The Technology Revolutionizing Commercial Waste Management

Every single one of us can do something to improve our impact on the planet, but it is a given that businesses of all sizes have a bigger footprint than families – commercial accounts for 12% of total greenhouse gas emissions. A big factor of that is waste management. From the physical process of picking up garbage, to the methane-released process of decomposition, there are numerous factors that add up to create a large carbon footprint.

Between hiring green focused waste management solutions and recycling in a diligent fashion, there are a few technologies that are helping to break down the barrier between commercial waste management and an environmentally positive working environment.

Cleaning up commercial kitchens

A key form of commercial waste is food waste. Between the home and restaurant, it is estimated by the US Department of Agriculture that 133 billion pounds of food is wasted every year. Much will end up in the landfill. How is technology helping to tackle this huge source of environmental waste? Restaurants themselves are benefiting from lower priced and higher quality commercial kitchen cooking equipment, that helps to raise standards and reduce wastage.

Culinary appliances for varied cuisines also benefit from a new process being developed at the Netherland’s Wageningen University. A major driver of food waste is rejected wholesale delivery, much of which will be disposed of in landfill. The technology being developed in Holland aims to reduce wastage by analyzing food at the source, closer to where recycling will be achievable.

Route optimization

Have you ever received a parcel from an online retailer only to find the box greatly outsizes the contents? On the face of it, this is damaging to the environment. However, many retailers use complex box sorting algorithms. The result is that the best route is chosen on balance, considering the gas needed to make the journey, the amount of stock that can be delivered and the shortest route for the driver. This is an area of intense technological innovation.

The National Waste & Recycling Association reported in 2017 on how 2018 would see further advances, particularly with the integration of artificial intelligence and augmented reality into the route-finding process.

Balancing the landfill carbon footprint

It is well established that landfills are now being used to power wind turbines, geothermal style electricity and so on. They are being improved to minimize the leachate into groundwater systems and to prevent methane escaping into the atmosphere. However, further investigation is being pushed into the possibility of using landfill as a carbon sequester.

AI-based waste management systems can help in route optimization and waste disposal

Penn State University, Lawrence Berkeley and Texas University recently joined together to secure a $2.5m grant into looking into the function of carbon, post-sequestration. This will help to shed light on the carbon footprint and create a solid foundation on which future technology can thrive.

Businesses of all sizes have an impact on the carbon footprint of the world. The various processes that go into making a business profitable and have a positive impact on their local and wider communities need to be addressed. As with many walks of life, technology is helping to bridge the gap.

A Primer on Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-Energy is the use of modern combustion and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs.

Energy is the driving force for development in all countries of the world. The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in different parts of the world, another problem that is assuming critical proportions is that of urban waste accumulation.

The quantity of waste produced all over the world amounted to more than 12 billion tonnes in 2006, with estimates of up to 13 billion tonnes in 2011. The rapid increase in population coupled with changing lifestyle and consumption patterns is expected to result in an exponential increase in waste generation of upto 18 billion tonnes by year 2020.

Waste generation rates are affected by socio-economic development, degree of industrialization, and climate. Generally, the greater the economic prosperity and the higher percentage of urban population, the greater the amount of solid waste produced. Reduction in the volume and mass of solid waste is a crucial issue especially in the light of limited availability of final disposal sites in many parts of the world. Millions of tonnes of household wastes are generated each year with the vast majority disposed of in open fields or burnt wantonly.

The main categories of waste-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel.

The three principal methods of thermochemical conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from wastes is direct combustion. Combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity.

Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. In addition, wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from grasses, wood chips and agricultural residues by biochemical route using heat, pressure, chemicals and enzymes to unlock the sugars in biomass wastes.

Waste-to-energy plants offer two important benefits of environmentally safe waste management and disposal, as well as the generation of clean electric power.  The growing use of waste-to-energy as a method to dispose of solid and liquid wastes and generate power has greatly reduced environmental impacts of municipal solid waste management, including emissions of greenhouse gases.

SWM in India – Role of Policies and Planning

Out of all the measures that are necessary in addressing India’s impending waste management crisis, the most efficient will be changes at the national policy and planning level. It is well known among the small but growing waste management sector that urban India will hit rock bottom due to improper waste management.

