What is waste-to-energy?
Waste-to-energy is a reasonably new idea. In simple terms, it burns common trash at incredibly high temperatures to produce steam which moves a turbine, resulting in electricity that can then be used to power homes, factories, etc. By burning the trash, the overall volume of the matter drastically declines which then results in less space needed for dumping it. If waste-to-energy plants are done correctly, this could be a game-changer in removing all visible waste and ending traditional landfills.
The history of incinerators:
As mentioned before, the waste-to-energy plants burn trash at an incredibly high temperature which results in energy for the grid. The machine that burns the waste is commonly known as an ‘incinerator’. Incinerators aren’t new technology and have been used for almost 150 years. However, back in the day, these machines were simply used to burn household rubbish which probably seemed like a good idea at first, but actually had colossal consequences on the environment.
The pollutants that were released from the incinerators were never filtered before leaving the miniature smokestacks which resulted in huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions with incredibly dangerous examples like black carbon which has a global warming effect that ranges between 460 – 1,500 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2). The potential damage of incinerators used today in waste-to-energy plants could easily be as damaging as they were in the past. However, if the world follows a similar idea to Singapore, this might just be the convenient and planet conscious idea we need.
Waste-to-energy in Singapore:
In Singapore, trucks will drive past every house/apartment in the city to collect the families/individuals’ waste and then deliver the trash to one of the four large waste-to-energy facilities in the country. There, the waste will be dropped into a large underground pit to later be collected by a colossal crane. The crane will drop down and collect the trash to place into the incinerator. There, the trash will be burned at around 850oC – 1000oC (1,470oF – 1830oF) and eventually converted into ash resulting in a 90% reduction in volume, vital in reducing the amount of space needed for landfill. As the pollutants travel up the smokestacks, they are treated before escaping ensuring no pollution is created in the process.
The waste that doesn’t burn e.g. metal, can then be picked out of the incinerator and sent to a specialised recycling facility. The rest of the waste that is now ash, can be collected again and placed into trucks to be dumped in a large human-made lake sealed off from the ocean. This lake in Singapore known as Semakau landfill was built in 1999 and cost almost 500 million dollars. Around the landfill are large numbers of mangrove plants and colourful coral species that are excellent at cleaning water when the ash is disposed of in the lake. As the landfill begins to rise, much of the water will be sent to a water treatment plant and then disposed of in the ocean just next to the landfill.
Each waste-to-energy plant in Singapore can burn an average of 3,000 tons of waste daily which results in providing 2% – 3% of the energy demand in Singapore annually. Currently, Semakau landfill is projected to completely fill by 2035 so discussions are underway on how the large dumping facility can continue to work.
One proposal is to continue placing a portion of the ash into Semakau landfill but also sending large amounts of ash to be recycled into NEWSand, a construction material that can be used to create non-structural concrete like footpaths/pavements.
Incineration isn’t always thought of as the cleanest way to remove rubbish.
However, if done correctly like in Singapore, this could be a brilliant way of reducing land consumption compared to traditional landfills, removing all visible waste and providing clean energy to the country.
How much is the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry worth?
In 2019, the waste-to-energy market was worth around $46.5 billion AUD ($35.1 billion USD) and is expected to reach $66.4 billion AUD ($50.1 billion USD) by 2027 meaning it’s growing at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 4.6% from 2020 to 2027. However, some other organisations believe that these statistics might be potentially undervaluing the industry with some saying the CAGR could be even higher at around 7.4%. Either way, the industry is certainly growing and collecting more and more interest from governments around the world with an increase in waste-to-energy plants being constructed every year.
The end of traditional landfills:
When most people think of landfills, the first thing that comes to mind is a disgusting pile of trash and large machines constantly moving the garbage around, and that’s correct. However, what happens if we could end those polluting landmarks once and for all?
This landfill at first glimpse appears like a tropical paradise only it’s Singapore’s main dumping ground for trash.
