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Why Waste to Energy (WtE) and Methane Hold the Key to Climate Change Reduction

We explain why Waste to Energy (WtE) technology and methane emissions reduction will hold the key to reducing Climate Change over the next 10 years.

It follows from this that we plead for all politicians to pledge to support a policy of methane reduction first, above all other forms of climate change abatement.

At Wasterblog we think that our topic of waste and recycling is about to become a whole lot more important as the world finally wakes up to the perils of climate change!

Read on and find out why “Wastersblog” will be very busy in the years to come after COP26 in Glasgow!

To Have the Biggest Effect on Reducing Global Warming Landfill Methane Emissions Must be Reduced as “Low Hanging Fruit”

Landfills are massive emitters of the most potent of all high emission greenhouse gases, which is methane. But, waste must be made safe, or it will harm people. So a world without landfills tomorrow is impossible. Nevertheless, certainly, within the next 10 years, all but a few will have to be closed.

Waste to Energy (WtE) technology is well developed and available now. It will be the replacement technology for all landfills.

New Waste to Energy facilities must be built and extended to take all the waste currently sent to landfills, barring inert residues.

Methane emissions reduction is THAT important. Waiting for a better technology than WtE is no longer even remotely tenable.

Wait and the globe will sail past the 1.5°C rise scenario with the appalling consequences of yet greater sea level rises and suffering by humanity and all living creatures on this planet.

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Waste to Energy (WtE) Technology is Not Perfect –  Why Stop Landfill?

There are a number of different ways to dispose of rubbish, but landfill is the worst for our environment in very many ways. Now that the IPCC has studied methane, and its global warming effect has been reported on, it is clear that landfill really does have to stop.

That's because climate change is progressing at an alarming and accelerating rate and the most urgent greenhouse gas to stop pumping out, is methane.

All you can do with a landfill is to reduce the environmental impacts. Science cannot stop them.

The most critical first way to reduce methane is to reduce the organic waste sent to landfills.

The waste industry in many nations is providing alternative ways to prevent food waste and garden waste from being sent to their landfills. Food waste diversion away from landfills needs to be continued and done faster as food wastage is so high.

Waste Processing Technology Aids the Move Away from Landfill

The waste industry's ability to separate waste types, reuse and recycle, is the key to offering alternatives to landfills. Examples of alternatives are anaerobic digestion and composting.

Bans of organic waste (biowaste) are likely to be brought in for some landfills in some countries as early as 2024.

The move away from landfills is essential for landfilling to be used for only non-organic waste. The less organic (biogenic) material placed in a landfill directly influences how much methane it produces. Lower organic input means less damaging methane/ greenhouse gas.

Beware the landfill companies that suggest that they capture by far the largest part of the methane their sites produce. In reality, they are usually simply quoting the proportion they collect while they are active on the landfill.

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Landfills Produce Small Amounts of LFG for very Many Years

The truth is that the landfill will still produce that gas long after their landfill gas (LFG) collection systems wear out or are shut down due to insufficient incoming gas.

A landfill built today will be making landfill gas for, of the order of, 100 years. After a while, the rate of LFG production reduces continually but only slowly. This lessening rate of production means that after a while it makes no economic sense to collect and extract the LFG.

But the LFG production persists for a very long time, only very gradually decreasing.

In fact, the low gas flow that goes on for a very long time does add up to a whole lot of methane.

And, that uncollected methane can easily account for half of the gas the landfill site will produce before the air around a landfill once again enters the waste. Only at that time will aerobic conditions return and landfill gas output end.

Politicians Need to Also Pledge to Immediately Fit LFG Extraction Systems to Landfills

Methane from landfills is of course only damaging as a greenhouse gas once it has escaped to the atmosphere. Collecting the biogas (landfill gas) and either flaring it or using it to generate electricity or even better upgrading it to biomethane for vehicle fuel, are all skills residing in the waste management industry.

Limiting Global Climate Temperature Rise to 15°C

Methane emissions reduction is central to current efforts to minimize climate change rise to just 1.5°C. This limit is important because the body of climate change research suggests that a rise beyond 1.5 degrees above current global warming will be extremely costly not only economically but in the quality of our lives.

IPCCC Study Report Reveals the True Danger from Methane Emissions

The IPCCC has shown in a risk study that methane has so far been responsible for half of all global warming. This shows just how aggressive methane is above and beyond the other greenhouse gases – even CO2.

After looking at this all-round, the United Nations has decided that cutting methane emissions is the best way to slow global temperature rises in the short term.

While there are rising methane emissions in nature, for example, due to anaerobic decomposition in areas where the permafrost is thawing. And there are many other examples of natural methane emissions that are very important. All those are hard to influence. Landfill methane emission is by comparison easy to abate.

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Working with the Waste Industry to Reduce Methane Emissions

Where society can make a change in less than 10 years from now, is within waste management methods. The policies which set these methods need to change to ensure local and central governments enact suitable policies. These policies must ensure that the global waste management profession works with waste in a way that reduces methane emissions.

