What is Waste-to-Energy?

Published on:
Wednesday March 4, 2020

Waste-to-energy is primarily an alternative to the use of landfill, for disposal of materials that cannot be recycled and would otherwise be taking up space at a landfill site. Combustion reduces the volume of waste by as much as 90%, turning it into ash that is either reused or placed in landfill, significantly reducing the amount of land required for use in waste disposal.

Along with limiting the need for landfill use, incineration means that the waste can be put to productive use, providing energy and heat for houses throughout the country – reducing the reliance on fossil fuels to do so. Waste-to-energy bundles together non-renewable waste disposal and energy production into a neat little package: each ton of waste incinerated produces around 500kWh of electricity.

Modern technology producing cleaner energy

The most common concern voiced by those who oppose the construction of WtE plants regards pollution, and the belief that, in combusting waste, hazardous chemicals, along with CO2, will be released. In the 20th Century this was indeed the case, as waste often wasn’t sorted prior to combustion and the technologies used were not so advanced. Now, a range of developments have made it so that modern waste-to-energy plants are, in the words of the New York Times, so clean that “many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration”.

Devices such as lime scrubbers, catalysts, baghouse filters, and electrostatic precipitators are used to capture pollutants before they are released. While incineration does release CO2, its environmental impact is much lesser than that of the equivalent waste being disposed in landfill, where the anaerobic decomposition of waste releases what is known as ‘landfill gas’, a mixture of CO2 and methane that is far more damaging than CO2 alone. Furthermore, the combination of waste disposal and energy provision that WtE offers means that, not only does the process dispose of waste more sustainably than landfill, it simultaneously provides energy that is significantly cleaner and less polluting than fuels such as coal and oil.

Global success

For an example of success in waste-to-energy processing, as in most things, one need only look to Sweden. The Scandinavians process almost half of their waste in WtE plants, providing heat to 1.2 million households and electricity for a further 800,000. Between their extremely high levels of recycling and their use of waste-to-energy for unrecyclable material, the Swedes put an astonishingly low amount of their rubbish in landfill – less than 1%. WtE has similarly been embraced by the likes of China, Singapore, and the Netherlands.

Achieving net zero by 2050

Waste-to-energy is far from a panacea for the country’s current issues with waste disposal and energy provision; rather, it should form just one part of a broader strategy to ensure that waste is disposed of in the most clean and sustainable ways possible and that we use a broad spectrum of available tools to provide us with the heat and energy that we need. A reduction in waste and continuing to encourage recycling should remain priorities, as should diversifying the energy sources that we use and moving away from fossil fuels, but WtE can and should make up a vital part of a comprehensive waste management and energy production strategy. With a proven track record across the world as a robust and reliable alternative energy option, expect to see WtE form an even more central part of the UK’s waste disposal and energy production infrastructure before too long.

As the UK works towards its 2050 net zero target, Waste to Energy is set to play a key part in helping achieve this goal and former industrial sites, now unused brownfield land, are in prime position to be put to new use in WtE.