Waste-to-Energy: thorny way to mastering technology

Construction of waste processing plants over a long period of time is still reachless and at the same time more and more relevant for Ukraine year by year. Recently the State Agency on Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving presented a program of municipal solid waste (MSW) management. It includes the entire DSW chain and indicates certain technological solutions.

Why is this important?

One person produces about 300 to 350 kg of municipal waste a year, 10 million tons are brought to landfills. According to estimates, this waste can be recycled into 3.5 million Gcal of thermal energy or 1.2 billion kWh of electricity can be produced, which is equal to approximately 1 BCM of gas. At present, only 2.5% of the total mass of solid waste is used for the production of thermal energy, another 4.2% is graded, the rest - 93.3% - is brought to landfills. According to the Ministry of Regional Development, Ukraine accounted for 5,434 landfills in 2017. The number of unauthorized landfills affects deeply- 30,184. The total area of such landfills is almost 12 thousand hectares.

As the object lesson of successful waste management, experts often refer to Sweden's experience. The country sorts 99% of waste and already 50% of it is processed into energy - wastetoenergy. Another 50% is recycled and reused. No matter how strange it sounds, the country procures extra 800 thousand tons.
Ukraine nowadays adheres the idea of waste burial instead of recycling into heat and electricity. This is the cheapest way. Even the use of unauthorized landfills entails no tangible responsibility.

In order to make any new industry interesting for investments, stimulation from the state is needed at the first stage. Industries that require the use of expensive technologies are usually developed under certain economic conditions. Solar and wind power woud unlikely become so much popular without a "green tariff" and investors’ support.

Since Ukraine is oriented towards the usual export of waste to landfills for years, the needs and risks of potential investors in wastetoenergy projects require a separate study.

As the State Agency on Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving notes, local authorities currently have no opportunity to provide guarantees on the supply of a certain amount of waste to be recycled. Contracts for recycling are entrered into between the carrier and the processor and constitute private economic relations.
Also, there are no mechanisms for entering into long-term contracts and guaranteeing the payback of investments. A private carrier may turn bankrupt, give up on providing services resulting in the termination of recycling services.

The State Agency on Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving also highlights that investments in waste recycling plants are mostly carried out in foreign currency (equipment, technology and software to be purchased abroad, not available in Ukraine), there are no mechanisms for reducing investor’s currency risks.
Current pricing to be reviewed specifically for wastetoenergy, since the method of calculation of recycling cost (gatefee) is now not taken into account.
The existing procedure of pricing (cost calculation and the established percentage of profitability) does not guarantee a stable source of income, since the cost of the tariff components (prices for energy, fuel, labor) constantly increases, and the automated indexation is not applicable. The construction of waste recycling complexes loses investment attractiveness.
The most important thing is that the issue of using fuel produced from solid waste (SRF/RDF) as one of the potential sources of energy is  not regulated by law (the legislation only regulates the use of energy from biomass).
In addition, there are certain barriers by environmental organizations that are simultaneously concerned with the need for waste sorting and the lack of legally approved requirements for energy disposal. By the way, though waste sorting for further processing of recyclable materials is supported by many non-goverment organizations, there are just several examples of successful closed cycle and they are mostly related to cooperation with enterprises that implement extended producer responsibility programs and cover collection and recycling costs. It is mostly about PET packaging.
The lack of sorting culture forces the state to import recyclable materials.
How does the state see the way of waste management?

At present, the State Agency on Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving offers five steps for implementing changes. First of all, waste burial to be turned into cost-prohibitive waste management. Secondly, a system of guarantees and incentives to be created to involve private capital in the field of energy waste disposal. Thirdly, a clear legal system of environmental requirements for waste recycling industry to be created. Next, it is proposed to establish clear pricing rules for energy disposal services. The further step is to establish an adequate municipal system for administering waste management, to expand the powers of local self-governing bodies.
The mechanism will look as follows: the ownership of municipal solid waste will be assigned to local self-governing bodies, which, in turn, will have the right to choose on a competitive basis a single operator of DSW management. The single operator will enter into agreements on buying services for exporting, sorting, recycling, burial and other waste operations with the relevant business entities, and with the population - waste management agreements.
Codifying by law of the environmental requirements for waste recycling industry is also extremely important for calculating the attractiveness of such projects. Already next year, tax rates on stationary facilities’ carbon emissions will increase in Ukraine from UAH 0.41 per ton to UAH 10 per ton. In the future, the annual growth is set at UAH 5, thereby increasing up to UAH 30 per ton in 2023. These changes will bring Ukrainian legislation closer to the requirements of the EU directive. In particular, in case of heat treatment, a mandatory requirement for compliance with the combustion temperature of at least 850 ° C for at least 2 seconds to be set up, which ensures the decomposition of furans and dioxins (the most carcinogenic substances).