Solid-Wastes-Management-India

Unfortunately, they think such a crisis is required to bring about policy changes, as they generally tend to happen only after the damage has been done. This attitude is unfortunate because it indicates a lack of or failed effort from the sector to change policy, and also the level of India’s planning and preparedness.

Important Statistics

An average of 32,000 people will be added to urban India every day, continuously, until 2021. This number is a warning, considering how India’s waste management infrastructure went berserk trying to deal with just 25,000 new urban Indians during the last decade. The scale of urbanization in India and around the world is unprecedented with planetary consequences to Earth’s limited material and energy resources, and its natural balance.

Rate of increase in access to sanitation infrastructure generally lags behind the rate of urbanization by 33% around the world; however, the lack of planning and impromptu piecemeal responses to waste management issues observed in India might indicate a much wider gap. This means urban Indians will have to wait longer than an average urban citizen of our world for access to proper waste management infrastructure.

The clear trend in the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India is that they are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Srinagar are capitals of their respective states, and Coimbatore is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu. However, long term national level plans to improve waste management in India do not exist and guidance offered to urban local bodies is meager.

Apart from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), there has been no national level effort required to address the problem. Even though JnNURM was phenomenal in stimulating the industry and local governments, it was not enough to address the scale and extent of the problem. This is because of JnNURM is not a long term financing program, sorts of which are required to tackle issues like solid waste management.

Role of Municipal Corporations

In the short term, municipal corporations have their hands tied and will not be able to deliver solutions immediately. They face the task of realizing waste management facilities inside or near cities while none of their citizens want them near their residences. Officials of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation have been conducting interviews with locals for about eight years now for a new landfill site, to no avail.

In spite of the mounting pressure, most corporations will not be able to close the dumpsites that they are currently using. This might not be the good news for which local residents could be waiting, but, it is important that bureaucrats, municipal officials and politicians be clear about it. Residents near Vellalore dump protested and blocked roads leading to the site because Coimbatore municipal officials repeatedly failed to fulfill their promises after every landfill fire incident.

Due to lack of existing alternatives, other than diverting waste fractionally by increasing informal recycling sector’s role, closing existing landfills would mean finding new sites. Finding new landfills in and around cities is nearly impossible because of the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India and the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon.

However, the corporations can and should take measures to reduce landfill fires and open burning, and control pollution due to leachate and odor and vector nuisance. This will provide much needed relief to adjacent communities and give the corporations time to plan better. While navigating through an issue as sensitive this, it is of the utmost importance that they work closely with the community by increasing clarity and transparency.

Municipal officials at the meeting repeatedly stressed the issue of scarcity of land for waste disposal, which led to overflowing dumpsites and waste treatment facilities receiving more waste than what they were designed for. Most municipal officials are of the sense that a magic solution is right around the corner which will turn all of their city’s waste into fuel oil or gas, or into recycled products.

While such conversion is technologically possible with infinite energy and financial sources, that is not the reality. Despite their inability to properly manage wastes, the majority of municipal officials consider waste as “wealth” when approached by private partners. Therefore, a significant portion of officials expect royalty from private investments without sharing business risk.

Good News on the Horizon

While the situation across India is grim and official action has to be demanded through courts or public protests, there are a handful of local governments which are planning ahead and leading the way. The steps taken to solve New Delhi’s waste management problem is laudable. If it was not for the kind of leadership and determination showcased in Delhi, India would not have had its only operating WTE plant. This plant was built in 2011, at a time when the need for waste-to-energy plants was being felt all over India. 1300 tons of Delhi’s waste goes into this facility every day to generate electricity. The successful operation of this facility reinvigorated dormant projects across the nation.

After living with heaps of garbage for months, Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation started penalizing institutions which dump their waste openly. It has also increased the subsidy on the cost of small scale biogas units to 75% and aerobic composting units to 90% to encourage decentralized waste management. The corporation is optimistic with the increase in number of applications for the subsidy from 10 in an entire year to 18 in just a few months after the announcement.

