Waste: Could It Fuel Developing Countries?

Could creating energy from waste provide a real way forward for developing countries struggling with poor infrastructure, environmental pollution, health issues and inadequate power supplies? Luke Prazsky, waste resource management specialist at Wardell Armstrong, sees a real opportunity. 

energy from wasteWhile we in the UK and the rest of Europe dream up ever more ingenious ways improve on our already well developed recycling and renewable energy infrastructure, it’s easy to forget the simply enormous challenges faced by many developing countries.

For us, it’s about creating an ever more sustainable and circular economy. For them, it’s about knowing how to take the next step when they’re struggling with only basic or ageing infrastructure – in some cases no permanent roads, no reliable power, no radio, TV or newspapers, no Wi-Fi and therefore no internet access. Coupled with environmental pollution and its impact on the most vital commodity – drinking water – the contrast couldn’t be starker.

For many developing countries and their people, the keys to being able to make real progress along the road to development are having a robust power supply and a healthy environment and population. But in most cases they’re likely still to be dependent on dwindling reserves of environmentally damaging fossil fuels which may be inadequate to provide the amounts of electricity they need for their growing populations. The reserves may not even under their own control.

And getting back to waste, developing countries face huge environmental and health risks if poorly managed landfill sites or uncontrolled burning are their only way of disposing of it. Drinking water can easily be polluted by heavy metals or hazardous substances. Dioxins can get into the food chain through uncontrolled emissions. Landfill gas can migrate and pose an explosion risk to adjacent properties.

So how can our own well developed waste resource management industry apply what we’ve learned to help developing countries for our mutual benefit?

Small-scale technologies to recover energy from waste are probably the best place to start, given the challenges of collecting waste in areas where road access may be difficult. They would have to be quick and easy to install and commission, and need relatively little maintenance.

Coupled with the solar and wind projects that are starting to gain momentum in emerging nations, this would enable development at a local level – village by village.

Anaerobic Digestion

One obvious example could be low cost Anaerobic Digestion (AD) technology to convert organic waste from farms (and biowaste from households) in rural areas into gas for generating self-sustaining electricity – while producing a nutrient-rich digestate into the bargain.

Farmers would still have material to fertilise their fields, but the local population would also benefit from having a larger power supply. Biogas produced by AD can be stored for a short time until it’s needed – for example at night time when power from solar drops off. This would make for a more consistent supply.

Another option exists in the form of small scale thermal treatment plants for recovering energy from residual waste and biomass.

There could be commercial opportunities for technology providers in creating small scale, affordable waste treatment plant. Opportunities too for developers in expanding their operations into new international markets

In larger towns and cities, where the need for reliable power is even greater and waste arisings higher but where useful economies of scale can apply, it could be possible to upscale the size of facility possible delivering a more energy-efficient facility.

One example of this is the decentralised co-digestion of human biowaste and organic solid waste in Lesotho, where biogas is used to replace bottled gas.

Another is the AD of market waste in Thiruvananthapuram, Southern India, which consists mainly of fish waste plus some fruit and vegetable waste. Here the biogas produced is being used to generate electricity.

On the smallest scale, the AD of kitchen waste by a single household (undertaken in parts of India, Tanzania and Uganda) can produce a biogas for cooking.

These examples point the way to a better and more sustainable future for developing countries – one where the management of waste moves in a more sustainable direction away from disposal and towards energy recovery.

Alongside solar and wind, controlled waste management could have an important part to play in kick- starting the supply of reliable, low cost renewable energy.It would also naturally bring wider and much-needed environmental benefits, including better protection of water supplies and air quality.

There could be commercial opportunities for technology providers in creating small scale, affordable waste treatment plant. Opportunities too for developers in expanding their operations into new international markets.

The UK government can also play its part through the overseas aid budget. By focussing on enablement measures such as providing equipment and infrastructure to help local schemes get off the ground, the aid budget would provide a long term contribution to more sustainable waste management and environmental protection.

Many would argue that we in the affluent West have a moral obligation to help developing countries to make the same economic and environmental progress that we take for granted. Others might take a more commercial approach. But either way, if the result is the global spread of waste management best practice, which can only be a good outcome all round.

Darrel Moore

Send this to a friend