Solid Waste & Recycling


Mechanical/Biological Treatment in the EU

In a study released in December 2011, consultants from ecoprog GmbH describe how the European market for mechanical/biological treatment (MBT) has accelerated recently. About 80 MBT plants for waste have been newly commissioned in Europe over...

In a study released in December 2011, consultants from ecoprog GmbH describe how the European market for mechanical/biological treatment (MBT) has accelerated recently. About 80 MBT plants for waste have been newly commissioned in Europe over the past three years; installed treatment capacities in Europe will increase to 46 million annual tons by 2016.

MBT plants produce refuse-derived fuel from waste or treat this waste in such a way that it can be landfilled according to the specifications of the EU Landfill Directive (which prohibits the landfilling of untreated waste). MBT technology was primarily developed as an alternative to waste incineration, and advancements in the technology and implementation in the EU should be of interest to people in Canada, including those opposed to conventional waste-to-energy (WTE) projects.

At present, there are about 330 operational mechanical/biological treatment plants throughout Europe. They have the capacity to treat about 34 million tons of municipal waste annually. Since 2009, at least 25 MBT plants have been newly commissioned per year in Europe — more than ever before.

According to ecoprog, about five years ago, the future did not seem to be that bright for the MBT industry: many of the newly constructed MBT plants experienced technological problems, especially the ones in Germany. Some locations, like Buchen or Heilbronn, even had to shut down a few months after their commissioning. Acceptance of MBT plants decreased rapidly. In 2006, only 12 plants went operational throughout Europe. Instead, waste incineration was booming and became the dominant waste treatment technology.

Now, however, the demand for MBT plants is high since many “teething problems” have been solved, and the Landfill Directive will be implemented more sufficiently in many European countries soon. Demand is driven in some places from concern about incineration; in other places like Great Britain, there’s demand for refuse-derived fuels (RDFs).

ecoprog estimates the number of MBT plants in Europe to increase to about 450 and the plant capacities to rise from currently 34 million annual tons to 46 million tons by 2016.

Could it work in Canada? And what are the benefits?

“When a full life cycle (LCA) analysis is completed, MBT consistently beats landfill and WTE in terms of a reduced impact on climate change,” says Clarissa Morawski, principal of CM Consulting. “Screening reduces the quantity of waste requiring landfill disposal by further recovery of recyclables.”

Furthermore, Morawski says, there’s more flexibility, because MBT allows site managers to adapt to changes in feedstock more than thermal treatment.

“The technology can also reduce vector problems (vermin, birds etc.) as well as gas and leachate generation,” she says. “Much of the waste is composted through anaerobic digestion versus aerobic composting, which offers additional opportunities to recover biogas for energy.”

Barry Friesen, P. Eng, is General Manager of CleanFARMS Inc., a stewardship body for agricultural chemicals and packaging. Friesen was formerly the waste manager for Niagara Region where he formed a positive impression of MBT as part of research conducted on MBT technologies and visits to two plants in Germany.

“When municipalities invest in mixed waste thermal plants, it’s often only to service what the municipality collects; that is, mixed curbside collected waste,” says Friesen. “While WTE plants reduce the volume of waste landfilled and capture energy, they aren’t as efficient as other types of energy plants.

“They require much more emission control equipment than other types of energy plants, and are of little use to local industries. Given that IC&I waste comprises about 50 per cent of all waste in Canada, these plants can ignore half the waste generated in this country.”

Friesen says in Germany he saw that when MBT plants are in place, municipalities didn’t invest in expensive mixed waste thermal technologies.

“Instead,” says Friesen, “they sent their mixed plastic wastes to privately-run energy plants used by both municipalities and industry. The energy recovery was much higher than in mixed waste thermal plants and required far less emission control equipment because of the ‘cleaner’ fuel.”

Consultant Paul van der Werf agrees that in Canada MBT has good potential to deal with residual wastes before they’re landfilled, but notes, “In Canada there’s no landfill directive mandating aggressive diversion targets for organic waste. Therefore the emphasis has been on source separation programs, which result in the production of high quality products such as compost.”

“However,” he says, “MBT can be effective to manage residual wastes from sectors where the effective implementation of diversion programs is more challenging, such as the multi-residential sector.”

“MBT has the potential to generate Category B composts,” van der Werf adds. “It allows for some biological decomposition of organic waste prior to landfilling thereby reducing its impact in the landfill.”

ecoprog’s recently published multi-client study The European MBT market can be ordered at


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