody recycles food waste and biodegradable waste,” PUentespina says. “If we become the element of change for that, we can… turn it into something that really will help our shortage in food, because shortage in food is directly connected to the nutrition and the productivity of our land.”
When it comes to waste management, every little bit counts. If that waste can be turned into fertilizer that can help boost soil health, so much the better.
Photos courtesy of Davao Thermo Biotech Corporation