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

Meanwhile, the European Union has sought to lead the way on implementing these goals through its Circular Economy Action Plan, which includes measures to: 
● Make sustainable products the norm in the EU;
● Empower consumers and public buyers;
● Focus on the sectors that use most resources and where the potential for circularity is high such as: electronics and ICT; batteries and vehicles; packaging; plastics; textiles; construction and buildings; food; water and nutrients;
● Ensure less waste;
● Make circularity work for people, regions and cities; and
● Lead global efforts on circular economy.
The European Commission sets out the full timeline of the region’s proposed circular economy and Green Deal measures. These will include:
● “Investing in environmentally-friendly technologies” – likely to include energy production and distribution.
And, more specifically:
● “Decarbonizing the energy sector”.
Given the likely far-reaching impact of these policies that have now been adopted, local councils/municipalities, waste management companies, and waste to energy plant owners may well ask:

What does the circular economy mean for the global waste management industry?

As the European Commission puts it
“The new legislation strengthens the ‘waste hierarchy’, i.e. it 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.”
EU member states are now committed to reducing landfill more than ever:
“By 2035 the amount of municipal waste landfilled must be reduced to 10% or less of the total amount of municipal waste generated.”
At the same time, recycling targets include:
● 65% of municipal waste by 2035 (and 55% by 2025)
● 70% of all packaging waste by 2035 (and 65% by 2025).
Past EU policies have certainly impacted waste management. Consider that an average of 64% of municipal waste was landfilled across the EU member states in 1995. By 2000, this had reduced to 55%. By 2016, it had gone down to 24%.
Given this past effectiveness, these latest measures are likely to have a similar impact. Of course, these policies will also have a huge impact on the waste to energy sector. 

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 thermochemically converts feedstocks such as municipal, agricultural and industrial waste, biomass, and plastics into syngas. 
Syngas is then used as fuel to generate electricity and heat, or as a commodity, to produce transportation fuels, hydrogen, or Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG).
When used to convert biomass and agricultural waste into syngas, advanced gasification counts as a 100% renewable energy source.
The EQTEC plants with Advanced Gasification Technology inside are modular in scale, sized from 1MWe to 30MWe. These modular units offer a decentralised, distributed gasification of waste capability, suitable for co-location with commercial factories or on the existing sites of waste management companies.
This feeds into the circular economy, because the energy (heat and electricity) produced can be used right on site – as well as sold to the national grid, as happens at our 6MWe olive pomace plant, Movialsa, Spain.
As part of our extensive R&D – the universities of Lorraine, France, and Extremadura, Spain, have test facilities based on our advanced gasification technology – we have tested nearly 60 different kinds of feedstock, including:
● Wood waste from forestry management
● Farming and food waste
● Municipal solid waste
● Plastics
And more.
For more details on this, check out our article ‘21 factors when choosing a waste to energy technology provider‘.
This extensive feedstock test data, coupled with our Kinetic Simulation Software, allows EQTEC engineers to provide customers with a full 3D CAD plant design and entire plant specifications. This allows us to engineer the gasifier to suit the application and location – a fully bespoke experience that increases efficiency, reduces the carbon footprint, and ensures every plant is fit for purpose. No under- or over-engineering.
Advanced gasification actively supports the circular economy by processing those kinds of waste that cannot be recycled and which would otherwise have to be incinerated or disposed of in landfill. 
Also, for gasification to work it requires recycling and separating waste in order to get a more homogenous feedstock.
So it promotes recycling as part of the process – another boost to the circular economy.
As a bonus, syngas also contains a large quantity of hydrogen, which can be separated and purified for use as a clean energy generator in its own right.
The syngas we produce from wood waste contains 42% hydrogen. And even when processing municipal solid waste the biomass proportion averages 10 – 20% of the total. Hydrogen produced from that organic waste would qualify as green.

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.