A Primer on Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-Energy (also known as energy-from-waste) is the use of thermochemical and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity, steam and fuels, 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.

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.

Municipal Waste Management in Poland

Municipal waste management in Poland has changed dramatically since the early ’90s when, as part of Poland’s privatisation program, municipal authorities were freed of their waste management obligations. The combined Polish recycling rate for dry recyclables and organic waste has increased from 5% in 2004 to 21% in 2010, according to a Copenhagen Resource Institute (CRI) study Municipal Waste Management in Poland (2013). Another source provides similar, corroborating statistics, putting the dry recycling rate in Poland at 14% and the composting rate at 7%.

waste-dump-warsaw

The latest Eurostat data (for 2011) shows that the upward trend continuing, with the total recycled and composted reaching 28%. That is rapid rate of improvement, but leaves Poland well below the latest EU-27 average of 40% (25% recycled and 15% composted) – so what prospect is there of Poland reaching the EU’s mandatory 50% target by 2020?

Responsibility for waste disposal shifted to householders, who were left to individually contract any waste collection company of their choice. In the hard economic climate a ‘cheaper-the-better’ mentality prevailed, which did little to encourage sustainable practices. There wasn’t even an obligation on householders even to sign up for waste collection.

Landfilling was – and remains – the most common way of handling waste, but accompanying reporting and tracking methods were inadequate. Statistically, quantities of waste produced were usually larger than those collected, with the missing tonnages usually being dumped in forests or burned in domestic boilers to avoid waste disposal costs. As a result, waste management became largely uncontrolled, with a 2011 report concluding that ‘’waste management is one of the most badly neglected and at the same time one of the most urgent environmental issues for Poland.’’

Waste Management Legislation

Even after joining the EU in 2005, Poland didn’t rush to introduce reforms to improve practices and help to meet recycling targets. Only recently has Poland introduced several pieces of new waste related legislation, including:

  • Act on maintaining cleanliness and order in municipalities (2012);
  • Act on Waste (2012); and
  • Act on management of packaging and packaging waste (2013).

The first of these was revolutionary in that it gave responsibility for municipal waste collection and disposal back to municipalities. Now they are required to organise garbage collection and the separate collection of biodegradable waste and recyclable materials such as paper, metal, glass and plastic. It is expected that the new law will improve waste management control measures on a local level and greatly reduce the illegal dumping and trash burning.

The Act on Waste helps tackle the previous ‘free for all’ amongst collectors – it obliges waste handlers to act in a manner consistent with waste management principles and plans adopted at national level (by the Council of Ministers), regional level (Voivodeship) and local level (Municipality).

Poland has also this year adopted a new National Waste Management Plan, which states that an essential step towards improving the recycling rate in Poland is to increase landfill fees for recyclable, compostable or recoverable material. If acted upon, this could greatly increase the incentive to divert important municipal waste streams from landfill. The Polish market is clearly responsive to cost: in 2008 after landfill tax was significantly raised, there was a substantial reduction in waste being landfilled.

Declaration of bin-dependence

Although Polish citizens have always had to pay directly for waste collection, the new legislation has made some substantial changes to the payment system. There are now three different calculation methods. Each household is subject to a standard fee, which is then adjusted to reflect either:

  • The number of people living in a household;
  • The number of square metres covered by the property; or
  • The number of cubic metres of water used by the household per month.

The first of these options seems to be the most reasonable and has proven the most popular.

Municipalities are left to determine the standard collection fee, which as a result varies from region to region. Some municipalities charge at little as 3 Polish Zloty (around £0.56) per household, per person, per month, while some charge 20 Zloty (around £3.75).

The standard charge is also affected by a declaration made by the householder regarding waste segregation. If a property owner declares that they have separated out recyclable materials then they pay considerably lower fees. In some municipalities, this could be as low as 50% of the usual charge. Only those who declare that they don’t want to recycle pay full price. It’s rare that people do so: who would pick the most expensive option?

The problem is that some householders declare that they recycle their waste while in reality they don’t. Unfortunately, abusing the system is easy to get away with, especially since the new scheme is still in its early stages and is not yet stable. Monitoring recycling participation in order to crack down on such abuses of the system represents quite a challenging task.

Future Perspectives

Transformation periods are always hard and it is common that they bring misunderstanding and chaos. It isn’t surprising that there are problems with the new system which require ironing out, and the new legislation is nevertheless welcome. However, there is still much work to be done to provide sufficient and sustainable waste management in Poland. This will include such measures as educating the population, improving waste separation at source and securing waste treatment capacity.

Perhaps most importantly, Poland needs to take immediate action to develop its municipal waste treatment capacity across the board. If the 2020 recycling target is to be met, the country will require material recovery facilities, anaerobic digestion and in vessel composting sites, and household waste and recycling centres; and if more waste is to be diverted from landfill it will also need energy from waste (EfW) incinerators and mechanical biological treatment facilities.

According to Eurostat, only 1% of waste in Poland was incinerated in 2011. It has been confirmed so far that an EfW plant will be developed in each of Poland’s 11 biggest cities. Fortunately for Poland, the development of waste treatment installations is quite generously funded by the EU, which covers up to 80% of the total cost: EU subsidy agreements have already been signed for three of the planned EfW plants. The remaining cost will be covered by central, regional and local government.

The CRI paper presents three different scenarios for the future recycling rate in Poland. One of them is very optimistic and predicts that Poland has a chance to meet the 2020 recycling requirements, but each is based simply on a regression analysis of recent trends, rather than an analysis of the likely impact of recent and planned policy measures. What it does make clear, though, is that if Poland continues to progress as it has since 2006, it will reach the 2020 target. How many EU countries can claim that?

Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original version of the article can be found at this link.