Understanding energy from waste

Energy from waste (EfW) is the “only” sustainable alternative to landfill for residual waste management, says Covanta’s executive director of corporate development for the UK and Europe.

The waste and recycling landscape continues to evolve under the guiding influences of government policy, technological advances and – probably the most powerful influencer – public opinion, with a focus on protecting the environment and the world’s finite resources for future generations.

Most understand the waste hierarchy – to reduce, reuse, recycle, then maximise efficiencies in recovering energy from residual waste – with landfill being the last resort as the least sustainable option. Within this hierarchy, wedged right in between recycling and landfill, is the often misunderstood and mischaracterised category of energy from waste (EfW).

In the US, where land (and landfilling) is abundant, the arguments in support of EfW largely boil down to doing the right thing for the environment versus doing what is necessary to sustain our future.

However, in the UK, it’s exactly the opposite. With UK landfill capacity nearing exhaustion by the mid-2020s, the arguments of ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing what is necessary’ have rapidly converged.

Capacity gap

Industry experts predict that, in the next few years, a gap will emerge between the amount of waste generated in the UK and the volume of waste treatment capacity available.

It’s for this reason some three million tonnes of residual waste are annually exported to European EfW facilities – and there’s a real risk that a clumsy Brexit process or any number of other exogenous events (such as the recent announcement of an import tax in the Netherlands) disrupts these markets, accelerating the onset of the UK’s capacity gap.

One common argument against EfW is that it is an outdated technology when, in fact, it’s at the cutting edge of innovation. Today’s modern EfW facilities extract more energy from residual waste and recover more metals than ever before, all while achieving record low emissions levels.

Another popular misconception of EfW is that it reduces recycling while encouraging communities to incinerate everything. This argument is deeply flawed, as EfW facilities operate most efficiently on post-recycled waste where plastics and organics have been removed – it’s in no-one’s interest to bypass recycling.

For nonrecyclable waste, we must invest in new EfW infrastructure

Furthermore, evidence from Europe and the US demonstrates that the countries and municipalities recording the highest use of EfW facilities also have the highest recycling rates and the lowest landfill rates.

Ambitious and achievable recycling targets exist and should remain, but recycling is only part of the solution as, sadly, we can’t cost-effectively recycle all materials. For nonrecyclable waste, we must invest in new EfW infrastructure.

Energy recovery, with the reuse of steam or heat for industry and homes, is the way forward, and so is broadening the knowledge of those who misunderstand EfW. This will mean some swallowing of pride on all sides of the argument in order to foster trust and collaboration – helping people understand what EfW is and, more importantly, what it isn’t.

Crucially, today we are seeing a growth in merchant EfW projects that are being successfully funded by the private sector without public subsidies. These, I believe, will pave the way for the UK to become a leader and global ambassador in creating a zero-carbon economy which maximises the reuse, recycling and recovery of precious resources.

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