How the corporate goldrush for incineration, gasification and pyrolysis of waste generates more consumption, more waste and more pollution

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Posted Mar 10 2017 by Andrew Rollinson of Blushful Earth

‘When waste to energy companies propose to build incineration/gasification plants they stipulate that contracts be in place which lock-in local authorities to providing them with a fixed tonnage of waste over the lifetime of the plant (often about 25 years). Thereby, in return for their investment, the shareholders get guaranteed annual dividends. But, by making this deal, it also means that the local authority is committed to promoting consumption and the creation of high levels of waste, thus maintaining the linear (make, use, discard) economy. Hence, explaining why the “reduce, re-use, recycle” message has quietly disappeared.’

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The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) is a not-for profit organisation that was founded in 2007 to help communities fight against proposed municipal solid waste (MSW) incineration plants. Despite being reliant on philanthropic donations, it has grown into a skilled and effective network comprising more than 85 local grass-roots community groups, and during the last ten years it has helped stop at least sixty incinerators from being built.

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Anti-incineration campaigners face injustice, corporate power, industry greenwash, and a planning system skewed in favour of development.

More recently, as a direct consequence of waste industry investment preferences, UKWIN has moved from its initial aims, to be now focussed on promoting circular economic practices, along with defending communities against a new type of thermal treatment technology: the gasification and pyrolysis plant (1).

I was trained as a thermal decomposition engineer, taught at a Russell Group University by world leaders in waste to energy research, and since 2012 I have specialised in working with small-scale gasification technologies (2). I may therefore seem a very strange bedfellow for UKWIN. But this is just what I am.

Two years ago, I was introduced, by chance, to the world of corporate MSW gasification and pyrolysis. A private company had made a blanket application for the construction of twelve processing plants across the UK, and a friend asked me if I would appraise the proposal’s environmental permit application. I said “yes”, and when I did so I was shocked by what I read. Apart from the overall poor quality of the submission, it was obvious to me that the system would never work. Because of this I gave an expert opinion objecting to the plant, and then offered my continued support to UKWIN. In the months that followed, my eyes were opened to many other applications, widespread misunderstandings about the technology, and a corporate powerhouse behind it.

There are a number of waste to energy trade organisations. One such is the Gasification and Syngas Technologies Council (GSTC) – who describe themselves as “…committed to advancing the global interests of the gasification and syngas industries…” and who promise that their members (for a $10,000 annual subscription) “…can anticipate a significant return on their investment, from (3):

  • Business development opportunities generated by strategic and results-orientated global and domestic marketing programs.
  • Networking opportunities that include exclusive and informal meetings with key industry leaders and legislative and regulatory officials.
  • Access to outreach materials to educate and inform the public…”
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UKWIN makes a unique contribution to social change by supporting communities to access environmental information, participate in environmental decision-making and pursue environmental justice.

They paint a completely different picture to what I, and other experts, have concluded about the efficacy of MSW gasification and pyrolysis. This opinion is that the current systems cannot work. Here is a quote from the former president of the International Solid Waste Association, Mr Hakan Rylander (4):

“Waste is not a homogenous fuel. It has so far turned out to be too heterogenous to be able to treat in a gasification or pyrolysis process, irrespective of how you pre-treat the waste. It is absolutely not applicable for mixed MSW with today’s technology.”

Here is another comment from a peer reviewed article last year (5):

“After years of delays and high-profile failures, the [MSW gasification and pyrolysis] technologies remain stymied by challenges such as operational inexperience, high costs, lack of financing, and concerns about toxic emissions.”

The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network opposes the incineration of waste, including via gasification, pyrolysis and cement kilns. Incineration depresses recycling (see our evidence), destroys valuable resources, releases greenhouse gasses, and is a waste of money. Incineration has no place in the zero waste closed-loop circular economy we should be working towards.