This is where the global Waste Management industry can if mobilized to do so, assist rapidly and significantly reduce anthropogenic methane emissions.

Methane is such an Aggressive Climate Warming Gas

Methane really is an aggressive climate-warming gas. Estimates vary between it being between 30 and 80 times the warming effect of a unit of carbon dioxide.

The interesting fact though is that methane (CH4) decays more rapidly in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. With that in mind, it stands to reason that by ceasing its discharge, the amount of CH4 present tails off more rapidly than for an equivalent carbon dioxide reduction.

That means that real measurable climate warming reductions can stack up. But only if we move fast and reduce the current human-made methane emission sources quickly.

Now is the Time to Act – Wait and It Will Be Too Late!

So, the policy is being formed which focuses on the next 25 years. Climate change experts are asking how can we achieve rapid methane emissions reductions and keep them down?

This has been studied and reported on ahead of the COP26 “last chance” Climate Change Meeting in Scotland later this month. Obviously, methods will vary between countries and regions, but the study shows that the largest reduction potential in Europe lies within the waste sector.

The conclusion is far from revolutionary but important nonetheless. The independent panel on climate change (IPCC) reported that:

We need to landfill less and minimise waste creation, reuse and recycle more.

That may mean more incinerators for example, but the point here is that whether it be increased anaerobic digestion or more incinerators these all fall within the scope of waste management.

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IPCC Study Report Identified the Methane Priority/ Waste to Energy Low Hanging Fruit

The study predicts that if the industry was to cut methane emissions by 30% in 10 years, that would mean a global warming estimate reduction of 0.3°C. That would prevent 255,000 premature deaths per year and 26 million tonnes of crop waste annually as of 2040.

It would make a very tough challenge, but the study also shows it possible to do this by first concentrating on the so-called “low-hanging fruit” we get back to sane measures which are achievable.

In fact, for many making the investment will make good business sense through taking a long term perspective. The study goes on to suggest that a 45% reduction would be possible, over the same time scale, but with more effort and finance needed.

COP26 Global Methane Pledge

The findings of that report have been built into a “Global Methane Pledge” which hopefully will be signed by all governments before the end of the COP26 summit. So, by the beginning of November, the pledge will have been made and the signing countries will begin their progress toward the target of 30% in the next 10 years.

In the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom the nations will have signed this pledge, plus we hope, many more.

We can nevertheless say right now that it is already clear that this pledge will have a great effect in raising the ambition of all for methane emission reduction.

“climate change knows no borders”

In particular, as climate change knows no borders, the need has always been for all countries to take their part in these reductions. Much of Europe and the UK have regulated their landfill industries to require landfill gas collection and flaring of the biogas as a minimum.

Other nations now must step up their regulatory enforcement of similar measures.

Indeed, the use has been moving in this direction at the state government level for a number of years now. It is hoped that all states will very soon require all landfills to be equipped with landfill gas collection and flaring in order to grant them permission to operate.

All Nations Should Regulate to Require All Landfills Provide for LFG Collection

Once a landfill operator has spent the money needed to collect landfill gas the decision to use it as an energy source or upgrade it and sell it as a premium renewable energy product is a no-brainer.

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So far the manner in which individual governments have been left to set their own climate change goals has led to a ring-fenced non-inclusive patchwork of measures.

Landfill emissions from landfills have been identified as the largest single source of methane emissions in Europe. It's important to target reduction here.

All available waste to energy plants should be used to their full capacity

The first way in which this can be done is by ensuring that all available waste to energy plants are used to their full capacity right across Europe. Currently, there are almost 100 million tonnes per annum of Waste to Energy (WtE) capacity in plants currently installed in Europe. But, it is not all spread evenly across the continent. Some countries have more capacity than is necessary to process all their national waste, while other nations don't have enough.

On average a quarter of all the waste in Europe is still being sent to landfills, and creating a lot of methane emissions.

WtE Capacity and Policy in the Netherlands

Taking the Netherlands as an example, they have a waste import tax and a carbon dioxide tax. To charge taxes on imported waste in this way makes little sense. It really fails to recognize that WtE plants create renewable energy which benefits the Dutch population and reduces overall methane emissions.

It needs a policy change in which European states cooperate to process their waste through WtE plants as soon as possible while building more facilities in all EU member states.

In the short term, countries need to get together and there is really no reason why properly regulated inter-state was transfer should not occur in the interest of fighting climate change.

When Will Waste Transport CO2 Emissions Exceed Methane Reduction Benefits

At this point, you might object on the basis that transporting waste large distances using diesel trucks to take the waste to a WtE plant. It would surely negate all the emissions benefits. Not so. the emission of methane is truly awful. Just remember that factor of at least 30 times worse than CO2 and you can burn a lot of fuel before they emit anything like even 30 times the CO2.

