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.

Charcoal Briquette Production in the Middle East: Perspectives

There is a huge demand for charcoal briquettes in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE. However the production of charcoal is in nascent stages despite the availability of biomass resources, especially date palm biomass. The key reason for increasing demand of charcoal briquettes is the large consumption of meat in the region which uses charcoal briquettes as fuel for barbecue, outdoor grills and related activities.

The raw materials for charcoal briquette production are widely available across the Middle East in the form of date palm biomass, crop wastes and woody biomass. With a population of date palm trees of 84 million or 70% of the world’s population, the potential biomass waste from date palm trees is estimated at 730,000 tons / year (approximately 200,000 tons from Saudi Arabia and 300,000 tons from Egypt). Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits.

The fronds and trunks of date palm trees are potential raw materials for charcoal because of the potential to produce high calorific value and low ash content charcoal. Leaf waste will produce a low calorific value due to high ash content. In addition, woody biomass waste such as cotton stalks that are widely available in Egypt can also be a raw material for making charcoal. The contribution of the agricultural sector in Egypt is quite high at 13.4%.

Charcoal is compacted into briquettes for ease in handling, packaging, transportation and use. Briquettes can be made in different shapes such as oval, hexagonal, cube, cylinder or octagonal. An adhesive (called binder) is needed for the manufacture of the briquette. Two common binders are saw dust and corn starch.

Date palm biomass is an excellent resource for charcoal production in Middle East

Continuous pyrolysis is the best technology for charcoal production. Continuous pyrolysis has the ability to handle large biomass volumes, the process is fast and smoke production is negligible. When using conventional pyrolysis technology  (or batch carbonization), the process is lengthy, processing capacity is small and there are concerns related to harmful smoke emissions.

Apart from charcoal, continuous pyrolysis also gives bio oil, wood vinegar and syngas. Syngas can be converted into electricity by using a gas engine or converted into a wide variety of biofuels through different processes. Bio oil can be used as boiler fuel and marine fuel. Wood vinegar can be used as biopesticide and liquid organic fertilizer. Low water content in date palm waste fronds and trunks make it very suitable for thermochemical conversion technologies, especially pyrolysis and gasification.

 

Charcoal can also be used for the production of activated charcoal/carbon. Activated carbon is used by a lot of industries for purification processes. In addition, a number of industries that are using petcoke as fuel can switch to charcoal due to its better combustion properties and eco-friendly nature.

For more information on how to set up charcoal production plant based on date palm biomass or other crop residues in the Middle East, please email salman@bioenergyconsult.com or eko.sb.setyawan@gmail.com

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.

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.

Thermal Conversion of Tannery Wastes

tannery-wastesTanneries generate considerable quantities of sludge, shavings, trimmings, hair, buffing dusts and other general wastes and can consist of up to 70% of hide weight processed. Thermal technologies, gasification in particular, by virtue of chemically reducing conditions, provides a viable alternative thermal treatment for Chrome containing materials, and generates a chrome (III) containing ash. This ash has significant commercial value as it can be reconstituted.

All of the wastes created by the tannery can be gasified following pre-treatment methods such as maceration, drying and subsequent densification or briquetting. A combined drying and gasification process could eliminate solid waste, whilst providing a combustible gas as a tax-exempt renewable energy source, which the tannery can directly reuse. Gasification trials have illustrated that up to 70% of the intrinsic energy value of the wastes currently disposed can be recovered as “synthesis gas” energy.

Gasification technology has the potential to provide significant cost benefits in terms of power generation and waste disposal, and increase sustainability within the leather industry. The gasification process converts any carbon-containing material into a combustible gas comprised primarily of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane, which can be used as a fuel to generate electricity and heat.

A wide range of tannery wastes can be macerated, flash dried, densified and gasified to generate a clean syngas for reuse in boilers or other Combined Heat and Power systems. As a result up to 70% of the intrinsic energy value of the waste can be recovered as syngas, with up to 60% of this being surplus to process drying requirements so can be recovered for on-site boiler or thermal energy recovery uses.

A proprietary technology has been in commercial operation at a tanyard on the West Coast of Norway since mid 2001. The process employs gasification-and-plasma-cracking and offer the capability of turning the tannery waste problem to a valorising source that may add values to the plant owner in terms of excessive energy and ferrochrome, a harmless alloy that is widely used by the metallurgical industry. The process leaves no ashes but a non-leaching slag that is useful for civil engineering works, and, hence, no residues for landfill disposal

Energy Potential of Palm Kernel Shells

palm-kernel-shellsThe Palm Oil industry in Southeast Asia and Africa generates large quantity of biomass wastes whose disposal is a challenging task. Palm kernel shells (or PKS) are the shell fractions left after the nut has been removed after crushing in the Palm Oil mill. Kernel shells are a fibrous material and can be easily handled in bulk directly from the product line to the end use. Large and small shell fractions are mixed with dust-like fractions and small fibres. Moisture content in kernel shells is low compared to other biomass residues with different sources suggesting values between 11% and 13%.

