Waste-to-Energy in Saudi Arabia

waste-jeddahUrban waste management has emerged as a big challenge for the government and local bodies in Saudi Arabia. The country generates more than 15 million tons of municipal solid waste each year with per capita waste production estimated to be 2 kg per day, among the highest worldwide. Municipal waste production in three largest cities – Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam – exceeds 6 million tons per annum which gives an indication of the enormity of the problem faced by civic bodies.

The Problem of Waste

Municipal waste generation in Saudi Arabia is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Due to high population growth rate, rapid urbanization and fast-paced economic development, MSW generation is expected to cross 30 million tons per year by 2033. More than 75 percent of Kingdom’s population is concentrated in urban areas, and collected garbage is thrown in landfills or dumpsites without any processing or treatment.

Most of the landfills in Saudi Arabia are non-sanitary and prone to problems like leachate, vermin, flies and spontaneous fires, apart from greenhouse gas emissions.  It has become necessary for the Saudi government to devise an integrated waste management strategy, using international best practices and modern technologies, to tackle heaps of garbage accumulating across the country.

Promise of Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy provides a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution to both energy demand and MSW disposal problems in Saudi Arabia. Increasing waste generation, inability of existing solutions to tackle waste and expansion of cities into ex-dump sites are strong drivers for large-scale deployment of WTE systems in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has tremendous waste-to-energy potential due to plentiful availability of good quality municipal waste. Modern waste-to-energy technologies, such as RDF-based incineration, gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion have the ability to transform power demand and waste management scenario in the country.

A typical 250 – 300 tons per day garbage-to-energy plant can produce around 3 – 4 MW of electricity and a network of such plants in cities around the country can make a real difference in waste management as well as energy sectors.  In fact, such plants also produce tremendous about of heat energy which can be utilized in process industries and district cooling systems, further maximizing their usefulness.

Key Challenges

Around the world, waste-to-energy finds wide acceptance as a tool to manage urban wastes, with more than 1,000 waste-to-energy plants in operation globally, especially in Europe, China and the Asia-Pacific. However, waste-to-energy is struggling to get off-the-ground in Saudi Arabia due to several issues, the main reason being the cheap and plentiful availability of oil which prevents decision-makers to set effective regulations for waste-to-energy development in the country.

Waste-to-Energy is widely accepted as a part of sustainable waste management strategy worldwide.

Waste-to-Energy is widely accepted as a part of sustainable waste management strategy worldwide.

Policy-makers in KSA should consider waste-to-energy as a sustainable waste management solution, rather than as a power-producing industry. Unlike Western countries, waste management services are practically free-of-cost for the waste generators which act as a deterrent for governmental investment in new waste management solutions and technologies, such as waste-to-energy. Infact, waste collection, transport and disposal methods in Saudi Arabia do not match the standards of a developed country.

Future Outlook

Vision 2030, touted as most comprehensive economic reform package in Saudi history, puts forward a strong regulatory and investment framework to develop Saudi waste-to-energy sector. An ambitious target of 3GW of energy from waste is to be achieved by 2025.  A methodical introduction of modern waste management techniques like material recovery facilities, waste-to-energy systems and recycling infrastructure can significantly improve waste management scenario and can also generate good business opportunities.

To sum up, environmental issues associated with non-sanitary landfills, ineffectiveness of prevalent waste management model and rising energy demand are key drivers for development of waste-to-energy sector in Saudi Arabia.

Waste-to-Energy in India: An Interview with Salman Zafar

waste-mountainIndia’s waste-to-energy sector, which kicked off in 1987, is still searching for a successful role model, even after tens of millions of dollars of investment. In recent years, many ambitious waste-to-energy projects have been established or are being planned in different parts of the country, and it is hoped that things will brighten up in the coming years. Salman Zafar, CEO of BioEnergy Consult, talks to Power Today magazine on India’s tryst with waste-to-energy and highlights major challenges and obstacles in making waste-to-energy a success story in India.

Power Today: What are the challenges that the Waste to Energy sector faces in the current scenario where there is a rejuvenated interest in clean energy? Do you think the buzz around solar and wind power has relegated the Waste to Energy sector to the back benches?

Salman Zafar: India’s experience with waste-to-energy has been lackluster until now. The progress of waste-to-energy sector in India is hampered by multiples issues including

  1. poor quality of municipal waste,
  2. high capital and O&M costs of waste-to-energy systems,
  3. lack of indigenous technology,
  4. lack of successful projects and failure of several ambitious projects,
  5. lack of coordination between municipalities, state and central governments,
  6. heavy reliance on government subsidies,
  7. difficulties in obtaining long-term Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with state electricity boards (SEBs)
  8. lukewarm response of banks and financial institutions and (9) weak supply chain.

