Landfills around the world are filling up. In 2016, humanity generated over 2 billion tonnes of waste. In the next 30 years, that figure is expected to grow to 3.4 billion.
Where will all this waste end up?
A recent report by UN Environment’s International Environmental Technology Centre outlines one technology that has the potential to reduce the volume of waste entering landfills by up to 90 per cent.
Waste-to-energy plants have been around for over 100 years, but today their use is on the rise, with many seeing the plants as a quick-fix solution to growing waste challenges. This phenomenon is especially apparent in Asia, where some 1,200 of the 1,700 plants worldwide are found. Japan alone maintains over 700. China is on track to increase the number of their plants by over 50 per cent, according Yuanyang Ou of SUS Environment, a Chinese investor and operator of waste-to-energy plants.
The core concept remains largely the same as a century ago. Burn solid waste at high temperatures so that the waste is eliminated and use the excess heat to power turbines and create electricity.
Historically, this would also produce significant amounts of ash and toxic gases. Today’s waste-to-energy plants, however, are much cleaner. Advanced technologies help to burn waste at extremely high temperatures, which ensures complete combustion. Emissions are also specially treated, which leaves minimal amounts of toxic byproducts like flue ash. Some tests have even shown that the air emitted by certain waste-to-energy chimneys can be cleaner than the air flowing in.
With that information, is waste-to-energy being given enough attention as a potential clean energy solution that is a part of the wider energy transition toolchest?