Local Government Magazine
Waste Management

What’s wrong with burning rubbish? Waste to energy incineration

What’s wrong with burning rubbish? waste to energy incineration

Top left: Rubbish incineration plant at Spillepengen Malmo, Sweden. Right: Macao Solid Waste Incineration Plant.

Marty Hoffart suggests seven ways for councils to evaluate waste-to-energy proposals.

Local government is tasked with the increasingly difficult challenge of dealing with recycling and resource recovery. In the past two years, the ability to send mixed plastics (the 3 to 7s) to what was the world’s recycler, China, has come to an abrupt end with its National Sword programme coming into effect. China bought about half of the $60 million export earnings of recyclable commodities. This has resulted in many council facilities and council contractors stockpiling or landfilling recyclable material.

At the same time, the amount of recyclable commodities going to landfill has not decreased. New Zealanders are now producing, on average, about 734 kilograms of waste per person per year. That amount has increased by around 20 percent over the past three years.

These issues put significant strain on limited council resources. Contractors are known to have asked several councils for funding top-ups to deal with a drop in commodity prices.

Enter the waste incinerator companies keen to sell easy and attractive ‘waste-to-energy’ solutions to our municipal waste woes.

What is Waste-to-Energy Incineration?

“Waste-to-energy” (WtE) or staged incineration refers to a range of technologies including gasification, pyrolysis, thermal oxidation processing, plasma arc, rotary kilns, and fluidised bed units, among others. Often, the incineration industry claims that its technology is not an incinerator because it may not use oxygen to combust the waste stream. This can be misleading because the waste is still thermally converted into a gas, often known as Syngas, which is then burnt (combusted) to make energy.

By 2025 we could divert three million tonnes of waste from landfill per annum.

Incineration is widely reported as the most expensive and dirtiest form of energy production on the planet. The process of burning waste to create energy releases more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per megawatt-hour than coal. Is this the solution to our current recycling issues?

Live proposals and murmurings

Two proposed incineration projects have been recently reported in the media: one in Hokitika and one in Huntly. Along with these, incinerator companies are making approaches to councils and iwi across the country, with more public discussions happening in the Kaipara and New Plymouth.

In Hokitika, Renew Energy wants to build a plant that would burn 1000 tonnes of rubbish every day. In total, the plant would burn 300,000 tonnes of waste a year. Meanwhile, the West Coast produces only 4000 tonnes of waste every year but would be left with 10,000 tonnes of toxic fly ash, which would need to be landfilled.

In Huntly, a large-scale waste-to-energy project called “Kaitiaki” has been proposed with the initial backing of Te Waka, the Waikato Regional Economic Development Agency.

WtE projects: What to consider

Councils must conduct appropriate due diligence of any WtE project. Consideration must be given to the truthfulness of the claims of a WtE project, as well as the longer-term impacts and opportunity costs of choosing to burn valuable resources.

Look up and down the country into every domestic rubbish bag or wheelie bin on its way to the tip: half if it is made up of food and green waste which could be composted locally. Another 15 to 20 percent is recyclable materials. What is compelling us to burn it?

Changes on the way

Meanwhile, the Ministry for the Environment is leading dramatic changes in the way our country’s waste will be managed in the future. A key change is the introduction of mandatory product stewardship for six categories of products, including a beverage container return scheme, and a review of the waste levy.

Beverage containers will, hopefully, become something of value. There will be increased opportunities for recycling and potentially new opportunities for refilling. Auckland Council and Malborough District Council will lead the project design for the deposit scheme with government funding of nearly $1 million from the Waste Minimisation Fund.

This will be a game changer for resource recovery as the 2.3 billion plastic, glass and other drinks containers sold each year are removed from the waste stream for recycling.

In terms of the waste levy, at the current rate of $10 a tonne, the incentive to reduce, re-use and recycle is low. Auckland-based company Reclaim estimates it costs 18 times more to send waste to landfills in the UK compared to New Zealand.

