Burning issues

Written by: Ella Stengler | Published:
Kara/Noveren plant in Denmark

As the EU tries to increase renewable energy use while improving energy security, Ella Stengler of the CEWEP looks at how waste to energy (WtE) is the link between two key policies under discussion – the circular economy and energy union

Regarding the waste targets aimed for in the Circular Economy Package, WtE (in the meaning of incineration with energy recovery) helps to divert waste from landfill. It treats the waste that is not suitable for quality recycling and produces electricity and heat from the residual waste. This helps to make Europe less dependent on fossil fuel imports and contributes to security of energy supply, a major goal of the Energy Union policy. The European Commission is aware of the two-fold role of WtE and is currently preparing a communication focusing on WtE aiming to explore the opportunities it offers, particularly with regard to synergies between resource and energy efficiency.

EC’s WtE communication

The communication will be published at the end of 2016 together with the reviewed Renewable Energy Directive.

According to the Commission’s roadmap, the WtE Communication will aim to tackle the following issues:
- Lack of synergies between the WtE sector and EU policies
- Energy efficiency of the existing WtE processes
- Uneven capacity
- Untapped potential of waste-derived fuels
- Lack of clarity with regards to the waste hierarchy.

A technical report focuses on the current waste streams for energy recovery, the technology and the possibilities to improve energy efficiency. Ideally, the communication will focus on two key issues: higher energy efficiency and better waste management, looking into the most relevant waste streams and into mature technologies.

In order to reach higher energy efficiency in the WtE sector, an acknowledgment of the synergies with existing and future exploitation of district heating and cooling systems and industrial heat use is essential.

There are huge potentials in improving the energy efficiency of WtE plants while connecting them to district heating and cooling. In fact, WtE is an important driver for low-carbon district heating as it gives the possibility to step away from imported fossil fuels. Changing from individual fossil-fuel-fired boiler heating to district heating has considerably improved air quality in many countries and provides potential for further innovations.

The Commission should also emphasise the key role of grid access. WtE should not be put at a disadvantage in comparison with intermittent other renewable energy sources.

Indeed WtE plants achieve two tasks: to produce energy and to treat waste in an environmentally sound way. During peak energy supply from other sources, the plants cannot easily stop processing the waste that they receive as they still have to fulfil an important sanitary task to treat the waste in an environmentally sound way.

During peak times from other energy sources, this could result in the loss of energy from WtE plants, and reduces the sector’s overall efficiency.

WtE capacities

The Commission’s communication paper will also tackle WtE capacities in Europe and how to use existing waste treatment capacities, e.g. shipping waste from countries that would otherwise landfill it. The input to WtE plants is residual municipal and commercial and industrial waste that is not suitable for recycling and which would otherwise be consigned to landfill.

In industrialised countries, the ratio between municipal and commercial/industrial waste treated in WtE plants is often about 50:50. Therefore it is misleading to focus on municipal waste generation only when discussing WtE capacities. To get a meaningful conclusion about necessary WtE capacity, the whole waste input to WtE plants must be compared with the generation of this kind of waste, not only with the generation of municipal waste.

Reducing landfill

Additionally, WtE capacities should be looked at on a European level. Many European countries still heavily rely on landfilling. Indeed, about 70 million tonnes of municipal waste alone is still landfilled in the EU. Shipping waste from ‘landfill countries’ to countries with WtE capacity contributes to the reduction of landfilling, a goal set in the Circular Economy Package (published in December 2015).

Assuming that the 65% recycling target for municipal waste as proposed in the Package is achieved and landfilling is reduced to a maximum 10% of municipal waste, there will not be enough WtE capacity in Europe to deal with the residual municipal waste.

Apart from municipal waste, WtE plants additionally process sorting residues from commercial and industrial waste. Although the CEP does not propose targets for these waste streams, there are huge potentials to recycle and recover them while reducing landfilling.

Currently, there are about 88 million tonnes of waste (municipal, commercial and industrial) treated in circa 480 WtE plants in Europe (the EU, Norway and Switzerland, 2014). In order to set realistic targets and to get meaningful conclusions on waste treatment capacities, we need harmonised definitions – as we also need for municipal waste, which seems to vary in different member states. Therefore the Commission’s approach to harmonising the definition of municipal waste and the monitoring of recycling is appreciated.

Additionally, we have to look at the total waste volume, not just municipal waste, which amounts to less than 10% of the total waste stream.

While collection and separation at source is key for quality recycling of most waste streams, small and in particular very thin metal packaging items can sometimes be difficult to sort and therefore end up in the residual household waste fraction sent for incineration.

Fortunately, metals such as steel and aluminium can still be recycled from the incinerator bottom ash, while maintaining their material quality and value. They can be further used as secondary raw material.

The greenhouse gas savings/credits from metal recycling from WtE bottom ash are about 2,000kg CO2equ/tonne of recycled metals. In Europe, metal recycling from bottom ash saves the equivalent of approximately 3.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year that would otherwise be emitted during the production of primary metals. The inert fraction, which forms the rest of the bottom ash, once stabilised can be used as secondary raw material in construction. Recycling from incinerator bottom ash can also contribute to the CEP’s recycling targets.

Public perception

The communication paper should also address the issue of public perception of WtE. These plants are most efficient if they are located close to heat and steam consumers. This is often not the case due to negative public perception that fears emissions from these plants. It is necessary to continue informing the public about the huge progress that has been made in filter devices for WtE plants in the past decades.

Today, WtE is one of the most stringently regulated industrial activities and achieves very low emissions, based on EU legislation. However, more communication would be beneficial to make the general public aware of these facts and improve the public acceptance of WtE, acknowledging that it is an important ambassador for better waste management, helping to achieve quality recycling and divert waste from landfill.

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