Let me start with a simple question. How are we going to tackle the ever-growing mounds of waste when, globally, each year, we dump a massive 2.12 billion tonnes of it?
Then, there's another question- is there an easy and straightforward answer to this question?
Increased population, consumer culture, inadequate waste disposal facilities and lack of waste disposal awareness have been long identified as the basic causes of waste issues across the world. Different countries have different ways of tackling the problem, but the bigger question remains whether the methods being used are sustainable or the impacts are relatively low on the environment and people's lives.
There are a number of ways waste can be treated. For example, incineration, plasma gasification (extreme thermal processes), pyrolysis (high temperature in absence of oxygen), dumps, landfills, biological waste treatment (composting, anaerobic digestion) etc.
For many years, incineration has been one of the most common ways of tackling the waste problem, but lately, generating energy in the form of heat and electricity from residual waste (general waste which are not easily recyclable) has become an emerging trend towards achieving environmental sustainability and circular economy goals.
How burning waste can be linked to environmental sustainability and circular economy goals may sound bizarre.
Compared to other methods, generating energy from residual waste is quicker, commercially viable and sustainable. Obviously, this process is far better than sending waste to the landfill and it is less carbon-intensive than coal.
Time is of the essence too. It is no brainer that we need a quicker method to get rid of waste, otherwise the amount of waste will be increased over time, which will even usher in bigger problems for the present and the future generations to manage the impending crisis.
Generating electricity and supply to the national grid to power millions of households is an effective way to combat energy crisis. In the process, it generates new jobs for the local communities.
To my mind, it is a win-win situation and meets the current needs without compromising the future generations' ability to tackle waste problems. Therefore, in this case, sustainability and circular economy, in their broadest contexts, comprise not only environmental but it also embrace social and economic factors where everything has value and nothing is wasted.
When we say, 'nothing is wasted', it effectively touches the core value of the circular economy. It is a start-to-finish circular concept that rejects the traditional economic approach of 'take-make-consume and dispose' pattern of growth and embraces a new economic approach.
As the waste-to-energy process gets rid of residual waste quicker and supports economic development and prosperity, hence attracting many interests around the world to build more waste-to-energy plants.
According to the British government data, there are currently 90 plants in the UK and 50 more proposed. In China, there are now over 300 and another 200 currently under construction. In the United States, there are 84 waste-to-energy plants in operations.
According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the world market for waste-to-energy is expected to grow at a combined annual growth rate of approximately 6.45 percent during the forecast period of 2020-2025. Clearly, there is an upward trend around the world.
However, critics opine, it is not good enough and may not be the right yardstick for measuring success, as it pollutes the air by emitting noxious gases and particulates like carbon-dioxide, nitrous-oxides and fine particles, bottom ashes as by-products, vehicle emissions, and CO2 emissions from other activities. Critics go further saying that waste-to-energy process discourages waste recycling.
However, I believe these claims are quite ambiguous and the pollution concerns have been overblown. The opponents are extraordinarily good to sell the concept of fear, uncertainty, and doubt factors. It is quite easy to criticise, however, the critics have, so far, failed to come up with a cost-effective, viable and easy solution.
The waste-to-energy plants operate under strict regulations (may vary country to country) which allow only minimum threshold of air emissions and any continuing breaches would be seriously dealt with by the government regulatory bodies.
Ferrous metals are taken out from the left-over ashes to be processed to recycling centres, and the rest are sent to further processing to be used as an aggregate and very little remaining of which goes to the landfill sites. Also, the argument about the process that discourages waste recycling is also false as we are talking about generating energy from waste which are not easily recyclable.
Besides, evidences have shown from the five European countries with the highest recycling rates (Germany, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium) are amongst the countries with the most waste-to-energy facilities in Europe.
Surely, we should look for new technologies and more efficient ways of tackling waste as the credo of more stuff will continue to dominate, effectively the amount of waste will increase over time.
Green innovations are great for the environment, but at present, we cannot just wait and hope for the new technologies to take over. We need to act now with a cost-effective and available technology that we have in our disposal.
The state-of-art and expensive technology e.g., plasma gasification can emerge as triumphant in all environmental debates and talks but it is simply a convenient facade where the basics barely touch with the reality. Moreover, the poorer countries are usually been side-lined in the prospects and potentials of new technologies.
Can the poorer countries simply leapfrog to the new and expensive technologies that are being proposed by the critics? Waste is a universal menace and we need to tackle the problem head-on and hence it is required to get everyone on-board.
The waste-to-energy is doing that and should get the respect it deserves. That does not mean waste-to-energy process can rest on its laurels, rather in time, it needs to get technologically better.
Yousuf Jamil, a UK-based environmentalist. Email: [email protected]