In Bengaluru, improper waste management led to the change of the city’s municipal commissioner. The new commissioner was handed over the job to particularly improve waste management in the city. As a response to the dengue outbreak in Kolkata, the state’s Chief Minister went door to door to create awareness about waste management, and also included the topic in her public speeches. For good or bad, many cities in India have started or initiated steps for banning plastics without performing life cycle analyses.

Pyrolysis of Municipal Wastes

Pyrolysis-MSWPyrolysis is rapidly developing biomass thermal conversion technology and has been garnering much attention worldwide due to its high efficiency and good eco-friendly performance characteristics. Pyrolysis technology provides an opportunity for the conversion of municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues, scrap tires, non-recyclable plastics etc into clean energy. It offers an attractive way of converting urban wastes into products which can be effectively used for the production of heat, electricity and chemicals.

Pyrolysis of Municipal Wastes

Pyrolysis process consists of both simultaneous and successive reactions when carbon-rich organic material is heated in a non-reactive atmosphere. Simply speaking, pyrolysis is the thermal degradation of organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Thermal decomposition of organic components in the waste stream starts at 350°C–550°C and goes up to 700°C–800°C in the absence of air/oxygen.

Pyrolysis of municipal wastes begins with mechanical preparation and separation of glass, metals and inert materials prior to processing the remaining waste in a pyrolysis reactor. The commonly used pyrolysis reactors are rotary kilns, rotary hearth furnaces, and fluidized bed furnaces. The process requires an external heat source to maintain the high temperature required. Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small-scale which may help in reducing transport and handling costs.  In pyrolysis of MSW, heat transfer is a critical area as the process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat requirements.

The main products obtained from pyrolysis of municipal wastes are a high calorific value gas (synthesis gas or syngas), a biofuel (bio oil or pyrolysis oil) and a solid residue (char). Depending on the final temperature, MSW pyrolysis will yield mainly solid residues at low temperatures, less than 4500C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 8000C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is a liquid fuel popularly known as bio oil.

Wide Range of Products

Bio oil is a dark brown liquid and can be upgraded to either engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas and then biodiesel. Pyrolysis oil may also be used as liquid fuel for diesel engines and gas turbines to generate electricity Bio oil is particularly attractive for co-firing because it can be relatively easy to handle and burn than solid fuel and is cheaper to transport and store. In addition, bio oil is also a vital source for a wide range of organic compounds and specialty chemicals.

Syngas is a mixture of energy-rich gases (combustible constituents include carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane and a broad range of other VOCs). The net calorific value (NCV) of syngas is between 10 and 20MJ/Nm3. Syngas is cleaned to remove particulates, hydrocarbons, and soluble matter, and then combusted to generate electricity. Diesel engines, gas turbines, steam turbines and boilers can be used directly to generate electricity and heat in CHP systems using syngas and pyrolysis oil. Syngas may also be used as a basic chemical in petrochemical and refining industries.

The solid residue from MSW pyrolysis, called char, is a combination of non-combustible materials and carbon. Char is almost pure carbon and can be used in the manufacture of activated carbon filtration media (for water treatment applications) or as an agricultural soil amendment.

Waste Management in Global North and Global South

Waste management is highly context specific. Therefore it is important to distinguish between the conditions in the Global North and the Global South. Recent ILO figures suggest that 24 million people around the world are involved in the informal waste recycling sector, 80% of whom are waste pickers. Some estimates say that 1% of urban population in developing countries makes their primary household income through informal sector waste management activities.  In Latin America alone, 4-5 million waste pickers earn their livelihood by being a part of the global recyclables supply chain.

waste-management-latin-america

Municipal budgets in the Global South are often limited and only a small percentage of that budget is assigned to waste management as compared to other municipal services. In the Global North waste management is recognized as a necessary public good and there is a greater willingness to pay for this service. Solid waste management (e.g. waste collection, transportation and recycling) is generally more labour intensive than in North America and Europe.

Urbanization in the Global South is often haphazard and unplanned; creating pockets of high and low income neighbourhoods. This creates logistical issues for the waste management service provision limiting options for viable waste collection and transportation. It is often the informal sector that steps in to fill this service gap.

