Is waste to energy a waste of waste
With Australian waste and recycling piling up like never before, we need to ask if investing in waste to energy is a reckless waste of resources or, an obvious solution to a global problem?
Waste to energy is not new. European countries have been burning waste to power communities for more than 140 years. However, Australia has historically never truly embraced this concept. The 2018 National Waste Report highlighted that Australia was recovering energy at a rate of just 8kg of waste per capita. This is incredibly low compared to Norway and Denmark which recovered energy at a rate of 700 and 500 kg of waste per capita respectively. And in Sweden, 50% of all waste is burned each year to power the country.
Yet the results are not surprising considering Australia has never had a major waste to energy facility. The reason for this is speculative, but many agree it is due to Australia’s dislike of the general concept, combined with ample landfill options. Historically, it could also be argued that Australia didn’t need waste to energy due to effective waste management systems in place – such as exporting recycled goods to Asia.
Today the story is changing.
Since the Asian export ban on recycled goods, Australian councils and governments are struggling to keep up with recycling with many items heading to landfill. Year on year, Australian’s are also producing more waste overall. Whilst the waste per person is decreasing, our overall waste is climbing as the population grows. And, it is forecast this trend will continue.
These reasons explain the approval for construction of Australia’s first major waste to energy plant in Kwinana, WA (around 40km south of Perth). The $668 million facility was approved in October 2018, for completion in 2021, after winning the backing of both the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corp. Once completed, it will convert up to 400,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste into enough power to support 50,000 households.
Is waste to energy a solution to Australia’s waste crisis?
There are many benefits of burning waste. First and foremost, it reduces the amount of waste heading to landfill, which supports to reduce negative environmental impacts. The second major argument is it is a reliable source of energy, reducing the need for fossil fuels.
In recent years, technological advances in waste to energy processing ensure that the process produces minimal carbon emissions. And furthermore, the bigger picture argument for waste to energy is it may be able to solve the plastic crisis. The 2017 Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made report (the first global report of its kind) highlighted that waste incineration for energy was the only solution to reducing the sheer total quantity of waste stating:
“Although there are emerging technologies, such as pyrolysis, which extracts fuel from plastic waste, to date, virtually all thermal destruction has been by incineration, with or without energy recovery.”
Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. (GEYER, JAMBECK, LAW, ‘SCIENCE ADVANCES’, JULY 2017)
As shown in the graph above, the quantity of plastic is forecast to increase at a significantly greater rate than we can recycle it at with current methods. This may be why the same report predicts incineration rates will increase to 50% by 2050.
Critics however argue that while converting trash to energy is relatively better than dumping it in a landfill, neither of these solutions is ideal.
A waste of waste?
Many experts and advocates argue strongly against waste to energy for the core reason that once the waste is incinerated it can’t be recovered. A University of Sydney waste expert, Professor Ali Abbas, highlighted in an interview that waste to energy should be a last resort, stating that it is competitive with landfill in the waste hierarchy. Like many, Professor Abbas argues in favour of a circular economy stating that “we need in a circular economy to design products to use and reuse. Product design in the future for our society – electricity, plastic, a unit of concrete – will need to be well-designed so it can be reused. ”
This view is shared by many in the industry with Rachael Wakefield-Rann from the Institute of Sustainable Energy Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney stating that "Research is pretty clear that incineration is much less beneficial than recycling in terms of getting that circular flow of resources back into the economy."
So, what’s the solution?
According to Australia’s new National Waste Policy, the government has a vision to drive the nation towards a circular economy. The ultimate aim must be to reduce, if possible, eliminate, any new plastic and metal production. To do this, there needs to be an increase in the demand for recycled products. This means we need active investment in recycling technologies to streamline processes and make recycled products both environmentally and economically preferred solutions.
The circular economy relies on efficiency at each stage of the product lifecycle, from collection, to sorting via container deposit schemes, to processing materials and re-manufacturing into viable products.
However, we are not there yet. Until we have bi-partisan government support, increased industry investment, consumer demand and dramatic policy changes to plastic use, waste to energy will continue to be the ‘lesser of two evils’ solution to our waste crisis.
About Container Deposit Systems
Container Deposit Systems was formed with a vision to oversee the implementation of improved operational practices in recycling facilities. The company offers a range of services to recycling depot facilities to drive productivity improvements and transition traditional recycling facilities into modern technically advanced operators.
The company achieve this through patented technologies which deliver manufacturing automation to auto-sort materials via a highly sensitive multi-sensor integration. Systems integrations enable facilities to further gain efficiencies through workflows, materials handling, logistic processes, facility layout and design, customer interaction and data acquisition and management.
Container Deposit Systems technologies are designed and manufactured in Australia with local partners Sage Automation and Macweld Engineering.
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