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Why waste-to-energy excels other waste technologies

Today, European governments face two enormous environmental challenges:

  • The European Union has committed to reducing greenhouse gases by at least 20% by 2020. (Source: Decision No. 406/2009/EC)
  • By 2020, the OECD estimates that Europe could be generating 45% more waste than in 1995. (Source: EU Commission)

These are hard facts and neutral observations. And incredibly important issues that our political leaders must address - not soon but now!

Even more worrisome, there is a hidden third challenge: Although Europe appears to be cutting down on both energy consumption and the amount of solid waste it produces, these developments are most likely due to our poor economy, not a change in either our behaviour or technologies. (Source: Eurostat)

How can Europe reduce its dependence on non-renewable energy sources without reducing its capability for economic and social growth? There is an answer.

Out of sight, out of mind

For centuries, the “convenient” solution to waste management was to bury waste or dump it at sea. Today, we know that neither are environmentally responsible solutions. Our seas are fighting their own battle for survival; we need not contribute to the pollution problem. And (assuming sites are available) landfills generate methane and other greenhouse gases; precisely the problem we seek to avoid. Worse still, when improperly vented, they can also explode. Google “Abbeystead” or “Loscoe” for background stories and death tolls.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.ch), landfill emissions contribute to 18% of the total methane emissions to the atmosphere, ranging from 9 to 70 megatons annually. Keep in mind, too, that methane has a global-warming potential that is 21 times greater than CO2.

Alas, to politicians looking to get reelected, short-term expediency is always more attractive than a long-term solution. Yet the fact remains: two tons of waste equals one ton of coal. And four tons of waste equals one ton of oil. That’s a lot of energy to throw away in a landfill.

Waste-to-energy and the effect on recycling

Many opponents of waste-to-energy technology suggest that if trash is burned, people will stop recycling or local authorities will have little incentive to invest in recycling. Yet recycling and waste-to-energy are complementary policies that support sustainability and long-term conservation.

According to a 2009 study of municipal waste treatment across all 27 EU member nations, countries that have successfully reduced dependence on landfill (1% and below) actually boast the highest recycling rates in Europe and have achieved this in combination with modern waste-to-energy facilities. (Source: Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants/Eurostat)

The biogas myth

Organic waste - dead plant and animal material, animal feces, and kitchen waste - can be converted into a gaseous fuel called biogas. Through sophisticated controlled recovery systems, methane and other gases can be captured from landfills and composting stations, compressed, and reused as fuel. Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany are currently using biogas to fuel prototype public transportation systems.

However, biogas production results in only 60% gas. Roughly 40% remains as sludge because the organic material itself is almost never clean and the composting process is inefficient. This sludge often contains:

  • Pthalates
  • Heavy metals
  • Trace pharmaceuticals

You cannot spread this contaminated sludge on a field as fertilizer. You cannot sell it. You cannot reuse it. Yet it represents up to 40% of the total volume of organic waste - and a significant percentage of the potential energy content. Only the most die-hard biogas enthusiasts will argue that 60% efficiency is the best modern waste-to-energy technology can provide. And only the most naive listeners will accept this enthusiasm for a new and poorly documented technology at face value. Moreover, when the total energy cycle is considered - including the radically increased truck traffic that is a necessary byproduct of biogas production - the numbers are far from convincing.

Combustion - 99% efficiency, proven technology

Burning waste has always been effective in terms of reducing mass. But energy recovery has not always been particularly good and pollution from flue gases has been a problem. That’s the story you often hear from those who have not followed the dramatic technological developments of the past decade.

But today, the combustion story is different:

  • Almost 100% of the energy contained in the burned waste is recovered
  • Over 99% of the flue gases are cleaned and water vapour is condensed

When we look at the issue of energy conservation, modern waste-to-energy plants can provide:

  • A 15% reduction in greenhouse gases by avoiding landfilling
  • A 16% reduction in greenhouse gasses by replacing fossil fuel

This represents over 30% of the total reduction in greenhouse gases planned by the EU by 2020 - using a proven technology that is already available.

So, let’s revisit the issues outlined at the top of this article:

  • The European Union has committed to reducing greenhouse gases by at least 20% by 2020. (Source: Decision No. 406/2009/EC)
  • By 2020, the OECD estimates that Europe could be generating 45% more waste than in 1995. (Source: EU Commission)

Do you see a solution? We do. As a world leader in waste-to-energy technology, we will be accused of spin. Yet this was not spin, these were facts - verifiable, undisputed facts.

For environmentalists, our words should give you hope. For civic leaders, our words should give you guidance. For politicians, our words should give you pause to rethink weak, wait-and-see positions designed to serve your personal agendas and not those of the people who elected you. If you really want to save the world, we stand ready to help.

Related information

Ultraclean waste water

A Europe without landfills and Russian gas 

Mining the bottom ash mountains - interview with AFATEK

EASETECH, an LCA-model for assessment of environmental technologies developed at the Technical University of Denmark