Waste-to-energy is different from solar (or wind) as it essentially aims to reduce the colossal amount of solid wastes accumulating in cities and towns all over India. In addition to managing wastes, waste-to-energy has the added advantage of producing power which can be used to meet rapidly increasing energy requirements of urban India. In my opinion, waste-to-energy sector has attracted renewed interest in the last couple of years due to Swachch Bharat Mission, though government’s heavy focus on solar power has impacted the development of waste-to-energy as well as biomass energy sectors.

Power Today: India has a Waste to Energy potential of 17,000 MW, of which only around 1,365 MW has been realised so far. How much growth do you expect in the sector?

Salman Zafar: As per Energy Statistics 2015 (refer to http://mospi.nic.in/Mospi_New/upload/Energy_stats_2015_26mar15.pdf), waste-to-energy potential in India is estimated to be 2,556 MW, of which approximately 150 MW (around 6%) has been harnessed till March 2016.

The progress of waste-to-energy sector in India is dependent on resolution of MSW supply chain issues, better understanding of waste management practices, lowering of technology costs and flexible financial model. For the next two years, I am anticipating an increase of around 75-100 MW of installed capacity across India.

Power Today: On the technological front, what kinds of advancements are happening in the sector?

Salman Zafar: Nowadays, advanced thermal technologies like MBT, thermal depolymerisation, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma gasification are hogging limelight, mainly due to better energy efficiency, high conversion rates and less emissions. Incineration is still the most popular waste-to-energy technology, though there are serious emission concerns in developing countries as many project developers try to cut down costs by going for less efficient air pollution control system.

Power Today: What according to you, is the general sentiment towards setting up of Waste to Energy plants? Do you get enough cooperation from municipal bodies, since setting up of plants involves land acquisition and capital expenditure?

Salman Zafar: Waste-to-energy projects, be it in India or any other developing country, is plagued by NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) effect. The general attitude towards waste-to-energy is that of indifference resulting in lukewarm public participation and community engagement in such projects.

Government should setup dedicated waste-to-energy research centres to develop lost-cost and low-tech waste to energy solutions

Government should setup dedicated waste-to-energy research centres to develop lost-cost and low-tech waste to energy solutions

Lack of cooperation from municipalities is a major factor in sluggish growth of waste-to-energy sector in India. It has been observed that sometimes municipal officials connive with local politicians and ‘garbage mafia’ to create hurdles in waste collection and waste transport. Supply of poor quality feedstock to waste-to-energy plants by municipal bodies has led to failure of several high-profile projects, such as 6 MW MSW-to-biogas project in Lucknow, which was shut down within a year of commissioning due to waste quality issues.

Power Today: Do you think that government policies are in tandem when it comes to enabling this segment? What policies need to be changed, evolved or adopted to boost this sector?

Salman Zafar: A successful waste management strategy demands an integrated approach where recycling and waste-to-energy are given due importance in government policies. Government should strive to setup a dedicated waste-to-energy research centre to develop a lost-cost and low-tech solution to harness clean energy from millions of tons of waste generated in India.

The government is planning many waste-to-energy projects in different cities in the coming years which may help in easing the waste situation to a certain extent. However, government policies should be inclined towards inclusive waste management, whereby the informal recycling community is not robbed of its livelihood due to waste-to-energy projects.

Government should also try to create favourable policies for establishment of decentralized waste-to-energy plants as big projects are a logistical nightmare and more prone to failure than small-to-medium scale venture.

Note: This interview was originally published in June 2016 edition of Power Today magazine. The unabridged version is available at this link

Waste-to-Energy in China: Perspectives

garbage-chinaChina is the world’s largest MSW generator, producing as much as 175 million tons of waste every year. With a current population surpassing 1.37 billion and exponential trends in waste output expected to continue, it is estimated that China’s cities will need to develop an additional hundreds of landfills and waste-to-energy plants to tackle the growing waste management crisis. China’s three primary methods for municipal waste management are landfills, incineration, and composting. Nevertheless, the poor standards and conditions they operate in have made waste management facilities generally inefficient and unsustainable. For example, discharge of leachate into the soil and water bodies is a common feature of landfills in China. Although incineration is considered to be better than landfills and have grown in popularity over the years, high levels of toxic emissions have made MSW incineration plants a cause of concern for public health and environment protection.