Palm kernel shells contain residues of Palm Oil, which accounts for its slightly higher heating value than average lignocellulosic biomass. Compared to other residues from the industry, it is a good quality biomass fuel with uniform size distribution, easy handling, easy crushing, and limited biological activity due to low moisture content. PKS can be readily co-fired with coal in grate fired -and fluidized bed boilers as well as cement kilns in order to diversify the fuel mix.

The primary use of palm kernel shells is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics. As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.

Palm kernel shells have been traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers in palm oil mills across Southeast Asia. The steam generated is used to run turbines for electricity production. These two solid fuels alone are able to generate more than enough energy to meet the energy demands of a palm oil mill. Most palm oil mills in the region are self-sufficient in terms of energy by making use of kernel shells and mesocarp fibers in cogeneration. In recent years, the demand for palm kernel shells has increased considerably in Europe, Asia-Pacific, China etc resulting in price close to that of coal. Nowadays, cement industries and power producers are increasingly using palm kernel shells to replace coal. In grate-fired boiler systems, fluidized-bed boiler systems and cement kilns, palm kernel shells are an excellent fuel.

Cofiring of PKS yields added value for power plants and cement kilns, because the fuel significantly reduces carbon emissions – this added value can be expressed in the form of renewable energy certificates, carbon credits, etc. However, there is a great scope for introduction of high-efficiency cogeneration systems in the industry which will result in substantial supply of excess power to the public grid and supply of surplus PKS to other nations. Palm kernel shell is already extensively in demand domestically by local industries for meeting process heating requirements, thus creating supply shortages in the market.

Palm oil mills around the world may seize an opportunity to supply electricity for its surrounding plantation areas using palm kernel shells, empty fruit branches and palm oil mill effluent which have not been fully exploited yet. This new business will be beneficial for all parties, increase the profitability for palm oil industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the electrification ratio in surrounding plantation regions.

Obstacles in Implementation of Waste-to-Energy

The biggest obstacle to the implementation of Waste-to-Energy (or WTE) lies not in the technology itself but in the acceptance of citizens. Citizens who are environmentally minded but lack awareness of the current status of waste-to-energy bring up concerns of environmental justice and organize around this. They view WTE as ‘dumping’ of pollutants on lower strata of society and their emotional critique rooted in the hope for environmental justice tends to move democracy.

An advocate of public understanding of science, Shawn Lawrence Otto regrets that the facts are not able to hold the same sway. Some US liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress are beginning to realize that the times and science have changed. It will take more consensus on the science and the go ahead from environmental groups before the conversation moves forward, seemingly improbable but not without precedent.

Spittelau Waste-to-Energy Plant

The Spittelau waste-to-energy plant is an example of opposition coming together in consensus over WTE. It was built in Vienna in 1971 with the purpose of addressing district heating and waste management issues. Much later awareness of the risks of dioxins emitted by such plants grew and the people’s faith in the technology was called into question. It also became a political issue whereby opposition parties challenged the mayor on the suitability of the plant. The economic interests of landfill owners also lay in the shutting down of the WTE facility. The alternative was to retrofit the same plant with advanced technology that would remove the dioxins through Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR).

Through public discussions it appeared that the majority of the people were against the plant altogether though thorough studies by informed researchers showed that the science backs WTE. The mayor, Helmut Zilk eventually consulted Green Party members on how to make this technology better perceived in the eyes of the people, and asked the famous Austrian artist Freidensreich Hundertwasser, who was a green party member to design the look of the plant. Freidensreich Hundertwasser after carefully studying the subject wrote a letter of support, stating his belief as to why WTE was needed and accepted Mayor Helmut Zilk’s request. Later public opinion polls showed that there were a majority of people who were either in favor of or not opinionated about the plant, with only 3% in outright opposition of the plant.

Polarized Discussion

Waste-to-Energy or recycling has kept public discourse from questioning whether there may not be intermediate or case specific solutions. This polarization serves to move the conversation nowhere. For now it can be agreed that landfills are devastating in their contribution to Climate Change and must be done away with. The choice then, of treatment processes for municipal solid waste are plentiful. If after recovery of recyclable materials there remains a sizeable waste stream the option of waste-to-energy can be explored.

