Waste to energy

Energy enabling Circular Economy development

Posted by: Monika Kuusela

Great concept called Circular Economy has a good chance to replace current linear model.

“The linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy and is reaching its physical limits, the circular economy is an attractive and viable alternative that businesses are already exploring today”(1). We couldn’t agree more – we do our best to reuse, recycle, and recover.

In Fortum, we recover energy and materials from the waste. We do it within an efficient process in our combined heat and power plants (CHP), from which heat is typically utilized for supplying district heating and electricity sold to the grid. Materials, often metals, are extracted from ashes after burning. This way materials that otherwise would have been lost are available for recycling.

Circular Economy concept needs to recognize the importance of the thermal recovery of the materials and energy from non-recyclable waste. Waste-to-energy plants are important element to achieve transition from ‘landfilling culture’ to ‘reuse, recycle and recover times’. Obviously landfilling and simply burning of waste without recovering energy and materials embedded in it are wrong and shall be stopped, at the same time recycling rates shall be increased.

Energy recovery in the combined heat and electricity cycle is the best way to recover a defined and measurable part of the waste flow. This part would practically elucidate itself once Europe is able to introduce and properly implement the ‘waste hierarchy principle’. Waste hierarchy implementation shall begin from successful waste separation at source, which means that all waste producers (households, commercial facilities, industry, etc.) shall perform segregation of generated waste.

How to monitor the steps towards circular economy? It needs to start from the proper and equivalent definitions, which will then improve comparability of statistics. In practice, it means that all Member states shall implement the definitions described in Waste Framework Directive and introduce unified output-based recycling calculation scheme. Assuming that the point of measurement would be settled after sorting, pre-treatment facilities would not be able to be accounted as recycling operations. This would clarify real rates of recycling in the member states and reveal potential for energy recovery.

Banning landfilling of recoverable waste is a good target and it will certainly drive us closer to the circular economy scheme. When implementing – it has to be remembered that the waste fractions from which energy could be recovered shall be also prohibited to be landfilled, not only those that are suitable for recycling.

It is of crucial importance to ensure that recycling meets the quality criteria and recycled materials cannot cause environmental or health risks. Such criteria shall be established for the whole European Union and implemented as soon as possible. Energy recovery would often be a suitable end-use option for this kind of wastes.

At the moment waste to energy capacity is unequally spread in Europe in relation to the volumes of waste available for energy recovery, thus it would be very important to allow free movement and trading of waste destined for energy recovery in the borders of European Union.

There is a clear need for establishing legal framework for waste management plants. The framework that would cover the compulsory instructions for the plants, unified permits, rules for inspections, authorizations, monitoring of operations, etc. Such predictable, clear and unified rules would be of crucial importance to achieve development of that sector by both private and public investors. Taxing energy recovery of waste with a view to limit that activity wouldn’t bring any value; permitting would be much more effective and simple way of doing that.

Taxes would increase the overall costs of waste treatment and could possibly lead to the increase of non- or low-quality recycling or trigger unjustified and costly transportation of waste to the location where such taxes are not in place.

The desired setup would be that highly efficient energy recovery plants, such as CHP plants, would be constructed nearby the large municipalities with constant waste flow and with stable or potentially increasing heating and cooling demands. Such facilities would take care of the non-recyclable waste fractions, recovering energy and materials that otherwise would have been lost (eg. precious metals). At the same time ban on landfilling would prevent increase of the landfill areas and trigger reuse, recycling and energy recovery.

(1)„Delivering the circular economy – a toolkit for policymakers” – Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation, June 2015

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