How does the technology work in other countries?

China: China has incineration plants based on circulating fluidized bed (CFB). They have around 28 operational CFB plants of which the recent build was in 2012 handling more than 800 tonnes/day. A new plant is underway to be built in Shenzhen that can handle around 5000 metric tonnes/day, while claiming to become the largest facility for WtE in the world.

Abu Dhabi and Sharjah: An 8.2 billion USD plant was commissioned in 2012 to be built in Abu Dhabi. As there are already good incineration technologies at hand, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have taken a new direction to treat waste through a combination of gasification and pyrolysis.

Europe: An incinerator was built in 2013 at Naples, Italy that can manage 650,000 tonnes/year. Sweden and Denmark on account of having colder weather, have a number of CHP WtE plants like Aros, Vartan, Herning etc. generating more than 100 kWe of energy. Germany and Sweden, who are the forerunners of WtE, are also known to import deficit waste from neighboring countries.

UK: A gasification plant Energos (part of ENER-G) in Manchester, UK provides an economic substitute to the large combustion technique of WtE. This facility can treat MSW, industrial and commercial waste with a handling capacity of up to 78,000 tonnes/year.

USA: Novo Energy is a WtE small scale utility plant that runs versions in four states and uses a combustion technology, processing up to 66,000 tonnes/year. A mobile gasification system based in Massachusetts from IST energy converts around 200 lb of dry waste per hour.

Japan: Japan has the most modern types of thermal treatment plants that processes around 39 million tonnes/year.

Canada: The oldest plants use incineration technology and they were improved to use plasma gasification plants from Plasma Energy Group and Nevitus Plasma Inc. Recently built facilities like Nexterra Systems Corp. and Enerkem have used gasification conversion.

Australia: A plasma gasification plant by Phoenix Energy Australia Pty Ltd. is in the initial stages of commissioning in Kwinana, Australia.

India: Out of the 14 commissioned plants, only 4 plants (Jindal Ecopoils Management Company PVT ltd, Organic Waste Recycling Systems Pvt, Rochem and Shalivahana (MSW) Green Energy Ltd) are in operation in different states (which uses RDF or dry AD technology). However, dry AD technology seems to be more efficient and 4 more have been commissioned recently using dry AD.

What are the current WastetoEnergy technologies?

Incineration is considered when the calorific value of the input feed is at least 7MJ/Kg.  When there are no complex collection techniques or when the water content is higher, biochemical methods need to be taken into account. Conversion of thermal energy from incineration can be used to drive a steam turbine for electricity, but only with 15-27% efficiency. Gasification will increase efficiency up to 30%.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD) uses more agricultural waste and synthesizes waste that has higher water content through a series of microbial processes to generate biogas. Heat generation can be increased by 90% due to the use of gas. Combined heat and power (CHP) WtE plants can have an efficiency of 40% if utilized suitably.
There a few upcoming new WtE technologies like Hydrothermal Carbonisation (HTC) that fast-tracks the slow process of geothermal conversion of wet waste with an acid catalyst at high pressure and heat to simulate the production of ‘hydro-char’ that has properties similar to fossil fuels. The main advantage of this to AD is the lower processing time and similar operating conditions needed to generate the same amount of energy.

Dendro Liquid Energy (DLE) is a nearly ‘zero-waste’ WtE innovation. It is said to be four times more efficient than AD and costs less.
An alternative view

Despite a lot of advantages of WtE technology, there is, however, another point of view that uses arguments supporting the ZeroWaste principle. Let us consider the arguments in favour of this approach.

ZeroWaste followers assure that burning waste is wasteful.