Primary Considerations

  • Environmental implications (i.e. CO2 emissions vis-à-vis the next best fuel source) given the composition of the local waste stream. If the waste stream consists of a high percentage of recyclables the more sustainable waste strategy would be to ramp up recycling efforts rather than to adopt WTE,
  • Likely composition and variation of the waste stream and the feasibility of the technology to handle such a waste stream,
  • Financial considerations with regards to the revenue stream from the WTE facility and its long term viability,
  • Efforts at making citizens aware of the high standards achieved by this technology in order to secure their approval.

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

Use of Sewage Sludge in Cement Industry

Cities around the world produce huge quantity of municipal wastewater (or sewage) which represents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment, human health and marine life. Sewage generation is bound to increase at rapid rates due to increase in number and size of urban habitats and growing industrialization.

An attractive disposal method for sewage sludge is to use it as alternative fuel source in cement industry. The resultant ash is incorporated in the cement matrix. Infact, several European countries, like Germany and Switzerland, have already started adopting this practice for sewage sludge management. Sewage sludge has relatively high net calorific value of 10-20 MJ/kg as well as lower carbon dioxide emissions factor compared to coal when treated in a cement kiln. Use of sludge in cement kilns can also tackle the problem of safe and eco-friendly disposal of sewage sludge. The cement industry accounts for almost 5 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions worldwide. Treating municipal wastes in cement kilns can reduce industry’s reliance on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The use of sewage sludge as alternative fuel in clinker production is one of the most sustainable option for sludge waste management. Due to the high temperature in the kiln the organic content of the sewage sludge will be completely destroyed. The sludge minerals will be bound in the clinker after the burning process. The calorific value of sewage sludge depends on the organic content and on the moisture content of the sludge. Dried sewage sludge with high organic content possesses a high calorific value.  Waste coming out of sewage sludge treatment processes has a minor role as raw material substitute, due to their chemical composition.

The dried municipal sewage sludge has organic material content (ca. 40 – 45 wt %), therefore the use of this alternative fuel in clinker production will save fossil CO2 emissions. According to IPCC default of solid biomass fuel, the dried sewage sludge CO2 emission factor is 110 kg CO2/GJ without consideration of biogenic content. The usage of municipal sewage sludge as fuel supports the saving of fossil fuel emission.

Sludge is usually treated before disposal to reduce water content, fermentation propensity and pathogens by making use of treatment processes like thickening, dewatering, stabilisation, disinfection and thermal drying. The sludge may undergo one or several treatments resulting in a dry solid alternative fuel of a low to medium energy content that can be used in cement industry.

The use of sewage sludge as alternative fuel is a common practice in cement plants around the world, Europe in particular. It could be an attractive business proposition for wastewater treatment plant operators and cement industry to work together to tackle the problem of sewage sludge disposal, and high energy requirements and GHGs emissions from the cement industry.

Insights into MSW-to-Energy

You know the saying: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. When it comes to recovering energy from municipal solid waste — commonly called garbage or trash— that treasure can be especially useful. Instead of taking up space in a landfill, we can process our trash to produce energy to power our homes, businesses and public buildings.

In 2015, the United States got about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning municipal solid waste, or MSW. Seventy-one waste-to-energy plants and four additional power plants burned around 29 million tons of MSW in the U.S. that year. However, just 13 percent of the country’s waste becomes energy. Around 35 percent is recycled or composted, and the rest ends up in landfills.

Recovering Energy Through Incineration

The predominant technology for MSW-to-energy plants is incineration, which involves burning the trash at high temperatures. Similarly to how some facilities use coal or natural gas as fuel sources, power plants can also burn MSW as fuel to heat water, which creates steam, turns a turbine and produces electricity.

Several methods and technologies can play a role in burning trash to create electricity. The most common type of incineration plant is what’s called a mass-burn facility. These units burn the trash in one large chamber. The facility might sort the MSW before sending it to the combustion chamber to remove non-combustible materials and recyclables.

These mass-burn systems use excess air to facilitate mixing, and ensure air gets to all the waste. Many of these units also burn the fuel on a sloped, moving grate to mix the waste even further. These steps are vital because solid waste is inconsistent, and its content varies. Some facilities also shred the MSW before moving it to the combustion chamber.

Gasification Plants

Another method for converting trash into electricity is gasification. This type of waste-to-energy plant doesn’t burn MSW directly, but instead uses it as feedstock for reactions that produce a fuel gas known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas typically contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water vapor.