Prevalent Issues

Salman Zafar, a renowned waste management, waste-to-energy and bioenergy expert was interviewed to discuss waste opportunities in China. As Mr. Zafar commented on the current problems with these three primary methods of waste management used by most developing countries, he said, “Landfills in developing countries, like China, are synonymous with huge waste dumps which are characterized by rotting waste, spontaneous fires, toxic emissions and presence of rag-pickers, birds, animals and insects etc.” Similarly, he commented that as cities are expanding rapidly worldwide, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find land for siting new landfills. On incineration, Zafar asserted that this type of waste management method has also become a controversial issue due to emission concerns and high technology costs, especially in developing countries. Many developers try to cut down costs by going for less efficient air pollution control systems”. Mr. Zafar’s words are evident in the concerns reflected in much of the data ­that waste management practices in China are often poorly monitored and fraudulent, for which data on emission controls and environmental protection is often elusive.

Similarly, given that management of MSW involves the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of waste, Zafar explains why composting has also such a small number relative to landfills for countries like China. He says, “Composting is a difficult proposition for developing countries due to absence of source-segregation. Organic fraction of MSW is usually mixed with all sorts of waste including plastics, metals, healthcare wastes and industrial waste which results in poor quality of compost and a real risk of introduction of heavy metals into agricultural soils.” Given that China’s recycling sector has not yet developed to match market opportunities, even current treatment of MSW calls for the need of professionalization and institutionalization of the secondary materials industry.

While MSW availability is not an issue associated with the potential of the resource given its dispersion throughout the country and its exponential increase throughout, around 50 percent of the studies analyzed stated concerns for the high moisture content and low caloric value of waste in China, making it unattractive for WTE processes. Talking about how this issue can be dealt with, Mr. Zafar commented that a plausible option to increase the calorific value of MSW is to mix it with agricultural residues or wood wastes. Thus, the biomass resources identified in most of the studies as having the greatest potential are not only valuable individually but can also be processed together for further benefits.

Top Challenges

Among the major challenges on the other hand, were insufficient or elusive data, poor infrastructure, informal waste collection systems and the lack of laws and regulations in China for the industry. Other challenges included market risk, the lack of economic incentives and the high costs associated with biomass technologies. Nevertheless, given that the most recurring challenges cited across the data were related to infrastructure and laws and regulations, it is evident that China’s biomass policy is in extreme need of reform.

China’s unsustainable management of waste and its underutilized potential of MSW feedstock for energy and fuel production need urgent policy reform for the industry to develop. Like Mr. Zafar says, “Sustainable waste management demands an integration of waste reduction, waste reuse, waste recycling, and energy recovery from waste and landfilling. It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis”.

Future Perspectives

China’s government will play a key role in this integrated solid waste management strategy. Besides increased cooperation efforts between the national government and local governments to encourage investments in solid waste management from the private sector and foster domestic recycling practices, first, there is a clear need to establish specialized regulatory agencies (beyond the responsibilities of the State Environmental Protection Administration and the Ministry of Commerce) that can provide clearer operating standards for current WTE facilities (like sanitary landfills and incinerators) as well as improve the supervision of them.

It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis

It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis

Without clear legal responsibility assigned to specialized agencies, pollutant emissions and regulations related to waste volumes and operating conditions may continue to be disregarded. Similarly, better regulation in MSW management for efficient waste collection and separation is needed to incentivize recycling at the individual level by local residents in every city. Recycling after all is complementary to waste-to-energy, and like Salman Zafar explains, countries with the highest recycling rates also have the best MSW to energy systems (like Germany and Sweden). Nevertheless, without a market for reused materials, recycling will take longer to become a common practice in China. As Chinese authorities will not be able to stop the waste stream from growing but can reduce the rate of growth, the government’s role in promoting waste management for energy production and recovery is of extreme importance.

Moving Grate Incineration: Preferred WTE Technology

moving-grate-incinerationIncineration is the most popular waste treatment method that transforms waste materials into useful energy. The incineration process converts waste into ash, flue gas, and heat. The type of thermal WTE technology most commonly used worldwide for municipal solid waste is the moving grate incineration. These moving grate incinerators are even sometimes referred to as as the Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators (MSWIs). As of August 2013, of more than 1000 of 1200 Waste-to-Energy plants (among 40 different countries) there is no pre-treatment of the MSW before it is combusted using a moving grate. The hot combustion gases are commonly used in boilers to create steam that can be utilized for electricity production. The excess energy that can’t be used for electricity can possibly be used for industrial purposes, such as desalination or district heating/cooling

Benefits of Moving Grate

The moving grate incineration technology is lenient in that it doesn’t need prior MSW sorting or shredding and can accommodate large quantities and variations of MSW composition and calorific value. With over 100 years of operation experience, the moving grate incineration system has a long track record of operation for mixed MSW treatment. Between 2003 and 2011, it was reported that at least 106 moving grate incineration plants were built worldwide for MSW treatment. Currently, it is the main thermal treatment used for mixed MSW.

