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Energy from Waste (EfW), often referred to as waste-to-energy (WtE), is a process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the primary treatment of waste. This innovative approach has gained significant attention as an alternative to traditional waste disposal methods, offering a sustainable solution for managing waste while simultaneously producing energy. In this article, we'll explore what Energy from Waste is, how it works, its benefits, and its role in modern waste management strategies.
The EfW Process
Energy from Waste involves converting non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through various processes. The most common method is incineration, where waste material is burned at high temperatures. The heat generated from this combustion process is then used to create steam, which drives turbines to produce electricity.
Other EfW technologies include gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion.
Gasification, rather than being the business of driving turbines directly, is about the production of gas from waste. Our everyday rubbish, consisting of product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, appliances and so on, is not a fuel as much as the feed for chemical conversion at very high temperature. The rubbish is combined with oxygen and/or steam to produce ‘syngas’ – synthesised gas which can then be used to make numerous useful products, from transport fuels to fertilisers or turned into electricity.
Pyrolysis. Where pyrolysis is different from other methods listed so far is that decomposition of various solid wastes takes place at high temperature, but without oxygen or in an atmosphere of inert gases. This means the process requires lower temperatures, and has lower emissions of some of the air pollutants associated with combustion.
Anaerobic digestion can be used to generate energy from organic waste like food and animal products. In an oxygen-free tank, this material is broken down to biogas and fertiliser.
Types of Waste Used in EfW
EfW processes typically use municipal solid waste (MSW), which is the everyday items we discard. This waste is usually treated to remove recyclable and compostable materials before being used in EfW facilities. However, the specifics can vary depending on the technology and the facility.
1. Reducing Landfill Use: By converting waste into energy, EfW significantly reduces the volume of waste that ends up in landfills, thereby extending landfill lifespans and reducing environmental impact.
2. Sustainable Energy Production: EfW provides a renewable source of energy. While the waste itself is not renewable, the energy produced from it is considered renewable as it diverts waste from landfills and harnesses its energy potential.
3. Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Compared to landfilling, EfW can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Incineration, for instance, captures the carbon dioxide produced in the waste combustion process.
4. Economic Benefits: EfW facilities create jobs and can lead to economic development in the areas where they are located.
While EfW presents many benefits, there are also challenges to consider:
1. Emission Control: One of the primary challenges in EfW is managing emissions. Advanced emission control technologies are crucial to minimise air pollution. This involves the implementation of sophisticated filters and scrubbers to capture harmful byproducts like dioxins, furans, and particulate matter. Regular monitoring and adherence to strict environmental regulations are essential to ensure that EfW plants do not contribute significantly to air pollution.
2. Economic Viability: The financial aspect of EfW is another significant consideration. Setting up EfW facilities involves high initial costs, including the construction of the plant, installation of emission control technologies, and ongoing operational expenses. These costs can be a barrier, especially in regions with limited funding. The economic viability of EfW projects also depends on the volume of waste processed, the energy market, and potential subsidies or incentives from governments.
3. Waste Reduction Strategy: EfW should not be viewed as a standalone solution but as part of a comprehensive waste management strategy. This broader strategy should prioritise reducing waste generation at the source, promoting recycling and composting, and then utilising EfW for the residual waste that cannot be recycled or composted. By reducing the overall waste volume, we can minimise the reliance on EfW and thereby reduce the potential environmental impacts.
4. Public Perception and Community Impact: Public perception of EfW facilities can be a challenge. Communities often have concerns about potential health risks and environmental impacts, leading to the 'Not In My Back Yard' (NIMBY) syndrome. Effective communication and community engagement are vital to address these concerns. Demonstrating the safety, efficiency, and environmental benefits of EfW can help in gaining public support.
5. Technological Advancements: Continuous research and development in EfW technologies are essential to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impacts. Innovations in thermal processes, waste sorting, and energy recovery can enhance the overall effectiveness of EfW facilities.
6. Regulatory Framework: A robust regulatory framework is essential to ensure that EfW facilities operate within safe environmental standards. This includes regulations on waste acceptance, emission limits, and facility monitoring. Governments play a critical role in establishing these regulations and ensuring compliance.
7. Resource Recovery: Beyond energy generation, EfW processes can also recover materials like metals for recycling. The integration of resource recovery into EfW processes adds value and contributes to a circular economy approach.
By addressing these challenges and considerations, EfW can be effectively integrated into waste management systems, contributing to energy production and environmental sustainability. However, it is crucial to balance the benefits of EfW with its potential impacts, ensuring that it complements other waste reduction and recycling efforts.
The future of EfW looks promising as technological advancements continue to make these processes more efficient and environmentally friendly.
A report released 16 July 2020 by UK think tank Policy Connect, entitled ‘No time to waste: Resources, recovery and the road to net-zero’, which was supported by 13 cross-party MPs, claims that EfW technology is the ‘safest, cheapest and most environmentally responsible solution to the UK’s residual waste problem’.
But they recognise that ‘EfW is not the perfect long-term solution for residual waste. But accompanied by a drive to increase heat use and to decarbonise EfW further, it is the best available technology, and is an essential part of the net-zero transition ahead of us.’
At present, it is the best solution for non-recyclable materials, and one that we utilise here at J&B Recycling as part of our waste management solution. Non-recyclable materials that are removed from recyclable materials during the sorting process are sent to a local partner who makes Subcoal®, an alternative fuel. Cement kilns, power stations and lime kilns use this alternative fuel instead of primary, fossil fuels in their kilns and boilers. Up to 1.6 tonnes of CO2 can be saved for each ton of fossil fuel which is substituted.
J&B Recycling provide waste management solutions for business across the North of England. Our main Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is based in Hartlepool and we have a second site in Middlesbrough, making us ideally placed for collections across Teesside (Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Darlington). We also have a site in Washington and we operate established collection routes throughout Durham, Gateshead,Newcastle, Sunderland, North Tyneside and Northumberland. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if we can help with your waste collection.