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The future of waste-to-energy – is it as good as we are led to believe?

All green technology is good – isn’t it?

We are all more conscious of the effects of our behaviour on the environment, with rising awareness of climate change, green energy and waste reduction. Businesses and Governments are under pressure to meet emissions targets and tackle the climate emergency – and as individuals we are acutely aware of our own increasing responsibility to be mindful consumers.

However, it is important to consider the effect on the environment of other, more ‘environmentally friendly’ processes, too. 

A recent – and controversial – documentary, Planet of the Humans, makes a damning case against renewable energy sources, arguing that instead of being positive for the environment, they are simply new sources of environmental destruction. Although the claims made in the film have been widely debunked, what the documentary does highlight is the importance of examining the pros and cons of green alternatives, rather than automatically accepting them as ‘better’, without question.  

Waste-to-energy (WtE) is one such alternative. Colloquially described as ‘trash to treasure’, waste-to-energy is the process of burning residual waste – waste that would otherwise end up in landfill – to produce energy in the form of steam, electricity or hot water. From there, electricity can be fed into the grid and distributed to end users, hot water can be used to heat or cool buildings and steam can be used by nearby industries in their production processes.1

Waste-to-energy is part of creating a sustainable, circular economy, whereby we keep resources in use as long as possible – as opposed to a linear economy, where we ‘make, use and dispose’. Not only does a circular economy reduce the environmental impacts of our energy production and consumption, it puts us in a better position to address resource scarcity issues in the future.2

The volume of residual waste available to use for energy generation is huge and constant – even with increases in recycling, the average family in the EU still produces about 10kg of residual waste per week. Across the EU that equals 2.5 million tons of recyclable waste – enough to fill Wembley stadium twice over, on a weekly basis.3

Waste-to-energy plants incinerate the energy-rich materials in this residual waste, including paper, plastics, yard waste and products made from wood. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), for every 100lb of waste in the United States, about 85lb can be burned as fuel to generate electricity. Waste-to-energy plants reduce 2,000lb of waste to ashes weighing approximately 300 to 600lb, whilst also reducing the volume of the waste by about 87%.4

Supporters of waste-to-energy production claim it has many benefits, including reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions.5 It is also said to reduce air pollution in our cities – cities like Rotterdam, where, according to Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), waste-to-energy processing already reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 200,000 tons/year.6

The waste-to-energy market is growing; valued at $35.1 billion in 2019, it is forecast to reach $50.1 billion by 2027.7 However, as with most green technologies, the use of waste-to-energy is not without criticism.

One of the issues with the process is the cost. It’s expensive to change the infrastructure and run WtE facilities, which means it is experiencing low adoption rates in emerging markets.8

There are also question marks over the reduction in carbon emissions facilitated by WtE.

“When considering the relative environmental benefits of landfill and energy from waste, the most important factor is their potential contribution to climate change” reports the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). “Different amounts of greenhouse gases would be released if the same waste was burned or buried”.9

Waste -to-energy is seen as the lesser of two evils; both landfill and the combustion of untreated mixed waste will release carbon into the atmosphere, but they will do so in different ways, in different amounts. Landfill produces roughly equal amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, whereas energy from waste only produces carbon dioxide. As methane is around 25 times more damaging to the atmosphere, it is considered that WtE has a less detrimental impact on the environment overall.10 Through the incineration of waste, we are also burying less rubbish in the ground, too.

Because of the perceived benefits of WtE over landfill, incineration of waste has been widely used in Europe, East Asia and the US for many years and several waste-to-energy plants are currently planned in Australia.11

However, incinerators often face push back from the communities where they are situated over concerns around air pollution. The volume of carbon emissions released through WtE is also viewed by many as still too high. 

This has led to an increasing number of ‘incinerator alternatives’ being promoted – for example, the Zero Waste movement. According to Zero Waste Europe, developed countries should shift away from incineration and embrace Zero Waste paths:

“Incinerator companies are often marketing “waste-to-energy” as a source of renewable energy. But unlike wind, solar or wave energy, waste doesn’t come from infinite natural processes. On the contrary, it is sourced from finite resources, like minerals, fossil fuels and forests, that are cut down at an unsustainable rate. Subsidies to support incineration could be better invested into environmentally friendly, energy saving practices like recycling and composting”.12

Zero Waste campaigners are also concerned that increases in waste-to-energy plants will have a negative impact on recycling, as people assume that waste can just be burned instead.

