Going up in smoke: is incineration the key to minimising landfill?
The headlines make powerful and persuasive reading: Sweden is importing waste to feed its ‘recycling’ system. As a result, it has incredibly low volumes going to landfill. Great news – or is it?
Sweden has invested heavily in waste-to-energy, sending huge volumes of waste product to incineration. Does this constitute recycling? Or, as many sustainability experts claim, does large-scale incineration capacity hinder recycling?
And, from the governmental perspective, is it better for waste to ‘go up in smoke’ and provide an energy benefit rather than deal with pressures on landfill or look at other waste management and recycling options?
Dr Darren Perrin, the head of business development for UK-based sustainability consultancy Eunomia says mass burn incineration is a proven residual waste treatment option but the strategy behind it needs to be looked at.
“There are many commercially-operating facilities around the world,” he says. “Therefore, in technical terms it may be a relatively easy option for governments to manage the same quantity of residual waste that may otherwise have been landfilled. Incineration waste acceptance criteria is very tolerable and can process most combustible municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and commercial and industrial (C&I) feedstocks.
“However, when looking at a more strategic angle, why would you set an objective for the management of waste by simply minimising landfill (since there are very different impacts associated with different ways of avoiding landfill), let alone implementing a waste to energy solution?
“The first of these doesn’t specify enough about the strategy, whereas the second specifies too much. Also, despite the technical merits, some communities may not find any waste to energy solution straightforward to implement, due to the economic and social challenges.”
Perrin was the keynote speaker at the recent Australian Waste to Energy Forum in Ballarat. While Sweden has enjoyed positive media coverage for its landfill reduction, he says it’s not clear if the country is “lauded as a leader in waste management”.
“If it is, it may be because, like a number of other countries, it landfills next to no waste. That’s because it has banned landfilling. Incinerators in Sweden receive an implicit subsidy via the system of energy taxation that operates in the country.
“The fact that many incinerators are financed using public money, and receive high revenues for the energy they generate, means that incinerator gate fees are low in Sweden.
“There is a lot more that could be done in Sweden to increase recycling rates: other countries and regions with next to no landfilling have much higher recycling rates (Austria, the Flemish region of Belgium, Lombardy in Italy), whereas some countries, such as Wales, have much higher recycling rates, but still landfill a considerable proportion of the residual waste.
“If landfilling costs much less than incineration, then the switch from one to the other is very difficult to justify because of the relatively low additional benefits (if, indeed, there are any) relative to the additional costs,” says Perrin.
He is blunt about the impacts on the availability of recyclable materials for use by the wider industry under an incineration strategy.
“First, it makes no sense to have ‘an incineration strategy’,” he says. “Instead it should be an energy strategy, of which waste to energy (possibly including incineration where it is appropriate to do so) could form a part.
“Noting the question is focused on supply of material and possible conflicts, it is worth remembering that the commercial viability of incineration facilities is often based on gate fee (i.e. as much material as possible) and securing a Guaranteed Minimum Tonnage (GMT) to technically operate or remain commercially viable.
“Therefore, an incineration facility will be seeking to attract material that, arguably, runs counter to policies such as the circular economy and recycling, which are seeking to eliminate the waste or keep it within the circular loop. Incineration is a linear/ disposal solution and therefore destroys the material rather than seeking alternative uses for it and maximising the value from it.”
Other jurisdictions considering incineration as a frontline strategy for waste management or waste to energy need to have a rethink, Perrin believes.
“First of all, they probably have the wrong strategy. It makes no sense to allow the ‘tail’ of residual waste management to ‘wag the dog’ of the overall strategy.
“When considering the waste hierarchy, which is the core strategic guiding principle to waste management, energy recovery is only just above landfill disposal, and some would argue that the two are broadly equivalent.
“Therefore, why would it ever be the frontline solution in managing waste? The utopia is to not have any waste created. One of the main implications for jurisdictions considering incineration as a frontline strategy is the potential conflict with pursuing other strategies to reduce, reuse, recycle and continue to obtain value from the waste [resource].”
Lessons for Australia?
Perrin says incineration can have a place in an integrated waste management strategy as a potential alterative disposal solution, but it should never have a central role in how waste is managed.
“Even in those circumstances where the need for an incinerator is justified, the facility operating mode (power only or power and heat) and what the facility burns can have a significant influence on its contribution to climate change as we seek to decarbonise the world’s energy supply.
“It is worth remembering that, in no circumstances, is incineration a renewable energy source. The fact that Australia does not have lots of incinerators can be used to its advantage, as it allows the opportunity to focus on extended producer responsibility, source separation, behaviour change and so on,” says Perrin.
“With the right policies and strategies in place, effort should be focused on designing waste out of the system in the first place, maximising reuse, and for the waste that is generated, seeking to repair it, remanufacturing and then recycling it.
“The aim should be to minimise residual waste and not simply replace one way of managing residual waste (landfill) with another (incineration). A strategy designed around incineration is a strategy that has the wrong objectives. In the 21st century, taxes should be on residual waste disposal where an incineration tax is as prevalent as a landfill tax.”
This article also appears in Issue 6 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.