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Waste and energy

In September 2015, an ambitious report on the global waste situation was released at the ISWA World Congress in Antwerp, Belgium. According to the report, some 7 – 10 billion tonnes of waste is generated globally, per annum. Approximately 2 billion tonnes of this is categorised as municipal solid waste (MSW).

View of boiler house with biomass in-feed from the left and waste from centre.
Mälarenergi’s waste-to-energy plant in Västerås, Sweden. View of boiler house with biomass in-feed from the left and waste from the centre. View of boiler house with biomass in-feed from the left and waste from the centre.

Jointly prepared by International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) and United Nations Environment Programme, International Environmental Technology Centre (UNEP IETC) the report “Global Waste Management Outlook” (GWMO) is the first world-wide assessment of waste situation and provides an authoritative overview, analysis and recommendations of policy instruments and financing models and a call for action to establish sustainable waste management around the world. Noting that waste as concept includes the “unwanted outputs of human activity as gases, liquids and solids as well as discharges to the three environmental receiving media of air, water and land”, the report primarily deals with solid wastes that are collected, stored and managed.

Better data needed

The authors duly note that while providing a global overview of total waste generation would seem to be a fundamental element of the report, in reality it is almost impossible to do so with sufficient accuracy. Where data exists it generally refers to municipal solid waste (MSW). In higher income countries this is usually managed by municipalities, whereas commercial and industrial (C&I) and construction and demolition (C&D) waste categories are typically handled by the source generators themselves via the recycling and waste management industry.

(Left) According to the Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) report, the annual global waste generation amounts to 7-10 billion tonnes in total, out of which ≈ 2 billion tonnes is categorised as municipal solid waste (MSW). The breakdown per waste category as a share of the total is illustrated above based on GWMO. (Right) MSW entering a pre-treatment unit to separate organic fractions from contaminants such as packaging, metals, sand, glass etc. The former can be used as feedstock for biogas production and the latter, depending on the material, can be reused, recycled or have its energy content recovered in an energy from waste (EfW) facility (photo courtesy Cellwood Machinery).
(Left) According to the Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) report, the annual global waste generation amounts to 7-10 billion tonnes in total, out of which ≈ 2 billion tonnes is categorised as municipal solid waste (MSW). The breakdown per waste category as a share of the total is illustrated above based on GWMO.
(Right) MSW entering a pre-treatment unit to separate organic fractions from contaminants such as packaging, metals, sand, glass etc. The former can be used as feedstock for biogas production and the latter, depending on the material, can be reused, recycled or have its energy content recovered in an energy from waste (EfW) facility (photo courtesy Cellwood Machinery). (Left) According to the Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) report, the annual global waste generation amounts to 7-10 billion tonnes in total, out of which ≈ 2 billion tonnes is categorised as municipal solid waste (MSW). The breakdown per waste category as a share of the total is illustrated above based on GWMO. (Right) MSW entering a pre-treatment unit to separate organic fractions from contaminants such as packaging, metals, sand, glass etc. The former can be used as feedstock for biogas production and the latter, depending on the material, can be reused, recycled or have its energy content recovered in an energy from waste (EfW) facility (photo courtesy Cellwood Machinery).

Another interesting point is that wastes arising from the “water supply, sewage treatment, waste management and land remediation” category represent around 5 percent of the total, while waste from power generation represents around 3 percent. These sources are interesting, as they represent the best measure available of those residues that have been removed from emissions to air and water, and concentrated as ‘solid waste’.

There is overlap between the definitions and considerable variation between countries with the distinctions between these three major waste types being more ‘fuzzy’ in developing country cities. As a result one major recommendation from the GWMO report is to ensure that waste and resource management data are actively included within wider international action as part of the data revolution to improve data for sustainable development.

US$309 billion pipeline

The report presents global data on all active waste treatment and energy recovery facility development projects over the 2013 – 2014 period, including projects at all stages of development, from feasibility and planning through construction. The combined investment value is estimated to be US$309 billion with the average project value pegged at US$113 million. However, it is duly noted in the report that the figures are an overestimation as not all of the projects will be built. Nonetheless it gives an indication of the relative levels of activity, by waste type, by technology type and by geographic region.

Growth for energy recovery

An estimated 765 energy-from-waste (EfW) plants exist to thermally treat MSW, with an annual combined  capacity of 83 million tonnes. Of these 455 are located in the European Union (EU), 150 are found in China and 86 in the United States (US). According to the report, MSW treatment facilities account for 28 percent (≈ US$86 billion) of all projects by value. In terms of distribution by geographic area, the UK and the US show major investments, accounting for 24 percent (US$20.6 billion) and 11 percent (≈ US$9.4 billion) of global MSW investment activity by value respectively, while the most active developing countries are China (10 percent, ≈ US$8.6 billion) and India (5 percent, US$4.3 billion). Looking at facility type, investment into “combustion with energy” has the largest share by value, 44 percent (≈ US$37.8 billion) whereas biogas, anaerobic digestion (AD) and biofuels (e.g. biodiesel from used cooking oil UCO) have a 4 percent share (≈ US$3.4 billion). Noteworthy is that MSW treatment projects using gasification have an 11 percent share (≈ US$ 9.4 billion).

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