“The continued use of incineration is simply delaying a much needed, and urgent, transition to less carbon-intensive power generation infrastructures such as wind and solar renewable energy whilst also undermining the move to lower-carbon options for waste management, including the re-design of products to increase recyclability and longevity”13 adds Zero Waste Europe.

So, what does this mean for the future of waste-to-energy?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet when it comes to lowering carbon emissions and dealing with our waste products.  As is often the case, a balanced approach is needed.

Solutions like WtE are best viewed on a spectrum. Most green energy and waste disposal methods still have some detrimental effects on the environment. When we evaluate methods like waste incineration, it is often a question of weighing up the pros and cons and seeing it as part of, not the whole solution.

It is important for the environmental and scientific communities to continue to explore fossil fuel alternatives and promote Zero Waste paths as we move forward in our battle against climate change.

In our critique of the Planet of the Humans documentary, we quoted Dana Nuccitielli from Yale Climate Connections, who concluded; “The film’s [black and white view of renewable energy] is akin to arguing that because fruit contains sugar, eating strawberries is no healthier than eating a cheesecake”. The same can be said of waste-to-energy.

WtE is not without its negatives, but it is better than landfill – and for many countries under pressure to act on climate change, it appears that that is good enough for now.

Our Online LLM in Energy and Environmental Law will give you the tools, knowledge and practical experience you need to cast a critical eye over today’s environmental issues and fast track your career in an area of law that drives impactful, global change. For more information, please fill out our request for information form or call us today on on +44 (0)800 032 7101.

References

  1. CEWEP (2020) What is waste to energy? (Online) Available at: https://www.cewep.eu/what-is-waste-to-energy/ [Accessed 17.12.20]
  2. WRAP (2020) WRAP and the circular economy (Online) Available at: http://www.wrap.org.uk/about-us/about/wrap-and-circular-economy [Accessed 17.12.20]
  3. CEWEP (2016) Why waste your energy? (Online) Available at: https://youtu.be/_7SsOuGwUKQ [Accessed 17.12.20]
  4. EIA (2020) How waste to energy plants work (Online) Available at: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/waste-to-energy-in-depth.php [Accessed 17.12.20]
  5. UNKNOWN (2016) Energy from Waste: Greenhouse Gas Winner or Pollution Loser? (Online) Available at: https://www.powermag.com/energy-waste-greenhouse-gas-winner-pollution-loser/ [Accessed 17.12.20]
  6. CEWEP (2016) Why waste your energy? (Online) Available at: https://youtu.be/_7SsOuGwUKQ [Accessed 17.12.20]
  7. UNKNOWN (2020) Waste to Energy Market by Technology: Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2020–2027 (Online) Available at: https://www.reportlinker.com/p05955168/Waste-to-Energy-Market-by-Technology-Global-Opportunity-Analysis-and-Industry-Forecast [Accessed 17.12.20]
  8. KUMI, E & SHAH, S (2019) WASTE-TO-ENERGY: ONE SOLUTION FOR TWO PROBLEMS? (Online) Available at: https://www.energyforgrowth.org/memo/waste-to-energy-one-solution-for-two-problems/ [Accessed 17.12.20]
  9. DEFRA (2014) Energy from waste A guide to the debate (Online) Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/284612/pb14130-energy-waste-201402.pdf [Accessed 17.12.20]
  10. DEFRA (2014) Energy from waste A guide to the debate (Online) Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/284612/pb14130-energy-waste-201402.pdf [Accessed 17.12.20]
  11. TOWIE, N (2019) Burning issue: are waste-to-energy plants a good idea? (Online) Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/28/burning-issue-are-waste-to-energy-plants-a-good-idea [Accessed 17.12.20]
  12. MUZNIK, S (2018) 9 reasons why we better move away from waste-to-energy, and embrace zero waste instead (Online) Available at: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/2018/02/9-reasons-why-we-better-move-away-from-waste-to-energy-and-embrace-zero-waste-instead [Accessed 17.12.20]
  13. VAHK, K (2020) Understanding the carbon impacts of Waste to Energy incineration (Online) Available at: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/2020/03/understanding-the-carbon-impacts-of-waste-to-energy [Accessed 17.12.20]