As mentioned before, this is where the ash that was once rubbish, is disposed of after incineration in the main waste-to-energy plants across Singapore. This is a very large lake with a perimeter of 7 kilometres (4.3 miles) but many cities could make much smaller/bigger ones to cater to their waste needs. By moving to this new model of dealing with waste, land consumption could drastically decline. In the United States for example, the average landfill size has a perimeter of 6.23 kilometres (3.87 miles) and currently, there are over 1,250 active landfills in the United States. That’s a huge amount of land consumed for simply landfills, especially when compared to how much land would be needed for only dumping ash.
Comfortably over 100,000 marine animals lose their lives to visible pollution and as well as thousands of animals on land each year. Majority of that slipping out of landfills, even in first world countries with some of the most controlled dumping grounds in the world. This new model of dealing with waste could help significantly cut down on land consumption and animal fatality changing what was originally some of the most undesirable locations on earth to destinations almost unrecognisable from normal lakes.
Could all countries execute waste-to-energy?
One of the main issues with waste-to-energy plants is the cost. The average waste-to-energy plant costs around $1.3 billion AUD ($1 billion USD) which is most likely out of reach for many poorer countries especially when the alternative is a cheap landfill. Another problem that could cause huge issues is if the facilities are not continuously monitored and looked after to the highest standard.
As mentioned before, waste-to-energy could work brilliantly but if governments and companies don’t commit to strong policies ensuring limited emissions are produced, then the whole system could turn into a rapid global warming machine.
Another issue many countries may face with waste-to-energy is that the waste in certain countries can widely differ in others. In India for example, over 50% of waste produced is organic matter such as food scraps or garden waste which is often too hard to burn. So, in India, systems like compost facilities may be a better idea.
Assuming the waste produced in one country like Singapore will be identical to all other countries is incredibly optimistic and simply not the case. For the vast majority of countries, waste-to-energy could certainly work. However, it’s clear that some countries may be far better suited to other green alternatives.
What countries are leading in waste-to-energy?
Over 80% of waste-to-energy dominance are in wealthy, first world countries such as Japan, the United States of America, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and Denmark. These countries are and will continue to lead the race for quite some time as more and more facilities pop up. These countries seem to be increasing the number of facilities for two reasons; one being large countries like the United States trying to reduce its huge amount of annual waste sent to landfills while also setting a good example for the rest of the world. The second being smaller countries like Denmark and Japan who are basically obligated to use waste-to-energy to keep up with rising energy demands across the country.
The fine line for waste-to-energy:
As mentioned a few times, waste-to-energy could go horribly wrong if not properly managed with strong policies in place. However, the alternative is doing it correctly and providing the world with another green form of energy while destroying unwanted rubbish at the same time. It’s unfortunately a very fine line though. Years ago, incinerators produced millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions with those sorts of scenes possibly replicated today with potentially even greater amounts of emissions with the drastic rise in industrialisation and trash. Whether the process is done well or poorly is entirely up to each individual country, although hopefully, those that take it up will use it in the best interest of the people and planet.
Like any new industry, more jobs are created which is certainly something we have come to appreciate more during the Coronavirus pandemic. In Western Australia, the first waste-to-energy plant is set to be built creating almost 1,000 additional jobs in just the construction phase of the facility with around 100 jobs when up and running. Not only is it great to increase job opportunities, but jobs in green industries like these often increase job numbers by an average of nine times more than jobs in landfills or other specific dirty industries. This new industry will see an increase in jobs, leaving more people in greater financial positions and increasing work in presumably green facilities.
This relatively new industry could see the end of traditional landfills in many countries leading to a large reduction in land consumption, animal fatality and undesirable locations while also providing additional energy to cities/countries. This new way of dealing with trash could be a game-changer in reducing the environmental impacts that come with current landfills. However, there are also negative effects that could occur with a lack of monitoring and weak policies. In the end, the true solution to our global waste catastrophe is to eliminate it altogether. However, that does currently seem like a stretch based on the frightening statistics. So, the next best thing to go along with recycling and composting might just be waste-to-energy.