The growing impact of advanced gasification in the circular economy
In 2015, the United Nations adopted its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which includes a commitment to promoting the circular economy. And in 2018, a raft of new European Union laws set out to make the circular economy a reality in Europe. This means moving from a waste-producing economy to one in which more resources are recycled or re-used.
For waste industry stakeholders, this presents a number of challenges. They can no longer rely on using landfill to dispose of waste. Even the continued survival of incineration plants that produce energy from waste is at risk due to the environmental impact of these plants.
This article discusses the role advanced gasification is poised to play as the circular economy gains momentum over the next few years.
The circular economy is fast becoming a reality
What is the circular economy?
Perhaps this summary from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) puts it best:
“Although there are many conceptions of the circular economy, they all describe a new way of creating value, and ultimately prosperity, through extending product lifespan and relocating waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning – in effect, using resources more efficiently by using them more than once.”
This is in contrast to traditional linear manufacturing processes, which convert raw materials into new products “which are then discarded into the environment”.
In a circular economy: “materials for new products come from old products. As much as possible, everything is reused, re-manufactured or, as a last resort, recycled back into a raw material or used as a source of energy.”
This is relevant to energy production because “UNIDO promotes industrial energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy for productive uses, by optimising energy systems, developing international energy management standards and bringing sustainable energy solutions to industries”.
Europe’s circular economy strategy
What does the circular economy mean for the global waste management industry?
What does the circular economy mean for waste to energy production?
Since the late 1990s, when the European Union legislated to reduce landfill volumes, investment in waste to energy production boomed – especially in incineration technology.
As a result, the volume of waste incinerated in Europe doubled from 29 million tonnes in 1995 to 58 million tonnes in 2018. According to Statistica, the global waste to energy market “is expected to rise from 28.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2017 to almost 43 billion U.S. dollars in 2024”.
Now, since the introduction of circular economy measures in Europe, incineration technology may be facing a similar challenge to that faced by landfill in the late 90s.
Eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted a significant statement in the paragraphs above describing the EU circular economy laws. Here it is again:
The EU’s new legislation “requires Member States to take specific measures to prioritize prevention, re-use and recycling above landfilling and incineration, thus making the circular economy a reality”.
So these laws state explicitly that recycling must take priority over incineration. Indeed, the waste hierarchy prioritises redesign, then re-use, then recycling, then incineration with energy recovery, followed by landfilling and incineration without energy recovery.
There are other regulatory changes too. In June 2018 the EU agreed to phase out subsidies to incinerator plants. Then, in 2019, the EU Commission agreed to “exclude incineration from its list of activities that advance climate change mitigation”. Our other Insights article ‘Energy-from-waste: the pros and cons of advanced gasification versus incineration’ may help explain the background to these changes.
The potential of advanced gasification in waste to energy production
At the same time, there is another waste to energy technology that could be ideally placed to fill the gap, process waste feedstocks and convert them into energy with 25-30% lower CO2 emissions per generated MW than incineration – and with no pollutants or toxic particles.
Advanced gasification is likely to become an essential part of the circular economy
Increasing recycling targets and lowering landfill targets are great. But that is likely to leave a need for waste to energy production to support the circular economy where certain kinds of waste simply cannot be recycled any other way.
With increased efficiency, proof of commercial scale application, and a wide variety of energy outputs, it looks like advanced gasification is set to become a key pillar of the circular economy of the future. Indeed, from the projects we have in the pipeline, we believe this is going to happen much sooner than many realise.