The maturity and strength of the legal framework differs between the Global South and Global North. In North America and Europe the legal framework of waste management actively promotes and provides incentives for waste reduction, reuse and recovery whereas, despite recent developments in some countries, in Latin America legal frameworks remain focused upon mixed waste collection, transportation and disposal.

Recycling rates in Argentina are at 11% of the total waste stream with 95% of this material is recovered by the informal sector. This situation is replicated in many other countries. The informal sector recovers between 50% (e.g. Mexico) and 90% (e.g. Nicaragua) of the waste recovered and in the different countries of the region. Resource recovery and recycling is driven by market conditions. Materials that have a value are diverted from landfill through an informal network of recyclers and waste collectors.

The composition of waste is also very different in the Global South where organic waste is a much larger percentage of the waste stream. Because of the high percentage of organics in the waste stream in many cities in the Global South, innovations in decentralised composting and small scale biogas have been seen across the Global South (particularly in India) and can be used effectively by the informal sector, making a zero waste future a real possibility.

Role of Informal Recycling Sector

The informal sector can be highly effective at collecting and diverting garbage from landfill. When empowered with a facilitating legal framework, and collectively organized, the informal sector can be a key part of a sustainable resource recovery system. Using people power to increase recycling and diversion rates decreases the need for expensive, fixed, high technology solutions.

Understanding that the context for waste management is different between the Global North and Global South, and even in different areas within a city or region, means that no two situations will be the same. However, if there is one principle to follow it may well be to consider the context and look for the simplest solution. The greenest cities of the future may well be those that use flexible, adaptable solutions and maximize the work that the informal sector is already doing.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Plastic Wastes and Role of EPR

In just a few decades plastics have become omnipresent in our society. But, unfortunately, the consequences of their use last far beyond their useful lifetime. Everyone is aware of their overwhelming dispersion in our landscapes. The situation in the oceans is not better [1]. As a reaction, a few thoughts spring to my mind.

First of all, it is clear that the industry is assuming very little responsibility, and that Public Administrations are complicit with this. Extended producer responsibility (abbreviated as EPR) only affects –and only partially– those plastics used as light packaging, in vehicles, in tyres or as part of electric and electronic equipment, not any of the others. Also, recycling levels are not sufficiently high, as a result of poor separate collection systems and inefficient treatment facilities. As a consequence, society has to face not only the problems created by those materials which are not recycled, but also has to assume a high share of the costs of managing them as waste.

Secondly, it illustrates the importance of the quality of the materials that we aim to recycle, and thus the importance of separate waste collection; for all materials, but particularly for biowaste. Although most composting and anaerobic digestion facilities have the capacity to separate some of the impurities (of which around 40% can be plastics), this separation is far from perfect. Two recent studies confirm that the quality of compost is influenced by the presence of impurities in biowaste [2] and that, in turn, the presence of impurities is influenced by several factors [3], among which particularly the type of separate collection scheme, door to door separate collection models being those presenting better results.

Thirdly, it makes clear the urgency to adopt measures that address the root of the problem. High quality separate collection and sound waste treatment are necessary, and allow enormous room for improvement, but they are end-of-pipe solutions. It is also important to promote greener consumption patterns through environmental awareness campaigns, but this is not enough either. We have to address the problem where it is created. And this requires measures of higher impact, such as taxes on certain products (e.g. disposable ones) or on certain materials, compulsory consideration of eco-design criteria, generalisation of the extended producer responsibility or prohibition of certain plastics (e.g. oxo-degradable ones) or of certain uses (e.g. microplastic beads in cosmetics). One can think that these measures are a bit too hard, but honestly, after wandering around beaches and mountains, and finding plastics absolutely everywhere, I am bit disappointed with the outcome of soft solutions.

On 16th January 2018 the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted [4]. A number of measures will need to be applied by the European Union (listed in Annex I of the Strategy), by Member States and by the industry (Annex II), but also by Regional Governments and Local Authorities. No doubt that implementing the Strategy will bring about significant advances, but only time will say if it is sufficient to address the huge challenge we face.

