What do we do with all the waste with China now saying no thank you to our ‘recycled’ plastic? Is BIG really beautiful? Are some 30-40 Olympic swimming pools of toxic ash per year from a city of 1 million really the best we can do to ‘manage’ waste? While at the same time wasting the equivalent of 10 thousand tonnes of oil per year? And can waste actually cool our food and lives in a way that power can’t? 2018 promises to be a year of big questions.
After a few decades of large-scale incineration being touted as the go-to alternative to landfills, it is increasingly clear that today’s incineration is not the end-game. Developments in 2017 triggered several important questions and put the spotlight on the quest for alternatives. During 2018 we will start seeing things actually happening.
1. What do we do with the all the crap that China doesn’t want anymore?
You have probably seen that China all but banned import of recycled plastic, cardboard, and textiles over poor quality – effective January 1st, 2018. The quality of the recycled material is apparently too bad for China to do anything useful with it. This put a very bright (an uncomfortable) spotlight on the fact that a lot of recycling is today is, in fact, just export of waste, and in many cases ultimately little more than dumping toxic and hazardous waste (and ash) in ‘someone else’s backyard’. But the World is your backyard now and that becomes increasingly clear in 2018.
“Large amounts of dirty… or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously,” the environment ministry explained in a notice to the World Trade Organization.” ( source)
With the EU having exported half of its sorted plastic to China (UK some 70%, and Ireland a whopping 90%) and California and others in the same range; 2018 is an opportunity to seriously discuss the viability and quality of plastic recycling, rather than just big words about declaring war on plastic, and then look the other way as the stream is diverted to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand – because China doesn’t take it any more.
2. Acknowledging the mountains of toxic ash that incineration produces
Awareness of the absolutely phenomenal amounts of toxic ash that is produced even by ‘state of the art’ incineration plants is growing. A 1500 tons per day plant will output some 20+ Olympic swimming pools of toxic ash per year. This means that a population of 1-1.5 million urban residents (per capita waste volume and waste characteristics depending on level of prosperity) will rack up a 1300+ meter high skyscraper the size of an Olympic pool of toxic ash over 30 years – and needless to say, a lot of that will leak into the environment. Over a 30-year life, the very new ‘poster plant’ Amager Bakke in Denmark (featuring a ski slope down the roof) will output almost 6 times its own volume in ash requiring further treatment. The actual volume depending on waste characteristics and moisture content, but it remains massive amounts in any case (Picture source: Amager Bakke + author edits).
In the case of Amager Bakke (see below), this ash is treated for use or deposit, but even if we consider that future safe, residue supply chains are a lot less reliable in developing countries. Landfilled ash in many developing countries sits on very porous land and is also exposed to monsoons and torrential rain, which increases leaking of toxins into soil and water significantly.
Even the most modern facilities in Scandinavia and much of Northern Europe ship their hazardous fly ash for deposit in old mines. With 300 THOUSAND TONS of fly ash treated and dumped on the tiny island Langøya in the fjord outside Oslo every year, it can be debated how sustainable the practice really is. There have also been discussions in Sweden about taxing incineration due to the environmental effects. Awareness about the ash from incineration will continue to grow during 2018 and become increasingly uncomfortable for big operators and municipalities.
3. Taking the first steps to future-proof waste treatment
But there is also tangible action on the ash side. The Bialystok plant in Poland is one of few incineration facilities in the world that features on-site treatment of the hazardous fly ash. At €73.6m for a 120k ton per year plant, it is however an expensive feature. Bialystock is one of six similar plants in Poland and will be joined by others, and not necessarily from where you would expect… China?
Europlasma announced an order from China in 2017 for equipment to vitrify hazardous fly ash. With the ambition to future-safe their 3.2 million ton of highly toxic fly ash produced per year, China is once again stepping up and taking a lead in future-proofing it’s utilities and energy supply (just as it did cracking down on polluting coal plants). But vitrifying fly ash from incineration is an expensive approach. India is not far behind and is also issuing the first waste treatment RFQs demanding zero toxic residues. 2018 will see more of these future-proofing plans materialize, and the industry will have to start adapting to a ‘new deal’.