Compared to other thermal treatment technologies, the unit capacity and plant capacity of the moving grate incineration system is the highest, ranging from 10 to 920 tpd and 20 to 4,300 tpd. This system is able to operate 8,000 hours per year with one scheduled stop for inspection and maintenance of a duration of roughly one month. Today, the moving grate incineration system is the only treatment type which has been proven to be capable of treating over 3,000 tpd of mixed MSW without requiring any pretreatment steps. Being composed of six lines of furnace, one of the world’s largest moving grate incineration plants has a capacity of 4,300 tpd and was installed in Singapore by Mitsubishi in 2000

Working Principle

Moving-grate incineration requires that the grate be able to move the waste from the combustion chamber to allow for an effective and complete combustion. A single incineration plant is able to process thirty-five metric tons of waste per hour of treatment.

The MSW for a moving grate incinerator does not require pretreatment. For this reason, it is easier to process large variations and quantities. Most of these incineration plants have hydraulic feeders to feed as-received MSW to the combustion chamber (a moving grate that burns the material), a boiler to recover heat, an air pollution control system to clean toxins in the flus gas, and discharge units for the fly ash. The air or water-cooled moving grate is the central piece of the process and is made of special alloys that resist the high temperature and avoid erosion and corrosion.

The waste is first dried on the grate and then burnt at a high temperature (850 to 950 degrees C) accompanied with a supply of air. With a crane, the waste itself is emptied into an opening in the grate. The waste then moves towards the ash pit and it is then treated with water, cleaning the ash out. Air then flows through the waste, cooling the grate. Sometimes grates can also be cooled with water instead. Air gets blown through the boiler once more (but faster this time) to complete the burning of the flue gases to improve the mixing and excess of oxygen.

Suitability for Developing Nations

For lower income and developing countries with overflowing landfills, the moving grate incinerator seems suitable and efficient. Moving grate incineration is the most efficient technology for a large-scale mixed MSW treatment because it is the only thermal technology that has been able to treat over 3,000 tons of mixed MSW per day. It also seems to be considerably cheaper than conventional technologies.

Compared to other types of Waste-to-Energy technologies, this type of system also shows the highest ability to handle variation of MSW characteristics. As for the other incineration technologies like gasification and pyrolysis technologies, these are either limited in small-scale, limited in material for industrial/hazardous waste treatment, requiring preprocessing of mixed MSW before feeding, which make them not suitable for large-scale mixed MSW treatment.


For the reduction of significant waste volume, treatment using a moving grate incinerator with energy recovery is the most commonly used form of waste-to-energy (WTE) technology. The moving grate’s ability to treat significant volumes of waste efficiently, while not requiring pre-treatment or sorting is a major advantage that makes this suitable for developing countries. This technology could provide many other benefits to such nations. Implementing moving grate incinerators is most suitable for developing nations because not only will it reduce waste volume, but it would also reduce the demand for landfills, and could recover energy for electricity.


 “A Rapidly Emerging WTE Technology: Circulating Fluid Bed Combustion”. Huang, Qunxing, Yong Chi1, and Nickolas J. Themelis. Proceedings of International Thermal Treatment Technologies (IT3), San Antonio, TX, October 2013. Columbia University. Available: http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/sofos/Rapid_Emerging_Tech_CFB.pdf accessed on 29 March 2016.
“Incineration.” Waste Management Resources. Waste Management Resources. Available: http://www.wrfound.org.uk/articles/incineration.html accessed on 29 March 2016.
Kamuk, Bettina, and Jørgen Haukohl. ISWA Guidelines: Waste to Energy in Low and Middle Income Countries. Rep. International Solid Waste Association, 2013. Print.
“Municipal Solid Waste Management and Waste-to-Energy in the United States, China and Japan.” Themelis, Nickolas J., and Charles Mussche. 2nd International Academic Symposium on Enhanced Landfill Mining, Houthalen and Helchteren, Belgium, 4-16 October 2013.  Enhanced Landfill Mining. Columbia University. Available: http://elfm.eu/Uploads/ELFM/FILE_73D907E9-8225-4B93-91F8-10F71F59B793.PDF accessed on 29 March 2016.
“Review of MSW Thermal Treatment Tecnologies.” Lai, K.C.K., I.M.C. Lo, and T.T.Z. Liu. Proceedings of the International Conference on Solid Waste 2011- Moving Towards Sustainable Resource Management, Hong Kong SAR, P.R. China, 2 – 6 May 2011. Hong Kong SAR, P.R. China. 2011. 317-321. Available: http://www.iswa.org/uploads/tx_iswaknowledgebase/10_Thermal_Technology.pdf. accessed on 14 April 2016.
UN-HABITAT, 2010. Collection of Municipal Solid Waste in Developing Countries. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Nairobi. Available:
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Peeping into the Future of Waste