The European Union has also recently adopted the much-awaited Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment [5], which introduces several bans and restrictions on different uses and materials. This is indeed a huge step, which needs to be followed by others, both in Europe, but also elsewhere, as this is truly a global challenge.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in February 2018: https://mailchi.mp/db1fd794d528/sent-11-april-2018

References

[1] See for example: https://tinyurl.com/yxra3cod

[2] Campos Rodrigues, L., Puig Ventosa, I., López, M., Martínez, X. (2016) Anàlisi de la incidència dels impropis de la FORM sobre la qualitat del compost de les plantes de compostatge de Catalunya https://tinyurl.com/y37ncton

[3] Puig-Ventosa, I., Freire-González, J., Jofra-Sora, M. (2013) Determining factors for the presence of impurities in selectively collected biowaste, Waste Management and Research, 31: 510-517.

[4] The strategy and several accompanying documents can be found in this portal: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/plastic_waste.htm

[5] Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.

Recycling Outlook for Latin America

Latin America has one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world (80% urban population). By 2050, 90% of Latin America’s population will live in urban areas. This high rate of urbanization coupled with the global economic crisis has resulted in a waste management crisis. Municipalities find themselves unable to keep up with providing services and infrastructure to the urban populations.

Some cities in Latin America are facing this challenge by integrating the informal sector recyclers who are already active in their cities into the municipal solid waste management systems. In many cities, these “recicladores”, “cartoneros” or “catadores” (a few of the many names used for these workers in the region) are responsible for up to 90% of the recyclable waste recovered from the waste stream. Their work reduces municipal waste transportation costs, increases landfill lifetimes and supports the recycling chain throughout the region.

State of the Affairs

Every location presents its own challenges–there is no one-size-fits-all solution for integrated solid waste management systems–but relevant lessons can be drawn from both failed attempts and successful examples of informal sector integration in recycling systems in Latin America.

There are often two very different contexts within cities. In low-income neighborhoods waste collection services are often not provided and individuals and families accumulate and then sell their recyclables for additional income. In contrast, residents in high income neighborhoods do receive a waste collection service and their motivation for recycling is often related to greater levels of environmental awareness. It is important to consider these differences when designing waste management solutions.

Imported systems, and even locally derived systems based on examples from the Global North, generally focus on only one waste management scenario, making it difficult to manage the multiple competing scenarios in many cities in Latin America. There is often a bias towards the automation of waste management services, with the application of the high technology solutions used in the Global North. Regardless of the practicality or scientific evidence against certain high tech solutions, these are often sought after, thought to raise the bar of the city, to make it appear more sophisticated and modern. This leads to a misconception that working with informal sector is a step backwards in terms of urban development and modernization.

Conflicts between private waste management companies, the municipality and informal recyclers are common. The waste management companies do not want pickers on the landfill and wastepickers then go to the municipality for help. However, municipalities usually have very little experience to support the integration of formal and informal waste sectors. There are opportunities for new systems to emerge within this conflict. For example, during a similar conflict in Mexicali, Mundo Sustentable, with the help of Danone, intervened to help a private company work with the informal waste sector and improve recycling rates.

The Way Forward

In Latin America, there is a great opportunity to increase recycling rates by using labour-intensive solutions, which create jobs and support the development of a better urban environment in the cities. Municipal governments should be an integral part of these processes as they are usually responsible for solid waste management at local level. The key to catalyzing informal recycling sector integration will be the development and dissemination of successful examples.

Informal recyclers provide important a range of services to municipalities (such as waste collection and recovery in communities that would not otherwise have access to them), as well as cost savings (for example, the extension of landfill life and reduced transport costs), yet are rarely compensated for these benefits. Informal recyclers further form the foundation of an entire recycling supply chain, which ultimately benefits formal businesses, and often aliment entire local economies.

Challenges to Overcome

Municipal governments are often hesitant to work with informal actors, who are frequently seen as an unknown quantity. Yet often in the process of working and developing relations with informal recycler groups, their concerns diminish and they may actually exhibit enthusiasm. Likewise, the recyclers may gain in confidence and professionalism in their experience of formalization.

One major challenge facing efforts to integrate the informal sector in developing countries is the desire of some local governments to adopt technological solutions that appear more “modern.” In much of Latin America, however, low-cost, low-tech solutions tend to be more viable and sustainable.