4. Big is dead, SMALL is beautiful
Big incinerator projects are being halted or scrapped all over the world; UK, US, Canada, China, India. Fear of emissions is part of it, and it doesn’t matter that a modern incinerator in a polluted city pretty much emits cleaner air than it takes in. Other more immediately tangible nuisance such as traffic congestion and pollution from waste transportation criss-crossing the cities and communities play an important role. Cost and subsidy dependence is also an issue as municipalities struggle with their budgets – especially in developing countries, where effective waste management can require 20-50% of municipal budgets according to the World Bank.
But small-scale? Clean distributed solutions based on advanced thermal treatment (efficient combinations of gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma processes) can deliver solid triple bottom line returns and gain social license to operate by adding very tangible value to local neighbourhoods. Among those the proposition to treat ‘our own’ waste and return the energy to the community for direct local use as power, heat and/or cooling. This not only provides added incentives to keep neighbourhoods clean but the reduced transportation of waste also means reduced traffic congestion and pollution. Add to that a valuable support of the power grid at local 4 to 11 kilovolt level – the level where most power grid stress appears and causes failures. Being local and sized to cater to local thermal needs, means that the excess heat from the process can be used directly as heat or cooling, further de-stressing the power grid. Putting this thermal energy to proper use easily saves 1.5 MILLION TONS OF COAL and 3 MILLION TONS of CO2 emissions over 30 years in that same city of 1 million people.
In India for example, with some 70% of the building stock in the country yet to be built and its ambitious plans for smart city deployment; there are unique opportunities to create highly efficient waste management systems with underground pipe transportation of waste combined with district cooling grids. In combination with clean local Advanced Thermal Treatment without toxic residues, that takes us as close to zero ground level transportation for waste management as you can get.
5. Increasing understanding for the role of heat… to… cool…?
Using heat to produce cooling through absorption cooling was an established technology back in the day, but was abolished in many applications due to the abundance of cheap electricity and new ‘cheap’ refrigerants like Freons (life-cycle cost anyone?). But electricity is neither cheap nor abundant these days, and Freons have turned out to be highly potent greenhouse gases… With prosperity growth driving cooling and refrigeration demand growing off the scales the inability of power grids and generation to keep up is already very clear. Cooling and refrigeration could consume up to 40% of the energy in South-east Asia by 2040.
“Greenhouse gas emissions from cooling account for 7% of global emissions, double that of aviation and shipping combined; and they are projected to nearly double over the next decade.” Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham
Why is this important in 2018? The awareness about the role of cooling is growing. Last year UN’s Sustainable Energy For All created a Cooling For All and in 2018 the initiative’s first “comprehensive report that clearly addresses the challenges of cooling access with evidence-based recommendations” will be published. Professor Toby Peters at the University of Birmingham, the world’s (only?) Professor of Cold Economy is increasingly quoted and working closely with cities and states in many developing countries to address cooling from a holistic system perspective. The University of Birmingham is also hosting the World’s first Clean Cold Congress in 2018.
And what does this have to do with Waste? Distributed waste-to-energy solutions were discussed under trend #4 and that type of small-scale thermal generation is uniquely positioned to support not only convenience cooling, but also cold storage of agriculture produce and food, by direct thermal cooling. And not just using any fuel, but using our own waste in a clean way to do so. Reducing food waste is enormously powerful when it comes to addressing health, poverty, water stress, land stress, pesticide load, and climate emissions. The UN FAO estimates that as much as one third of all food is wasted, and adds up the quantifiable costs of food and produce waste to 2.7 trillion dollars – and continue to count hidden cost in this short video.
Direct thermal cooling from local fuels is a highly efficient solution compared to electric cooling where you have to (1) collect solar or wind energy at very rates, (2) store that power for when it is needed in an inefficient Lithium battery built with rare earth materials; (3) transmit the power to where it is needed, while of course losing further energy in the transfer through (a likely already stressed) power grid; to then finally (4) feed that power it into a carbon bomb in a box, i.e. a high GHG air conditioner unit; which on top of that, (5) typically stands in a room together with a power driven fridge that heats up that same room…
Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done here to realise positive change and impact that is supported, driven or required by these trends, and it is in 2018 that they will all start gaining mainstream attention.