With the management of solid waste continuing to be a challenge for many municipalities throughout North America, it’s interesting to see what other cities throughout the world are doing.
For municipalities in Europe, such as London, England, finding solid waste management solutions is complicated by the 1999 European Commission Landfill Directive that sets a series of targets for member states. For the UK, these targets are to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill to 75 per cent of 1995 levels by 2010, to 50 per cent of 1995 levels by 2013, and to 35 per cent of 1995 levels by 2020.
The penalties for European Union member states that fail to meet the Landfill Directive are substantial. In the case of the UK, the fine could be 180 million ($320 million CAD) per year or 6.29 ($11.90 CAD) per tonne of municipal waste generated.
The City of London
In light of the looming fines facing the city for not meeting the EC landfill directive, the City of London Environment Committee set out to examine new technologies to convert waste to renewable energy, and to establish such technologies in the city. Its report, Where there’s Muck there’s Brass: Waste to energy schemes in London, also examined the barriers and challenges associated with WTE facilities.
London generates 22 million tonnes of municipal waste per year. The majority of the waste collected is taken outside the city limits and buried in landfill sites.
Only 22 per cent of London’s waste is recycled, although it has been estimated that over 60 per cent could be. It’s estimated that if all of London’s wastes were to be used to generate energy, there would be enough to heat 625,000 homes and provide electricity to another two million homes.
The Mayor and London Councils are presently working toward a “zero waste to landfill” goal over the next 20 years.
London’s Environment Committee recognized that WTE facilities resolve two issues in one: waste management and sustainable energy. For waste that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, the energy value from the waste should be utilized.
The Environment Committee contends that by using an acceptable WTE technology, it may be possible that the energy generated would be eligible for Renewable Obligation Certificates — a subsidy to generators of renewable electricity provided by the UK government.
It’s important to note that the Environment Committee is not promoting mass burn incineration as it views this WTE method as having higher impact on air quality and CO2 emissions that alternative methods.
The Environment Committee examined non-thermal technology (anaerobic digestion and mechanical-biological treatment) and thermal treatment methods (i.e., pyrolysis and gasification). The potential positive impacts from adopting on the WTE methods include the generation of renewable energy, creation of green jobs, and reduction in CO2 emissions. The other positive impact is the diversion from landfill and avoidance of fines.
Barriers and challenges
Although the report is dismissive of mass burn incineration and embraces alternative technologies, it concedes that the potential health impacts of the alternative technologies are unclear. This is not comforting news to anyone facing NIMBYs hell bent on stopping the construction of a WTE facility that poses even the slightest potential harm to their heath.
In London, waste management contracts tend to be long term (20 to 30 years) and the planning of waste management facilities of less than 50,000 tonnes per year are subject to local borough decisions. The 50,000 tpy threshold is the typically the maximum design capacity of many advanced thermal treatment facilities and non-thermal treatment systems.
One of the major challenges for the City of London should it embark on the utilization of either non-thermal or a new thermal treatment method is securing private funding. The relative lack of major commercial success, especially compared to mass burn incineration, poses a higher level of technological risk that may scare aware lending institutions.
As can be seen in the Environment Committee report for London, the challenges facing them are not too different than those in North America. It’s curious that the committee was so dismissive of mass burn incineration considering the success of many facilities in the European Union (e.g., Veolia’s mass burn units in the south of England) and so quick to embrace less-developed alternative technologies. If their recommendations are implemented, it will be interesting to see if the city becomes a shining example of the great leap forward in waste management or a cautionary tale of being to trusting of new methods.