The main difference between Latin America and the countries of the Global North is that solid waste management is a labor intensive system. It is made up of workers and hence has an important social component. The ILO estimated there is 24 million of people working in the global recycling supply chain, but those at the bottom of the pyramid, the wastepickers, make up 80%. They remain the lowest paid even though they make an enormous contribution to their cities.

It is important to understand that highly sophisticated, high technology systems are not required for effective resource recovery. In many cities in Latin America between 80-90% of everything that is recycled is recovered by the informal recycling sector.

Despite the fact that there is little or no public investment in waste management or recycling infrastructure, cities with an active informal sector reach twice the rate of fully formalized municipal solid waste management systems. As an example, the recycling rate is 60% in Cairo, while in Rotterdam (and other cities in the Global North) recycling levels only reach 30%, even with a high public investment in the system (UN Habitat, 2010).

When designing infrastructure and waste management systems we must consider not only the waste management and resource recovery needs but also the social side of the system. In order to be effective, efforts to upgrade waste management services should go hand in hand with efforts to formalise and integrate the informal sector.

Bogota – A Success Story

An example of a recent success story is that after 27 years of struggle, the waste pickers in Bogota, Colombia have managed to change the government’s outlook on their work and their existence. They are now included in the system and are paid per tonne of waste collected, just like any other private sector collection and waste management company would be. They have become recognized as public service providers, acknowledged for their contribution to the environment and public health of the city.

The key challenge is to be much more creative and understand that in order to improve the working conditions of waste pickers and in order to increase recycling rates, we don’t need high technology. We need a systemic approach and this can be very simple sometimes infrastructure as simple as a roof [on a sorting area] can be effective in improving working conditions.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Waste-to-Energy Prospects in the Middle East

wastetoenergy-plant-qatarA combination of high fuel prices and a search for alternative technologies, combined with massive waste generation has led to countries in the Middle East region to consider Waste to Energy (or WtE) as a sustainable waste management strategy and cost-effective fuel source for the future. We look at the current state of the WtE market in the region.

It is estimated that each person in the United Arab Emirates produces 2 kg of municipal solid waste per day – that puts the total waste production figure somewhere in the region of 150 million tonnes every year. Given that the population currently stands at over 9.4 million (2013) and is projected to see an annual average growth figure of 2.3% over the next six years, over three times the global average, it’s clear that this is a lot of waste to be disposed of. In addition, the GCC nations in general rank in the bottom 10% of the sustainable nations in the world and are also amongst the top per capita carbon-releasers.

When we also consider that UAE are actively pursuing alternative energy technologies to supplement rapidly-decreasing and increasingly-costly traditional fossil fuels, mitigate the harmful effects of landfill, and reduce an ever-increasing carbon footprint, it becomes apparent that high on their list of proposed solutions is Waste to Energy (WtE). It could be an ideal solution to the problem.

What is WtE

Waste-to-Energy works on the simple principle of taking waste and turning it into a form of energy. This can be electricity, heat or transport fuels, and can be achieved in a variety of ways – the most common of which is incineration. MSW is taken to a WtE plant, incinerated at high temperatures and the resultant heat is used to boil water which creates steam to turn turbines, in the same way that burning gas or coal produces power. Gasification and anaerobic digestion are two further WtE methods which are also used.

However, WtE has several advantages over burning fossil fuels. Primarily amongst them are the potential to minimise landfill sites which have caused serious concern for many years. They are not only unsightly, but can also be contaminated, biologically or chemically. Toxic waste can leach into the ground beneath them and enter the water table.

Landfill sites also continuously emit carbon dioxide and methane, both harmful greenhouse gases – in addition methane is potentially explosive. Sending MSW to landfill also discourages recycling and necessitates more demand for raw materials. Finally, landfill sites are unpleasant places which attract vermin and flies and give off offensive odours.

WtE has been used successfully in many countries around the world for a long time now. Europe is the most enthusiastic proponent of WtE, with around 450 facilities; the Asia-Pacific region has just over 300; the USA has almost 100. In the rest of the world there are less than 30 facilities but this number is growing. Globally, it is estimated that the WtE industry is growing at approximately US $2 billion per annum and will be valued at around US $80 billion by the year 2022.

