How the corporate goldrush for incineration, gasification and pyrolysis of waste generates more consumption, more waste and more pollution
‘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.’
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.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
Rollinson, A. 2016, Gasification: Succeeding with small-scale systems. Published by Lowimpact.org.
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.
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
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
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
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Last March 21st, 2017
I have a great deal of sympathy for the arguments put forward here. The anti-gasification, anti-pyrolyis and anti-incineration groups have every reason to make the points they do.
I would simply make the point that there is another side to this, and that is that if I was campaigning against incineration, I would also be campaigning for the government to put more effort into encouraging the circular economy (including the philosophy of “zero waste”), which together are the best hope there is, in my opinion, to avoid the waste in future ever getting so far as an incinerator or other form of waste-to-energy plant.
At the moment there are at least a number of EU regulations in force which require all governments to pre-treat waste in advance of incineration (although these are quite weak and should no doubt be made stronger), and there are also targets for waste diversion and recycling in the EU are being progressively raised.
If the UK continues in this direction and does not do a u-turn, the need for waste-to-energy plants will drop substantially.
I hope I am being excessively pessimistic, but I do suspect that Brexit may be used by the Westminster government to scrap compliance with EU Waste Regulations. These are regulations which I assume that the anti-incineration lobby approve of, because they seek to raise waste avoidance in all its forms, and improve recycling through the development of a circular economy throughout Europe.
The intent of the EU is in my understanding, if successful in their aims, to eventually remove most, if not all of the need for municipal waste-to-energy plants, and I assume that would be applauded by the anti-incineration lobby?
European Waste Regulations which require the UK to comply with rising recycling rate targets will increasingly need to be implemented in the next few years running up to 2020. These regulations are still in force, although they were negotiated before 2010 before the present conservative party’s presence in power.
Since 2010 the last two governments have done little, apart from implementing the Labour government’s pre-2010 commitments to long-term waste contracts (which can of course easily be criticised for including too much incineration etc.), but did at least raise recycling rates to something like double what they were in 2000.
There is, in my opinion a huge amount of work needed to re-invigorate the investment needed in the years to come, to avoid the building of yet more waste to energy capacity, as the UK’s last super-large landfills are completed and not replaced.
This investment is vital to implement much needed wider ranging reforms to waste management. The reforms I indicate are such as the circular economy which again should reduce the amount of waste burnt, while also reducing demands for primary resources.
Without political commitment, the imagination and support of the public, and further innovation from the waste industry, and investment, the needed additional reductions in recycling rates, diverting waste away from incineration, gasification, pyrolysis etc., will not be achieved.
The year on year improvement of recycling rates in England achieved from 2003 to 2013 have been flat or going backwards in England for the nearly 4 years, but might go into a steep reversal if as part of Brexit the UK drops compliance with EU waste regulations.
If so, hold your breath dear anti- “waste-to-energy” campaigners because I suspect you are about to become very busy!