Waste management is an important tool for curbing climate change and for keeping our environment clean and healthy. Methane generated from biodegradable wastes is a powerful greenhouse gas, and when it’s not captured and used as a fuel it contributes to rapid warming of the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that biodegradable waste in dump sites and uncapped landfill sites are contributing far more methane to the atmosphere than previously thought. What’s more, urban food waste is predicted to increase by 44% from 2005 to 2025, and with no proper management in place, will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Worryingly, 38 of the world’s 50 largest dumps are close to the sea, contributing to marine and coastal pollution. The accumulation of plastics in the marine food chain is causing global concern. While we don’t yet know how to clean the oceans, stemming the flow of waste into marine environments would be a step in the right direction.

Wasted health

40% of the world’s waste ends up in open dumps. These aren’t even what you’d call “landfill”. They don’t have any impervious lining to prevent noxious leachate from entering the surrounding environment, nor are they capped to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, the health risk from open dumping of waste is greater than the risk of malaria[i].

3.5 billion people in the world lack access to proper waste management. That figure is expected to grow to 5 billion by 2050. Respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases and occupational health risks add to the misery experienced by the 50,000+ people living from open dumps.

Waste is any material that is no longer wanted for its original purpose. The owner doesn’t have a need for it, and so discards it. Even valuable items can and do end up as waste purely because someone has thrown them away. The recent (and rather brilliant) BBC programme Hugh’s War on Waste shone the spotlight on attitudes towards disposable fashion. A look through the bins of a typical street uncovered a startling amount of clothing that had been thrown away, despite it still being in perfectly good condition. This highlights a simple fact: there is plenty of value in waste.

  • Estimates suggest there are 40 million people globally who are making their living from waste – half of these are working informally.
  • During the last recession in the UK, the waste management sector was one of the only industries to keep growing, resulting in it being termed the “Green Star of the Economy”.
  • Showing people how to turn a waste stream into something valuable isn’t rocket science. There are lots of examples of informal, community-based, grassroots recycling and upcycling projects that generate wealth for the poorest in society.
  • Internet is allowing simple waste processing techniques to be replicated all over the world, and helping make that information accessible is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.

Business skills

“Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Show a man how to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Teaching people how to make valuable products from waste is important. But just as important, is passing on the business skills to be able to identify a market, factor in costs, check out the competition, market their products and run a successful business.

Development work in the waste arena needs to address both sides of the coin, and in doing so will enable people to start up their own businesses, in their own communities, and generate wealth organically. That’s far more valuable than delivering aid in a ready-made package (which incidentally rarely works – there’s a great TED Talk on this topic by Ernesto Sirolli, called “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen”).

Why closing dumps isn’t a silver bullet

The proliferation of megacities, particularly in developing countries, is causing a health crisis. Decent waste management is an indicator of good governance – that is, if a council or government can collect taxes and provide a waste management service, then it most likely isn’t (very) corrupt. However, in many places where corruption or other forms of bad or weak governance prevail, top-down solutions are notoriously difficult to implement.

Often, when the world’s attention turns to an open dump, the government responds by closing it and the journalists go home. This is what happened with Smokey Mountain dumpsite in the Philippines (and many others around the world). All that happens is another open dump emerges nearby, and the scavengers move to the new site.

The problem is that if there is no alternative solution in place, people will discard of their waste in the only ways available – dumping it or burning it; and the poor will follow the waste.

Replacing an open dump with a government-controlled waste management system isn’t a silver bullet either. The losers, again, are the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of men, women and children who live from scavenging from the dump. It may seem horrific to many of us, but the truth is that if you take that opportunity to earn a paltry living away from the poorest in society, they will starve. Solutions need to be inclusive.

Power to the people

To close dump sites, you need to have a workable alternative solution in place. You need to have regular waste collection taking place, and you need somewhere to take it. Building materials recovery facilities alongside existing open dumps is one idea. Informal waste pickers who are currently working in dangerous conditions on the dumpsite can gain employment (or better still, form a cooperative) sorting recyclable materials and reducing the amount of real “waste” that needs to be disposed of.

For example, Wecyclers in Lagos, Nigeria employs people to cycle around collecting recyclable materials from households. In return for their source-separated waste, the householder receives a small reward.

In Bangalore, IGotGarbage has harnessed the power of phone apps to enable people who were previously waste pickers to be called directly to a house to collect the waste materials. Solutions like this work because they continue to provide livelihoods for people, while taking waste off the streets.