The USA ranks third in the world for the percentage of waste which is incinerated for energy production. Around 16% of the rubbish that America produces every day is burned in its WtE plants. Advocates claims the advantages are clear: reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the environment (estimates say that burning one ton of waste in a WtE plant saves between one half and one ton of greenhouse gases compared to landfill emissions, or the burning of conventional fuels), freeing up land which would normally be used for landfill (and, therefore, extending the life of existing landfill sites), encouraging recycling (some facilities have managed to reduce the amount of waste they process by up to 90% and the recycling of ferrous and non-ferrous metals provides an additional income source), and, perhaps most importantly, producing a revenue stream from the sale of the electricity generated.

In one small county alone, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a population of just over half-a-million people, more than 4.4 billion kWh of electricity has been produced through WtE in the last 20 years. This has generated over USD $256 million through its sale to local residents.

WtE in the Middle East

Given WtE’s potential to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution on a local scale, but also to produce much-needed electricity in the region, what is the current state of affairs in the Middle East. There are several WtE initiatives already underway in the region. Qatar was the first GCC country to implement a waste-to-energy programme and currently generates over 30MW of electricity from its Domestic Solid Waste Management Center (DSWMC) located at Messeid (Doha). Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both stated that they have WtE production capacity targets of 100MW. Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman are also seriously considering waste-to-energy as a means to tackle the worsening waste management problem.

Abu Dhabi’s government is currently spending around US $850 million to build a 100 MW plant which is expected to be operational by 2017 and which will supply around 20,000 households with electricity. In Sharjah, the world’s largest household waste gasification plant, costing in excess of US $480 million, is due to be open in 2015.

However, not all the GCC members are as enthusiastic about WtE. Dubai’s government has recently scrapped plans for a US $2 billion project which would have made use of the 7,800 tonnes of domestic waste which is produced in Dubai every single day.

We asked Salman Zafar, Founder of Doha-based EcoMENA, a popular sustainability advocacy, why given the sheer scale of the waste in the Gulf region, the production of this form of energy is still in its infancy. “The main deterrent in the implementation of WtE projects in the Middle East is the current availability of cheap sources of energy already available, especially in the GCC,” he commented.

Salman Zafar further says, “WtE projects demand a good deal of investment, heavy government subsidies, tipping fees, power purchase agreements etc, which are hard to obtain for such projects in the region.” “The absence of a sustainable waste management strategy in Middle East nations is also a vital factor behind the very slow pace of growth of the WtE sector in the region. Regional governments, municipalities and local SWM companies find it easier and cost-effective to dump untreated municipal waste in landfills,” he added.

So, how can WtE contribute towards the region’s growing power demand in the future?

“Modern WtE technologies, such as RDF-based incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion etc, all have the ability to transform power demand as well as the waste management scenario in the region,” he continued. “A typical 250 – 300 tons per day WtE plant can produce around 3 – 4 MW of electricity and a network of such plants in cities across the region can make a real difference in the energy sector as well as augmenting energy reserves in the Middle East. In fact, WtE plants also produce a tremendous about of heat energy which can be utilised in process industries, further maximising their usefulness,” Salman Zafar concluded.

New technologies naturally take time to become established as their efficiency versus cost ratios are analysed. However, it is becoming increasingly clearer that waste-to-energy is a viable and efficient method for solid waste management and generation of alternative energy in the Middle East.

Concept of Zero Waste and Role of MRFs

zero-waste-MRFCommunities across the world are grappling with waste disposal issues. A consensus is emerging worldwide that the ultimate way to deal with waste is to eliminate it. The concept of Zero Waste encourages redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused, thereby systematically avoiding and eliminating the volume and toxicity of waste and materials.

The philosophy of Zero Waste strives to ensure that products are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and generally reused. Among key zero waste facilities are material recovery facilities, composting plants, reuse facilities, wastewater/biosolids plants etc.

Material recovery facilities (MRFs) are an essential part of a zero waste management program as it receives separates and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to end-user manufacturers. The main function of the MRF is to maximize the quantity of recyclables processed, while producing materials that will generate the highest possible revenues in the market. MRFs can also process wastes into a feedstock for biological conversion through composting and anaerobic digestion.

