Waste To Energy: The Next Step After Banning Single-Use Plastics

In October of this year, the European Parliament voted in favor of a ban of the ten most notorious single-use plastics that harm our planet and marine life, including straws, plastic cutlery and cotton buds. The vote also committed to a move towards a circular economy – recognizing the inherent value of the 2.12 billion tonnes of waste that is dumped globally each year. Yet questions remain about how we deal with the items not on the list, the ones where there are no obvious alternatives; the fruit trays, the ice cream tubs, the burger boxes. With waste generation expected to double by 2025 we must continue to act on this growing crisis and be more innovative with waste.

Waste production has been the inevitable consequence of human existence and progress, however, with the global population – of 7.2 billion – growing daily, the challenge is to work out how we manage these quantities of waste in a sustainable way. The ultimate goal is to move away from waste disposal to waste management. We need to convert our waste to resources – moving from a linear economy to a circular one and that is where waste to energy (WtE) comes in – it’s a sustainable, clean energy option for the future.

When working for a waste management company in 2010, it became obvious that WtE was the future. Having completed a masters’ degree in the subject of renewable energy and with 13 years of experience in managing engineering, procurement and construction projects in the sector, it is inevitable that the next step was to place my passion into WtE.

When I first started, most companies were collecting sorted rubbish and then dumping it straight into landfill, this is why we set up an Energy from Waste division – to create value from the waste.  Now we are faced with a complete, positive shift in mindset to viewing waste as a valuable resource.

The Changing Face of Waste

Just as the types of waste we produce have changed – from the ceramic and glass of the early 1900s to the plastic and other man-made fibers of today – so too is how we are dealing with it. The time of making our rubbish someone else’s problem is coming to an end.

In Europe, the Landfill Directive means that by 2020, EU Member States will be allowed to send no more than 35% of the volume of rubbish to landfill than they did during 1995.

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2018, China – previously one of the world’s largest importers of waste – put a ban on 24 types of imported waste including some plastics and scrap metal. In the aftermath there has been a sharp rise in waste exports to countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, where ocean pollution is some of the worst globally, creating literal tides of plastic. We have to ask ourselves whether these countries can handle so much imported waste when there is a question around whether the can handle their own.  This is why we need to make waste a resource.

Understanding Waste Management

There are five options available within the waste management hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and reject. Of course, the two most ideal scenarios are to reduce and reuse. Both prevent the generation of waste and ensure the direct reuse of waste materials without additional processing. This is closely followed by recycle and recover, the stages of waste management where the value of waste starts to be realized in the form of WtE. An example of recover includes the incineration of waste with a high level of energy recovery and the reprocessing of waste into materials that can be used as a solid, liquid or gaseous fuel, e.g. the anaerobic digestion of organic waste to produce fertiliser and biogas, which can be burnt to release the energy. This is the literal example of turning our trash into treasure.

If you simply throw waste away, it is a wasted opportunity. Waste shouldn’t be something you dispose of and forget, its energy should be harnessed and used, which in turn creates the circular economy of waste.

As part of Worley Parsons’ global strategy to help customers meet the world’s changing resources and energy needs, we are bringing WtE expertise to customers across hydrocarbons, chemicals, minerals and metals, power, and infrastructure in Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand, after seeing great success in projects already in the USA, South Africa, Singapore, Qatar and Western Australia.

WtE is a sustainable way to address the global waste stream issue. We can help realise circular economy adoption, address difficulties in waste management due to urbanisation and immigration growth, increase renewable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plus help countries adapt to new regulations around landfills and waste export.

The Challenges of Waste to Energy 

There are a number of challenges; with win power, you are reliant on the wind, with solar, the sun – both of which are plentiful and provided without contracts. However, with waste energy, you are reliant on a steady stream of waste, meaning you are relying on someone to provide it.

Customers need to secure a waste contract to guarantee the operation of the plant – as a tipping fee is paid by companies who deliver their waste. As an example: one plant I built in the UK has a throughput of 120,000 tonnes of food waste per year – this equates to 20 trucks per day. The revenue on this, plus financial incentives from generating low carbon electricity, heat and biogas, makes this a viable option for the customer. Following on from this, there are other by-products in the process such as; compost, recoveries, and aggregates that can also be sold into the market.

Another important aspect is the planning permission. Large plants tend to be close to cities – sometimes nearby landfill sites – because that’s where the large volumes of waste come from and you need to make sure the plants are compliant with emission and odour targets. However, the good news is that we are able to help our customers plan for these challenges and design effective solutions.

The Future of Waste to Energy

The future of this emerging form of new energy is exciting and can be described in three words as innovative, transitional and sustainable. All these things are important when meeting the worlds changing resources and energy needs. Waste is a global challenge and one that will not be rectified in a short time scale, perhaps not even in this century. Therefore, technologies such as waste to energy are essential to helping us stem the tide of plastics and waste into our oceans and landfill sites.

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