The need for appropriate technology

There will always be something left though: the stuff that really has little value other than the energy embodied in it. In industrialised countries, energy-from-waste incinerators have become popular. Seen as a clean alternative to landfill, these facilities burn the waste, release the energy, and convert it into heat, electricity and ash. Some of that ash (from the air pollution control system) still needs to be disposed of in specially-prepared hazardous waste landfill sites. The remainder, being fairly benign, can be used to make concrete building blocks.

However, incinerators are fairly technology-heavy, rendering them unsuitable for many developing country contexts.

A problem that we’ve witnessed is that waste management companies from industrialised nations try to wholesale their technology in developing countries. The technology is usually unaffordable, and even if the capital can be raised to procure a facility, as soon as something breaks down the whole solution can fall apart.

There is a need for information about simple waste processing technologies to become more open-sourced. Smart future-thinking businesses could capitalise on selling blueprints rather than entire prefabricated facilities. Most of the time it’s far cheaper to fabricate something locally, and also means that when something breaks it can be fixed.

The continuing need for landfill

The fact is that in most cases, a standard, lined landfill site with landfill gas capture is still the most appropriate answer for non-recyclable waste. Add to that a well-organised, low-cost waste collection service with source separation of recyclable materials and biodegradable waste, and you have a relatively affordable solution that is better for the climate, better for health, better for the local economy, and contributes to a more sustainable future.

Landfill may seem very unfashionable to those of us who work in the recycling sector, but nevertheless it will remain a necessity both in developed and developing countries for the foreseeable future.

Joining forces and stepping stones

The success of the Sustainable Development Goals and potential Climate Change Agreement depend on developed and developing countries working together. Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, said the Climate Coalition alliance showed that developed and developing countries could work together with a common interest. “These negotiations are not about them and us. They are about all of us, developed and developing countries, finding common ground and solutions together. We urge other countries to join us. Together we can do it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are facing a waste crisis of unprecedented proportion. The potential for waste management in reducing GHG emissions has never been more pertinent. Waste and development practitioners, academics and entrepreneurs around the world are working together more and more to help bring about the change we want to see, which will benefit the billions of people suffering from poor waste management, and the rest of us who share a warming planet – and share the burden of climate change and poverty.

By sharing knowledge through platforms such as beWasteWise and ISWA, and through initiatives like WasteAidWASTE and Wiego, we can start making a dent in this very large problem.

No silver bullets, but lots of small stepping stones in the right direction.

Note: The original and unabridged version of the article can be found at this link. Please visit http://zlcomms.co.uk/ for more information about the author.

Trends in Waste-to-Energy Industry

The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in almost all 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 up to 18 billion tonnes by year 2020. Ironically, most of the wastes are disposed of in open fields, along highways or burnt wantonly.

Size of the Industry

Around 130 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are combusted annually in over 600 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities globally that produce electricity and steam for district heating and recovered metals for recycling. The global market for biological and thermochemical waste-to-energy technologies is expected to reach USD 7.4 billion in 2013 and grow to USD 29.2 billion by 2022. Incineration, with energy recovery, is the most common waste-to-energy method employed worldwide. Since 1995, the global WTE industry increased by more than 16 million tonnes of MSW. Over the last five years, waste incineration in Europe has generated between an average of 4% to 8% of their countries’ electricity and between an average of 10% to 15% of the continent’s domestic heat.

Advanced thermal technologies, like pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion systems are beginning to make deep inroads in the waste-to-energy sector and are expected to increase their respective market shares on account of global interest in integrated waste management framework in urban areas. Scarcity of waste disposal sites coupled with growing waste volumes and solid waste management challenges are generating high degree of interest in energy-from-waste systems among policy-makers, urban planners, entrepreneurs, utility companies etc.

Regional Trends

Currently, the European nations are recognized as global leaders of waste-to-energy movement. They are followed behind by the Asia Pacific region and North America respectively. In 2007 there are more than 600 WTE plants in 35 different countries, including large countries such as China and small ones such as Bermuda. Some of the newest plants are located in Asia. China is witnessing a surge in waste-to-energy installations and has plans to establish 125 new waste-to-energy plants during the twelfth five-year plan ending 2015.

Incineration is the most common waste-to-energy method used worldwide.

The United States processes 14 percent of its trash in WTE plants. Denmark, on the other hand, processes more than any other country – 54 percent of its waste materials. As at the end of 2008, Europe had more than 475 WTE plants across its regions – more than any other continent in the world – that processes an average of 59 million tonnes of waste per annum. In the same year, the European WTE industry as a whole had generated revenues of approximately US$4.5bn.

Legislative shifts by European governments have seen considerable progress made in the region’s WTE industry as well as in the implementation of advanced technology and innovative recycling solutions. The most important piece of WTE legislation pertaining to the region has been the European Union’s Landfill Directive, which was officially implemented in 2001 which has resulted in the planning and commissioning of an increasing number of WTE plants over the past five years.