Municipal waste consists of discarded materials like paper, plastic and glass. More than 90% of the materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills could be recycled or composted. Burning these valuable materials in order to generate electricity discourages efforts to preserve resources and creates incentives to generate more waste.
It is typical for countries that encourage waste burning to have low recycling rates as a result. Data on household waste in Denmark clearly shows this trend, with the regions that have high incineration rates recycling less and vice versa.
Waste is not an effective fuel. Incinerators waste large amounts of reusable materials in order to produce only small amounts of energy. On the other hand, recycling and composting can save up to 5 times the amount of energy produced by burning waste. For example, the amount of energy wasted in the US by not recycling aluminum and steel cans, paper, printed materials, glass and plastic is equal to the annual output of 15 medium-sized power plants!

Waste incineration is not a source of renewable energy. 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. Thus, ZeroWaste adherents believe recycling to be actually much better than incineration. 

Burning waste produces toxic emissions. Even the most advanced technologies cannot avoid the release of vast amounts of pollutants that contaminate air, soil and water, and end up entering the food chain. Incinerators are major emitters of carcinogenic pollutants as well tiny particles of dust that can lead to decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks and premature death.

Burning waste contributes to climate change. Burning waste is far from climate neutral. Incinerators actually emit more CO₂ (per megawatt-hour) than coal-fired, natural-gas-fired or even oil-fired power plants.

Denmark, the poster child of Europe’s incineration industry, recently discovered that its incinerators were releasing twice the amount of CO₂ than originally estimated, which led the country to miss its Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas reduction targets. As a comparison, a study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency concluded that up to 42% of US greenhouse gas emissions could be mitigated through Zero Waste strategies.
Waste incinerators are a financial burden. Incinerators are the most expensive method to generate energy and to handle waste, while also creating a significant economic burden for host cities. The story of Copenhagen’s infamous Amager Bakke incinerator is just an example.

There are many cases of municipalities that have ended up in debt because of incinerators, while others are trapped in long-term contracts compelling them to deliver a minimum quantity of waste for 20 to 30 years, to repay investment costs. On the other side of the Atlantic, the city of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania has due to financial costs of upgrading the city’s incinerator in 2011 became the largest US city to declare bankruptcy, for example.

 Burning waste creates less employment opportunities than recycling. “Waste-to-energy” plants offer relatively few jobs when compared to recycling. The livelihood of millions of waste workers worldwide depends on recycling. Studies show that the sector creates 10-20 times more jobs than incineration. With a national rate of less than 33%, the US recycling industries currently provide over 800,000 jobs. In developing countries like the Philippines, building incinerators will take jobs away from informal waste workers including waste pickers, recyclers and haulers. Investment in recycling, reuse and composting can enable informal workers to transition to these green jobs.

Waste incineration doesn’t fit into sustainable circular economy. Burning waste is incompatible with a closed-loop circular economy model as incinerators destroy valuable materials in a polluting manner. By reducing the volume but increasing the toxicity of waste, incineration merely replaces one waste stream with another. Incinerators also support the linear economy model by extracting virgin materials only to waste them at the end.

Developed countries are shifting away from incineration and embracing Zero Waste paths. Despite having some of the most advanced waste burning facilities, Europe has taken a first step to phase out incinerators in the context of the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. In the US, no new incinerators have been built since 1997 due to resistance from the public, health risks and high costs. Moreover, in the EU higher targets for organics management, recycling, waste reduction and waste diversion have caused incineration overcapacity, meaning there are more incinerators than waste available for burning. This has led countries like Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Spain to import trash from elsewhere. Hundreds of municipalities around Europe have now set Zero Waste as their new goal.

According to Zero Waste adherents, investing in separate collection, recycling and waste prevention policies, and preventing countries from getting locked into long-term contracts with overdimensioned waste burning facilities, as it has happened in Western Europe, is crucial to ensure the shift toward a true circular economy.
In Ukraine, one can now observe a tendency towards the development of ZeroWaste movement along with a certain interest in investing in WastetoEnergy. While developing energy efficiency technology promotion programs, one should pay attention to the ways of complementarity of both approaches.

Inna Kucherenko,


Subscribe for Updates

Find Us in Social Media

Contact Us