Energy from Waste, Energy from waste, Ewaste, Opinion, Waste collection

A global review of the waste to energy sector

By Amal Jugdeo

The need for sustainable waste disposal solutions is becoming more critical as the quantity of waste generated increases yearly. This is evident in all countries, including countries that have the most efficient waste separation and recycling programs. Switzerland, for example, has one of the most stringent waste management regulations and policies in Europe and is often recognised as the ‘world champion of recycling’.

These regulations cover various aspects of waste management, including recycling targets, waste disposal methods and extended producer responsibility. This has resulted in a well-established system of waste separation at source, where residents must sort their waste into different categories, such as paper, glass, metal, plastic, and organic waste. This facilitates efficient recycling processes and reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Switzerland also invests in advanced waste management technologies. This includes state-of-the-art recycling facilities and Waste to Energy (WtE) facilities. WtE generates energy supplying process steam, electricity, and district heating. In addition, they double up as metal recycling centres. These technologies contribute to efficient waste management and resource recovery. However, despite such well-established systems, residual waste has trended upwards. Switzerland has disposed of all residual waste by WtE for nearly two decades. What is also clear is that the ecological impact increases with increased recycling rates, and at some optimum point, it does not make sense to improve recycling rates without having a negative ecological impact. This is evident in the graph below:

This means that any responsible waste management solution will result in residual waste that needs to go to landfills or better WtE facilities. Globally, in the past decade, around 900,000 tons per day of new WtE processing capacity came online in 1100 new facilities. WtE is recognised as part of the waste management solution in many jurisdictions worldwide.

Let us take a tour of the latest WtE developments globally.

Western, Central, and Northern Europe are mature WtE markets, and the focus in the future in these markets will be the replacement and modernisation of old plants. The UK is an exception because of its late entry into the industry. This is why there has been a flurry of new builds in the UK recently – HZI alone brought online 8 out of 14 new facilities in the UK over the past three years. Countries in Eastern Europe and Turkey will need to develop WtE plants to align with EU landfill regulations, which prohibit the disposal of untreated waste. Russia also embraces WtE, but progress has stopped due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

In the Middle East, development is expected mainly in the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai has set a WtE target of 80 per cent by 2030. HZI has already commenced operation of the largest WtE facility in the world in Dubai, which will eventually process 1.89 million tonnes of residual waste once all five 125 MWth lines are commissioned in 2024. Two more facilities are planned for Abu-Dhabi, where HZI will be building the largest capacity-per-line facility in the world.

Read more: Cleanaway applies for waste to energy license

In Africa, 51 WtE projects were recently announced, mainly in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Egypt. There are also projects in the early stages of development in Tanzania, Morocco and South Africa. Generally, in Africa, there is a lack of affordability and regulatory incentives while having an underdeveloped electricity infrastructure. Hence, new low-cost, high-energy efficiency concepts are needed in the coming years.

China is the largest market and is at the peak of its growth. It has an installed capacity of 250 million tons per year. Although there is a slight slowdown due to increased recycling rates, more than 400 new projects are still being announced, of which 114 are under construction.

Japan has the highest number of WtE plants – 1063 in total. The plants are old and small – 28 years old on average and processing 62,000 tons per year on average. This is a result of the early development of the industry due to a lack of landfill space and focus on treating all waste inside council areas. Hence, Japan will consolidate its WtE sites with larger, higher-efficiency facilities ready for carbon capture and leading to carbon-negative solutions like in Europe.

North America is dominated by landfills, and most plants were built in the 1980s to produce electricity because of high energy prices at the time. Since 1996, only two plants have been built, but growth prospects remain. Facilities in operation are concentrated in densely populated areas on the East Coast. Retrofits are underway, and the first set of new plants will be built in Florida.

Further developments will only happen once waste to energy is recognised as a better outcome than landfill and not a threat to recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion.

This brings us to Australia, where the WtE market is developing. Two waste to energy plants in Western Australia are scheduled to go online in 2024 and will process a combined total of 700,000 tons of residual waste annually. On the East Coast, there are numerous WtE plants in various stages of development. Even the combined capacity of these projects is well below the needs for waste to energy capacity. Hence, Australia has a long way to go before WtE catches up with waste ending up in landfills. Today’s landfilling is locking in greenhouse gas emissions for 2050 – when Australia should be net zero.

More urgency is required to recycle and compost and anaerobic digest where possible, and only residual waste should go to WtE. Nothing should end up untreated in landfills.

The country’s 2050 goals for net zero have already become illusionary due to the inherent long-term greenhouse gas potential of landfills, which with today’s waste, will pollute beyond the deadline.

We should applaud and follow the jurisdictions already enforcing separate food and green waste collection. This separation must start now and not by 2030.

Amal Jugdeo, Business Development Manager at HZI Australia.

Send this to a friend