Importance of Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy has been evolving over the years and there are many new developments in this technology, moving in mainly one direction – to be able to applied to smaller size waste streams. Not only is it a strategy that has real importance for the current public policy, it is a strategy that will definitely present itself to additional areas.

More than 50% of waste that is burnt in waste-to-energy facilities is already part of the short carbon cycle. In which case, it has an organic derivative and it doesn’t add to climate change, to begin with. The long form carbon that is burned, things like plastics that have come out of the ground in the form of oil do add to climate change. But, they have already been used once. They have already been extracted once and what we are doing is taking the energy out of them after that physical use, capturing some of that (energy), thereby offsetting more carbon from natural gas or oil or coal. So, the net effect is a reduction in carbon emissions.

Waste-to-energy and recycling are complementary depending on the results of analyses of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which are absolutely valid. One can decide in specific situations whether waste-to-energy or whether some type of recycling technology would be more appropriate. It is not an either/or option.

In Austria, it was possible to have an absolute ban on landfilling wastes exceeding 5% organic carbon. This is written in law since 1996. There were some exceptions for some period of time, but landfills of organic wastes are just banned, not just in Austria but also in other cultures similar to Austria – like Switzerland and Germany.

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 Conversion Routes

Teesside-WTE-plantWaste-to-energy is the use of modern combustion and biological technologies to recover energy from urban wastes. There are three major waste to energy pathways – thermochemical, biochemical and physico-chemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. On the other hand, biochemical technologies are more suitable for wet wastes which are rich in organic matter.

Thermochemical Conversion

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.


Combustion technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine. Plasma gasification, which takes place at extremely high temperature, is also hogging limelight nowadays.

Biochemical Conversion

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. Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas. Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat.

In addition, a variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

Physico-chemical Conversion

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter are then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into pellets or RDF. Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.

Biogas Plants at Akshaya Patra Kitchens

Akshaya-Patra-Kitchen-BioGasThe Akshaya Patra Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, is focused on addressing two of the most important challenges in India – hunger and education. Established in year 2000, the Foundation began its work by providing quality mid-day meals to 1500 children in 5 schools in Bangalore with the understanding that the meal would attract children to schools, after which it would be easier to retain them and focus on their holistic development. 14 years later, the Foundation has expanded its footprint to cover over 1.4 million children in 10 states and 24 locations across India.

The Foundation has centralised, automated kitchens that can cook close to 6,000 kilos of rice, 4.5 to 5 tonnes of vegetables and 6,000 litres of sambar, in only 4 hours. In order to make sustainable use of organic waste generated in their kitchens, Akshaya Patra Foundation has set up anaerobic digestion plants to produce biogas which is then used as a cooking fuel. The primary equipment used in the biogas plants includes size reduction equipment, feed preparation tank for hydrolysis of waste stream, anaerobic digester, H2S scrubber and biogas holder.

Working Principle

Vegetable peels, rejects and cooked food waste are shredded and soaked with cooked rice water (also known as ganji) in a feed preparation tank for preparation of homogeneous slurry and fermentative intermediates. The hydrolyzed products are then utilized by the microbial culture, anaerobically in the next stage. This pre-digestion step enables faster and better digestion of organics, making our process highly efficient.

The hydrolyzed organic slurry is fed to the anaerobic digester, exclusively for the high rate biomethanation of organic substrates like food waste. The digester is equipped with slurry distribution mechanism for uniform distribution of slurry over the bacterial culture. Optimum solids are retailed in the digester to maintain the required food-to-microorganism ratio in the digester with the help of a unique baffle arrangement. Mechanical slurry mixing and gas mixing provisions are also included in the AD design to felicitate maximum degradation of organic material for efficient biogas production. After trapping moisture and scrubbing off hydrogen sulphide from the biogas, it is collected in a gas-holder and a pressurized gas tank. This biogas is piped to the kitchen to be used as a cooking fuel, replacing LPG.

Basic Design Data and Performance Projections

Waste handling capacity 1 ton per day cooked and uncooked food waste with 1 ton per day ganji water

Input Parameters                      

Amount of solid organic waste 1000 Kg/day
Amount of organic wastewater ~ 1000 liters/day ganji (cooked rice water)

Biogas Production

Biogas production ~ 120 – 135 m3/day

Output Parameters

Equivalent LPG to replace 50 – 55 Kg/day (> 2.5 commercial LPG cylinders)
Fertilizer (digested leachate) ~ 1500 – 2000 liters/day

Major Benefits

Modern biogas installations are providing Akshaya Patra, an ideal platform for managing organic waste on a daily basis. The major benefits are:

  • Solid waste disposal at kitchen site avoiding waste management costs
  • Immediate waste processing overcomes problems of flies, mosquitos etc.
  • Avoiding instances when the municipality does not pick up waste, creating nuisance, smell, spillage etc.
  • Anaerobic digestion of Ganji water instead of directly treating it in ETP, therefore reducing organic load on the ETPs and also contributing to additional biogas production.