Levies in line with the rest of the world would reduce waste going to landfills. It is estimated that if we expand the waste levy to the same level as Australian states, by 2025 we could divert three million tonnes of waste from landfill per annum, create 9000 new jobs and increase our recycling rate for the country from 28 percent to over 60 percent.

Real waste solutions

The future for what we now call ‘waste’ is dramatically different. In place of the existing linear take-make-waste economy where valuable resources are landfilled, a circular economy is developing. It will keep products and materials in use, by design, for as long as possible, to get the maximum value from them. It focuses on reshaping business and economic systems so that waste is ‘designed out’ and recovery is designed in.

The Zero Waste Network has started a community enterprise called Localised expressly to partner with and provide expertise to community organisations wanting to open and operate resource recovery centres in their communities. This will create local, long-term sustainable income and opportunities. If we can’t recycle, compost or re-use it, we simply shouldn’t be making it.

There are seven major areas where councils can focus their efforts in evaluating Waste-to-Energy

1. Jobs/economics WtE schemes are expensive to build, and they lock councils into long-term contracts. They are also terrible at generating employment when compared with recycling and re-use activities. Some estimates show that for every 10,000 tonnes going to landfill, one job can be created if incinerated, six jobs if landfilled, 36 jobs if recycled, and up to 296 if refurbished and re-used. Social enterprises have significant potential for providing high quality employment and kick into play the circular economy activities related to re-use, repair or recycling.

2. Regulation Under the current Waste Minimisation Act, councils have legal obligations to reduce waste. Incinerators do the opposite because they need greater waste generation to operate. They also create the problem of toxic ash waste, a significantly different and more difficult beast than ordinary municipal waste streams. A second regulatory consideration is the monitoring and compliance of health and environmental standards.

3. Better solutions WtE is often touted as a ‘quick fix’ for municipal waste problems but the reality is that burning rubbish is an outdated and expensive idea. Councils need to ask: does the financial case stack up? What other opportunities and options are there to deal with our waste issues? Incinerators compete with recycling and re-use activities. Some incinerators have driven their host city or region to bankruptcy because of heavy subsidies and long-term contracts. They lock communities into creating more waste: not reducing it. There is a perception that waste disposal is free. They all command a disposal fee, just like a landfill, so there is no savings to ratepayers. By contrast, Auckland has declared a goal of being zero waste by 2040, and is investing in behaviour change, innovation and community-led solutions to make that happen. Across the country, growing awareness of the impacts of climate change means that councils can seize new opportunities to adapt to more resilient, carbon zero and community-focused circular economy solutions.

4. Environmental Incinerators are waste treatment facilities that generate toxic waste in the form of ash, slag and sludge. This has to be landfilled in specialised and more expensive facilities. Councils need to determine how this toxic waste would be managed. What are the ecological implications of a hazardous waste dump? Incinerators reduce solid waste to approximately 22 percent of its original volume, which exits the incinerator in the form of fly ash and bottom ash. Pollution and toxic emissions from incinerators travel long distances and persist in the environment for long periods. There is no technology in the world that has zero emissions and incinerators emit carbon dioxide.

5. Health Councils should be aware that the emissions from incinerators and the disposal of toxic ash can create health problems for communities, including heightened risks of cancer as shown in many peer reviewed studies. Any proposal must have baseline community health information, as well as a clear, regulated pathway for ensuring public safety.

6. Social Councils should be aware of the disproportionate health and economic effects that may arise from the siting of an incinerator. Councils have obligations for community consultation and engagement with Mana Whenua. How will an incinerator affect the community’s current and future land uses, amenity, cultural, religious or spiritual practices? Incinerators lock in waste as a social norm. The evidence is clear that waste reduction must be a
top priority.

7. Technology Different incineration technologies are proliferating, many of them have never been trialled in a real setting. Councils should not be a test case for a new technology. Any proposal should be based upon existing data of an operational facility. Similarly, due diligence of the company’s history, directors, environmental and health and safety records must be given appropriate weight in any evaluation of a proposed incinerator.

  •  Marty Hoffart is chair of Zero Waste Network NZ and director of Waste Watchers.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of Local Government Magazine.

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