In addition, do bear in mind that according to the Landfill Directive and the requirements of the Waste Hierarchy applied in all EU countries the waste sent to WtE facilities will have previously been pretreated to remove all recyclable materials.

Next, consider how positive WtE is from a climate change/ decarbonising enabling technology. WtE in the Netherlands for example contributes 9% of all their renewable energy and yet they have many wind turbines and solar panels.

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The point here is that municipal waste contains a lot of energy which is released during incineration. The power is produced in cities, meaning that there are not large distances of power cable between the power station and the user and hence transmission efficiencies are high.

WtE Combines with District Heating CHP for Higher Decarbonisation

The fact that WtE energy is produced in or near centres of high-population also means that district heating schemes using the CHP heat which would otherwise be wasted can be, and nowadays usually are, piped to homes and factories. This reduces fossil fuel used for heating and saves yet more CO2 emissions.

For many years many in the waste industry held off giving their full support to WtE (incineration) hoping that at least one of the more advanced energy recovery technologies, which would convert waste directly into a “process gas”, would be successful.

On many occasions, forward-thinking municipal authorities have built prototypes of waste gasification and pyrolysis plants to do just that. But so far none have proved sufficiently reliable or cost-effective to be universally adopted.

Sadly, it is now too late for those more advanced techniques to become the workhorse of methane emissions reduction and to complete man's move away from landfills.

Waste Diversion from Landfill Other Than By Municipal/ Commercial WtE Plants

Apart from incineration on-site at the waste facility, municipalities may instead choose to process the waste and create Waste/ Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF). RDF can be sold to industrial users as a fuel and is again renewable, cutting fossil fuel emissions. RDF also counts as a decarbonisation technology.

We mentioned previously that the (black bag/ mixed MSW) waste sent to WtE/ incineration should be being pre-sorted to remove all recyclable materials be before it goes to energy recovery in a WtE facility.

So, now let us consider how high calorific value plastic waste removed from this waste stream can be used to add to the decarbonisation potential of WtE, this time in a very different guise.

Benefits of Integrating Plastic Polymer Recycling Plants

In the Netherlands, and now elsewhere in Europe, plastic waste from what is sometimes called “Dirty MRFs” is being treated at plastic polymer recycling plants. These include packaging wastes film wraps etc. and high tech automatic separation techniques are used to sort different polymers out.

An example of this is ballistic separation. The result is a separate waste packaging stream which is then sent to an adjacent pre-sorting plant by conveyor as one of several separate streams of different polymer types. The biggest of these waste polymer streams is plastic film.

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Some Dutch plants have equipment that can now wash and separate the film into different polymer types. When this is done next to the WtE incinerator the waste heat from the incinerator is used to heat the hot washing water.

Granulated Plastic is Sent to be Reused in New Product Packaging

The film is finally granulated into new plastic materials. The granules are sold as recycled plastics available for re-use as a percentage of the content of single-use plastic packaging. In a short time, this plastic is back on the supermarket shelves.

Taking the plastics out results in a final waste bound for the incinerator which is mostly organic (biogenic) material which, if sent to landfill, would have a very high methane production potential.

This addition of polymer plastics removal has a highly beneficial effect by ensuring that the re-use of plastics is maximised.

Carbon Capture Technology – Fitted to WtE Facility Gas Flue

Finally, what will in the future swing the balance of advantages of WtE over landfill away from ever continuing to landfill other than inert residual materials is the addition of carbon capture technology to WtE facility gas flue designs.

Experts have been advising for some time that the best place to carry out carbon capture will be from the flue gases in facilities such as WtE plants. Doing that would make WtE plants carbon negative, meaning that they would be able to take out more carbon overall than they emit.

This will be particularly valuable for cities that are targeting net-zero CO2 emissions which will want the negative CO2 from their WtE plants to offset their “hard to decarbonise discharges”.

Conclusion – Why Waste to Energy (WtE) and Methane Hold the Key to Climate Change Reduction

There can be no doubt that the big push now must be to reduce methane emissions globally, for the maximum restraint on global warming in the next 10 to 20 years.

To recap. This article has covered various ways to tackle methane emissions and rapidly reduce them throughout the world. We provided European examples, while on the way also explaining how we will be moving toward a more generally decarbonising world.

In Europe working together to tackle methane emissions first and foremost and the aim should be to:

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  • redouble efforts to avoid landfills as soon as possible by building much more WtE capacity
  • make full use of all available WtE facilities in countries where spare capacity exists
  • legislate to ensure that all landfills are provided with landfill gas collection wells, extraction pipework and pipe systems to deliver the landfill gas to one location where a flare is fitted. In which case most landfill operators will also invest in landfill gas utilisation such as to create electricity with it, or better, to upgrade the biogas quality to pure biomethane.

The time is now to start, and for all leaders to pledge at the COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow to cut their methane emissions as a No. 1 priority for action.

As time progresses the waste industry will rise to the challenge of building many more WtE waste facilities, with a short-term acceleration in WtE capacity globally.

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