To understand the current landscape better, it helps to know that gasification and pyrolysis as methods of treating MSW have only now come to the fore because there is a perceived “gap in the market”. Incineration has acquired a bad press (due in the main to atmospheric dioxin emissions) and this puts off investors. Although gasification of wood scraps has been practiced successfully for over one hundred years, the important difference is that these are homogeneous (e.g. chemically and physically consistent) feedstocks whereas MSW is not (6). So, unless the MSW gasification or pyrolysis plant operates with so much air and/or so closely coupled to the boiler as to be an incinerator in all but name (7), they have inherent problems due to thermodynamic laws which result from the heterogeneous (e.g. chemically and physically variable) nature of a mixed composition feedstock (8,9).

Now, this is only part of the story. Entrepreneurs are attracted to this concept technology by financial incentives. Despite neither incineration, gasification, nor pyrolysis being “green” methods of treating MSW – they all ultimately combust the feedstock resulting in CO2 release – governments encourage corporate investment through subsidies and incentives which have in turn created a goldrush mentality. But, this is not the worst of it, for the current system actually operates in a way that supports consumption and encourages the generation of more waste.

When waste to energy companies propose to build incineration/gasification plants they stipulate that contracts be in place which lock-in local authorities to providing them with a fixed tonnage of waste over the lifetime of the plant (often about 25 years). Thereby, in return for their investment, the shareholders get guaranteed annual dividends. But, by making this deal, it also means that the local authority is committed to promoting consumption and the creation of high levels of waste, thus maintaining the linear (make, use, discard) economy. Hence, explaining why the “reduce, re-use, recycle” message has quietly disappeared.

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MSW gasification and pyrolysis plants are often proposed for deprived areas where locals have few resources to resist development.

This could perhaps be just another example of an unfortunate coincidence whereby government sustainability policy results in more energy use and/or more consumption (10). Alternatively, it could be another premeditated piece of a flawed global system which demands continuously expanding consumption from a finite planet, where capital interest must win at any cost, and the support of which underlies every single political decision. To get a better idea of how this game is played look again at the three bullet points which GSTC describes as offering to its members.

UKWIN are fighting the current system and campaigning for a shift in investment towards a low-carbon, closed-loop circular economy. This is particularly important at present due to the UK’s decision to leave the E.U. creating a potential future policy vacuum. Because UKWIN are the only organisation of their type they need support so that they can continue to give direct guidance, act as an information-sharing network, work nationally to move policy and public opinion towards sustainable alternatives, and respond to thousands of technical and expert queries each year. If you want to support them in their activities, or if you are concerned about a proposed gasification or pyrolysis plant near to you, contact them here.

Notes:

  1. http://blushfulearth.co.uk/gasification-terminology-confusion/

  2. Rollinson, A. 2016, Gasification: Succeeding with small-scale systems. Published by Lowimpact.org.

  3. http://www.gasification-syngas.org/about-gtc/membership/

  4. http://wtert.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/history-of-gasification-of-municipal.html

  5. Seltenrich, N., Emerging waste to energy technologies: solid waste solution or dead end? 2016. Environmental Health Perspective, 124 (6) pp. 107-111. Waste Management, 50, pp. 324-333.

  6. http://blushfulearth.co.uk/expert-opinion-on-municipal-solid-waste-gasification-and-pyrolysis/

  7. Incinerators in Disguise: Case studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States, 2006. Green Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). Available from: http://www.greenaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/IncineratorsInDisguiseCaseStudyReportJune2006.pdf

  8. Rollinson, A.N. Gasification reactor engineering approach to understanding the formation of biochar properties. Proceedings A of The Royal Society, 2016, 472 (2192), DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2015.0841. Available from: http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/472/2192/20150841

  9. Rollinson, A.N., Williams, O. Experiments on torrefied wood pellet – Study by gasification and characterisation for waste biomass to energy applications. Royal Society Open Science, 2016, doi: 10.1098/rsos.150578. Available from: http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/5/150578

  10. http://www.lowimpact.org/energy-efficiency-actually-increases-overall-energy-use/