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What is Energy From Waste? A case for Burning the leftovers?


What is EfW?

Energy from waste is in essence a means to incinerate a waste, using the heat generated to convert water into steam, driving a series of turbines, which in turn produce electricity. That’s the simple answer. However, there’s more to EFW (energy from waste) than simply burning it. The main reason behind this is the various different types of waste that are produced and their volumes- volume in essence is the driving force behind the cost of processing on a “per tonne” basis and this in turn determines whether the generation of energy from such wastes is viable in the first place.

Removing Landfill from the Chain:

This explains the rationale behind two other key factors that are currently driving innovation in the Waste sector. The European Union’s Landfill Directive requires a significant reduction in the volumes of biodegradable wastes being sent to landfill. In the UK, this is being further underpinned through “Landfill Tax“, the annual escalating cost of which is proving effective in diverting wastes away from Landfill and into other areas of the waste management sector.

The rationale behind such innitiatives is the need to in essence move toward a “circular economy” whereby waste is seen as a resource, rather than simply being dealt with as a by-product of our activities. The application of a “cost model” to final disposal solutions incentivises the business community into developing new strategies that produce a financial return that is marginally better than the cost of final disposal.

Improving Incinerators

The incineration of wastes is something that suffers from poor public perception, thanks mainly to the historic use of incinerators. Essentially a means to deal with residual waste, it offers a route to disposal other than Landfill and has a carbon footprint marginally better. However, as electricity generation throughout the UK improves and includes more renewable resources, energy from waste, through the use of RDF (refuse derived fuel) needs to streamline in order to remove materials derived from fossil fuels. This in turn will drive us towards a fuel source that contains more biogenic waste by percentage (ref: DEFRA, Feb 2014, Energy from Waste- A Guide to the Debate).

EfW is however changing rapidly and stricter guidelines for their operation have removed many of the pollutants historically associated with their operation. Requirements for extensive emissions monitoring and reporting, coupled with the tight regulation of emissions ensure that existing installations incorporate suitable technologies to remove pollutants and that new installations are designed to mitigate such risks. A review undertaken by Public Health England backs up such assertions by stating that “the effects on health, if the exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable”.

Assisting Waste Streams

Residual waste has been a historic issue and remains the final hurdle to the birth of a “circular economy” in the UK.

Food Waste for example comprises some 14.8 million tonnes of this residue in the UK alone and it’s final disposal has historically been landfill. It’s very nature means that it cannot be easliy moved up the “Waste Heirarchy” without significant upfront investment in the waste management industry, public perception and supply chain modificiations.

By contrast plastic recycling remains a hurdle to the removal of Fossil fuel derived materials from the RDF chain. Hard plastics remain a significant issue as their re-use is limited due to commercial viability.

Improving Efficiencies:

As greater emphasis is placed upon the need to divert residual wastes from landfill and EfW becomes a mainstream solution to the treatment of residual wastes, operators are seeking more and more efficient ways to extract energy from the resource. As a result, the original model of energy generation by incineration is being “surpassed”.

CHP:The citing of incinerators in close proximity to homes or businesses allows for secondary energy production methods. CHP (combined Heat and Power) generation makes use of the heat that would have historically been lost, instead being used to heat homes, offices or business premises.

ATT:Advanced thermal treatments (ATT) such as gasification and pyrolysis offer solutions on a smaller scale. They also produce other by-products including oils and gases, which can be used on site or cleaned up and used as fuels elsewhere.

Technically a fuel from waste (ffW) technology, and should possibly be considered an indirect EfW, I’ve included Anerobic Digestion is a significant solution to such issues as food and green wastes. It offers a means by which Methane can be drawn off during the anerobic breakdown of green wastes into a compost. The methane can be used as a fuel and the compost used as fertiliser.


EfW offers a solution that is currently marginally better than Landfill. Rules determine when it can be considered “recovery” and when “final disposal” should be applied, meaing that it’s efficiency moves up and down the waste heirarchy depending upon the type of waste being used.

As the debate over the use of EfW technologies continue throughout 2014, key issues including the use of Mixed Residual Wastes (waste that is left over when all the recycling possible has been done) remain a significant hurdle to the industry. By removing fossil derived wastes from this waste stream, EfW would in essence become more sustainable. As more biogenic waste enters this treatment process and more fossil derived waste is reccycled, EfW will become far more efficient than landfill.

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