A materials recovery facility accepts materials, whether source separated or mixed, and separates, processes and stores them for later use as raw materials for remanufacturing and reprocessing. MRFs serve as an intermediate processing step between the collection of recyclable materials from waste generators and the sale of recyclable materials to markets for use in making new products. There are basically four components of a typical MRF: sorting, processing, storage, and load-out. Any facility design plan should accommodate all these activities which promote efficient and effective operation of a recycling program. MRFs may be publicly owned and operated, publicly owned and privately operated, or privately owned and operated.

There are two types of MRFs – dirty and clean. A dirty MRF receives mixed waste material that requires labor intense sorting activities to separate recyclables from the mixed waste. A clean MRF accepts recyclable materials that have already been separated from the components in municipal solid waste (MSW) that are not recyclable. A clean MRF reduces the potential for material contamination.

A typical Zero Waste MRF (ZWMRF) may include three-stream waste collection infrastructure, resource recovery center, reuse/recycling ecological part, residual waste management facility and education centers.

The primary objective of all MRFs is to produce clean and pure recyclable materials so as to ensure that the commodities produced are marketable and fetch the maximum price. Since waste streams vary in composition and volume from one place to another, a MRF should be designed specifically to meet the short and long term waste management goals of that location. The real challenge for any MRF is to devise a recycling strategy whereby no residual waste stream is left behind.

The basic equipment used in MRFs are conveyors & material handling equipment to move material through the system, screening equipment to sort material by size, magnetic separation to remove ferrous metals, eddy current separation to remove non-ferrous metals, air classifiers to sort materials by density, optical sorting equipment to separate plastics or glass by material composition, and baling equipment to prepare recovered material for market. Other specialized equipment such as bag breakers, shredders and sink-float tanks can also be specified as required by application.

Biomass Wastes to Energy for MENA

The high volatility in oil prices in the recent past and the resulting turbulence in energy markets has compelled many MENA countries, especially the non-oil producers, to look for alternate sources of energy, for both economic and environmental reasons. The significance of renewable energy has been increasing rapidly worldwide due to its potential to mitigate climate change, to foster sustainable development in poor communities, and augment energy security and supply.

The Middle East is well-poised for waste-to-energy development, with its rich feedstock base in the form of municipal solid wastes, crop residues and agro-industrial wastes. The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the Middle East is not only accelerating consumption rates but also accelerating the generation of a wide variety of waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Arab countries is estimated at more than 80 million tons annually. Open dumping is the most prevalent mode of municipal solid waste disposal in most countries.

Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter, including municipal solid waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and industrial byproducts. Besides recovery of substantial energy, these technologies can lead to a substantial reduction in the overall waste quantities requiring final disposal, which can be better managed for safe disposal in a controlled manner. Waste-to-energy systems can contribute substantially to GHG mitigation through both reductions of fossil carbon emissions and long-term storage of carbon in biomass wastes.

Modern waste-to-energy systems options offer significant, cost-effective and perpetual opportunities for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Additional benefits offered are employment creation in rural areas, reduction of a country’s dependency on imported energy carriers (and the related improvement of the balance of trade), better waste control, and potentially benign effects with regard to biodiversity, desertification, recreational value, etc. In summary, waste-to-energy can significantly contribute to sustainable development both in developed and less developed countries. Waste-to-energy is not only a solution to reduce the volume of waste that is and provide a supplemental energy source, but also yields a number of social benefits that cannot easily be quantified.

Biomass wastes can be efficiently converted into energy and fuels by biochemical and thermal conversion technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter.  The implementation of waste-to-energy technologies as a method for safe disposal of solid and liquid biomass wastes, and as an attractive option to generate heat, power and fuels, can significantly reduce environmental impacts of wastes. In fact, energy recovery from MSW is rapidly gaining worldwide recognition as the fourth ‘R’ in sustainable waste management system – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Recover. A transition from conventional waste management system to one based on sustainable practices is necessary to address environmental concerns and to foster sustainable development in the region.