Approaches to gasification vary, but typically include high temperatures, high-pressure environments, very little oxygen and shredding MSW before the process begins. Common gasification methods include:

  • Pyrolysis, which involves little to no oxygen, partial pressure and temperatures between approximately 600 and 800 degrees Celsius.
  • Air-fed systems, which use air instead of pure oxygen and temperatures between 800 and 1,800 degrees Celsius.
  • Plasma or plasma arc gasification, which uses plasma torches to increase temperatures to 2,000 to 2,800 degrees Celsius.

Syngas can be burned to create electricity, but it can also be a component in the production of transportation fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Proponents of gasification report that it is a more efficient waste-to-energy method than incineration, and can produce around 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of MSW. Incineration, on average, produces 550 kilowatt-hours.

Challenges of MSW-to-Energy

Turning trash into energy seems like an ideal solution. We have a lot of trash to deal with, and we need to produce energy. MSW-to-energy plants solve both of those problems. However, a relatively small amount of waste becomes energy, especially in the U.S.

Typical layout of MSW-to-Energy Plant

This lack may be due largely to the upfront costs of building a waste-to-energy plant. It is much cheaper in the short term to send trash straight to a landfill. Some people believe these energy production processes are just too complicated and expensive. Gasification, especially, has a reputation for being too complex.

Environmental concerns also play a role, since burning waste can release greenhouse gases. Although modern technologies can make burning waste a cleaner process, its proponents still complain it is too dirty.

Despite these challenges, as trash piles up and we continue to look for new sources of energy, waste-to-energy plants may begin to play a more integral role in our energy production and waste management processes. If we handle it responsibly and efficiently, it could become a very viable solution to several of the issues our society faces.

Waste Management in Sweden: Perspectives

Sweden is considered as a global leader in sustainable waste management and in the reduction of per capita carbon footprint. The country consistently works to lower its greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency and increase public awareness. Over the past 10 years, Sweden developed methods of repurposing waste, so less than one percent of the total waste generated in the country makes it to landfills. To accomplish this, the country changed their perspective of garbage.

Increase Recycling

Recycling is a part of Swedish culture. Residents regularly sort recyclable materials and food scraps from other waste in their homes before disposal. This streamlines the recycling process and reduces the effort required to sort large volumes of waste at larger recycling centers. As another way to promote recycling, the Swedish government created legislation stating recycling centers must be within 1,000 feet of residential areas. Conveniently located facilities encourage citizens to properly dispose of their waste.

Repurpose Materials

Citizens are also encouraged to reuse or repurpose materials before recycling or disposing of them. Repurposing and reusing products requires less energy when compared to the recycling or waste disposal process. As Swedes use more repurposed products, they reduce the volume of new products they consume which are created from fresh materials. In turn, the country preserves more of its resources.

Invest in Waste to Energy

Over 50 percent of the waste generated in Sweden is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The energy produced by these facilities heats homes across the country during the long winter months. Localized heating — known as district heating — has improved air quality throughout the nation. It’s easier and more economical to control the emissions from several locations as opposed to multiple, smaller non-point sources.

Another benefit of waste-to-energy facilities is that ash and other byproducts of the burning process can be used for road construction materials. As a whole, Sweden doesn’t create enough waste to fuel its waste to energy plants — the country imports waste from its neighbors to keep its facilities going.

In the early 1990’s, the Swedish government shifted the responsibility for waste management from cities to the industries producing materials which would eventually turn to waste. To promote burning waste for energy, the government provides tax incentives to companies which make more economically attractive.

Impact of Waste-to-Energy

Although Sweden has eliminated the volume of trash entering landfills, they have increased their environmental impacts in other ways. Waste-to-energy facilities are relatively clean in that most harmful byproducts are filtered out before entering the environment, though they still release carbon-dioxide and water as their primary outputs. On average, waste-to-energy plants generate nearly 20 percent more carbon-dioxide when compared to coal plants.

 

waste-management-sweden

Coal plants burn and release carbon which is otherwise sequestered in the ground and unable to react with the earth’s atmosphere. Waste-to-energy facilities consume and release carbon from products made of organic materials, which naturally release their carbon over time. The downside to this process is that it frees the carbon from these materials at a much faster rate than it would be naturally.

The reliance on the waste-to-energy process to generate heat and the tax incentives may lower Swedish motivation to recycle and reuse materials. The country already needs to import trash to keep their waste-to-energy plants running regularly. Another disadvantage of this process is the removal and destruction of finite materials from the environment.

Even though Sweden continues to make strides in lowering their environmental impact as a whole, they should reevaluate their reliance on waste to energy facilities.