The decentralized model of biogas based waste-to-energy plants at Akshaya Patra kitchens ensure waste destruction at source and also reduce the cost incurred by municipalities on waste collection and disposal.


An on-site system, converting food and vegetable waste into green energy is improving our operations and profits by delivering the heat needed to replace cooking LPG while supplying a rich liquid fertilizer as a by-product.  Replacement of fossil fuel with LPG highlights our organization’s commitment towards sustainable development and environment protection.

The typical ROI of a plug and play system (without considering waste disposal costs, subsidies and tax benifts) is around three years.

Future Plans

Our future strategy for kitchen-based biogas plant revolves around two major points:

  • Utilization of surplus biogas – After consumption of biogas for cooking purposes, Akshaya Patra will consider utilizing surplus biogas for other thermal applications. Additional biogas may be used to heat water before boiler operations, thereby reducing our briquette consumption.
  • Digested slurry to be used as a fertilizer – the digested slurry from biogas plant is a good soil amendment for landscaping purposes and we plan to use it in order to reduce the consumption of water for irrigation as well as consumption of chemical fertilizers.

Gasification of Municipal Wastes

utishinai-gasification-plantGasification of municipal wastes involves the reaction of carbonaceous feedstock with an oxygen-containing reagent, usually oxygen, air, steam or carbon dioxide, generally at temperatures above 800°C. The process is largely exothermic but some heat may be required to initialise and sustain the gasification process. The main product of the gasification process is syngas, which contains carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane. Typically, the gas generated from gasification has a low heating value (LHV) of 3 – 6 MJ/Nm3.The other main product produced by gasification is a solid residue of non-combustible materials (ash) which contains a relatively low level of carbon. Syngas can be used in a number of ways, including:

  • Syngas can be burned in a boiler to generate steam for power generation or industrial heating.
  • Syngas can be used as a fuel in a dedicated gas engine.
  • Syngas, after reforming, can be used in a gas turbine
  • Syngas can also be used as a chemical feedstock.

Gasification has been used worldwide on a commercial scale for several decades by the chemical, refining, fertilizer and electric power industries. MSW gasification plants are relatively small-scale, flexible to different inputs and modular development. The quantity of power produced per tonne of waste by gasification process is larger than when applying the incineration method. The most important reason for the growing popularity of gasification of municipal wastes has been the increasing technical, environmental and public dissatisfaction with the performance of conventional incinerators.

Plasma Gasification

Plasma gasification uses extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-starved environment to completely decompose input waste material into very simple molecules in a process similar to pyrolysis. The heat source is a plasma discharge torch, a device that produces a very high temperature plasma gas. It is carried out under oxygen-starved conditions and the main products are vitrified slag, syngas and molten metal.


Vitrified slag may be used as an aggregate in construction; the syngas may be used in energy recovery systems or as a chemical feedstock; and the molten metal may have a commercial value depending on quality and market availability. The technology has been in use for steel-making and is used to melt ash to meet limits on dioxin/furan content. There are several commercial-scale plants already in operation in Japan for treating MSW and auto shredder residue.

Advantages of Gasification

There are numerous solid waste gasification facilities operating or under construction around the world. Gasification of solid wastes has several advantages over traditional combustion processes for MSW treatment. It takes place in a low oxygen environment that limits the formation of dioxins and of large quantities of SOx and NOx. Furthermore, it requires just a fraction of the stoichiometric amount of oxygen necessary for combustion. As a result, the volume of process gas is low, requiring smaller and less expensive gas cleaning equipment.

The lower gas volume also means a higher partial pressure of contaminants in the off-gas, which favours more complete adsorption and particulate capture. Finally, gasification generates a fuel gas that can be integrated with combined cycle turbines, reciprocating engines and, potentially, with fuel cells that convert fuel energy to electricity more efficiently than conventional steam boilers.

Disadvantages of Gasification

The gas resulting from gasification of municipal wastes contains various tars, particulates, halogens, heavy metals and alkaline compounds depending on the fuel composition and the particular gasification process. This can result in agglomeration in the gasification vessel, which can lead to clogging of fluidised beds and increased tar formation. In general, no slagging occurs with fuels having ash content below 5%. MSW has a relatively high ash content of 10-12%.