The waste crisis: Could waste-to-energy be the solution?


The whole world is dealing with a crisis, which means that tonnes and tonnes of waste being produced. While we’re worrying about that, we’re also concerned about the fuel shortages which continue to rise. With the two hand to hand, can they be combated at the same time?

Waste management experts have expressed that both can be tackled simultaneously. One solution, which is currently being looked into, is “waste-to-energy”, with various schemes being trialled. But how can these developments tackle the waste and fuel conundrum? And will these new methods benefit society as well as helping to tackle the waste crisis?

Together, with business waste disposal and management experts, Reconomy, we’ll take an in-depth look at the status of waste-to-energy solutions, and examine how waste could provide energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Beyond recycling: It’s just not enough

Over the last decade, there have been a number of movements to help combat waste. The 5p plastic bag levy for one, and the introduction of a doorstep recycling collection in the UK spring to mind. But what happens after we pop our rinsed-out food containers in our blue bins? Well, it might not always be recycled: in the wake of China’s plastic waste import ban, it was revealed that much of the waste marked for “recycling” had been sent to the country and was contaminated by general waste or food residue. As such, it unfortunately ended up as landfill and incorrectly counted towards the UK’s recycling target.

Landfills themselves are especially problematic. Not only are they an eyesore, but according to Prescouter, as waste breaks down on a landfill, gases such as methane and dioxins are released, along with a toxic liquid known as leachate. Leachate has the potential to contaminate soil, water, plants, and food.

What are the current methods of waste-to-energy?

Prescouter defines the current waste-to-energy methods:

  • Thermal – this includes direct combustion, also known as incineration. The waste is directly burned, and thermal energy collected.
  • Mechanical and Thermal – a combination approach, this sees waste being dried and pulverised before becoming solid fuel. That solid fuel can then be burned for thermal energy.
  • Thermo-chemical – thissection covers torrefaction, plasma technology, gasification, pyrolysis, and liquefaction.
    • Torrefaction converts biomass into a substance akin to coal for better fuel properties.
    • Plasma technology uses plasma to change organic material into syngas. This syngas can then be used as fuel.
    • Gasification is similar to plasma technology. It transforms organic or fossil fuel materials into gases like carbon dioxide for fuel.
    • Pyrolysis sees materials decomposed thermally to produce liquid fuel.
    • Liquefaction is a process where liquid fuel is created from solid waste.
  • Biochemical – this involves fermentation and anaerobic digestion. Fermentation produced ethanol, and anaerobic digestion involved microorganisms breaking down waste and producing biogas.

The problem with some waste-to-energy methods

As much as thermal methods such as incineration are great for producing energy, they also release harmful ashes and emissions when long form carbon is burned such as plastic.

What are the benefits of waste-to-energy?

Several benefits of using energy from waste have been listed by Melting Coals. Such perks include landfill reduction, avoidance of landfill tax and charges, and of course, renewable energy. Unlike fossil fuels, waste is not going to drop in availability. Bioenergy consult points out that, while more than 50% of waste is burnt for energy, it is a “short carbon cycle” that means the original matter doesn’t contribute to climate change originally. In contrast, long carbon cycles like plastic have already contributed to climate change in their creation and burning them for energy would offset some of that carbon cost.

If waste-to-energy is carried out and monitored correctly, it has the potential to offer a renewable source of energy with a low carbon emission rate. Using waste as the catalyst for creating fuel isn’t the issue as much as the process in which the fuel is obtained. As discussed, incinerating fossil fuels or waste for energy is problematic, but other methods such as biochemical processes could see waste provide energy while simultaneous reducing the volume of rubbish.

What is the future of waste-to-energy?

When it comes to combatting our growing waste concern, waste-to-energy is very much needed; why should we continue to use fossil fuels when we can reduce our waste volume and provide energy at the same time? The challenge now is to make sure that the emissions from these energy processes are monitored and reduced as much as possible. Dubai has already announced that it will invest in the world’s largest thermal waste recycling plant; or in Mexico, Project Termo will see the development of a waste-to-energy plant near Mexico City.







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