The process of turning non-recyclable waste into energy and raw materials through incineration has been under way in Europe for some time but, as well as diverting waste from landfill, it can also play its part in climate action.
Waste-to-energy (WtE) works alongside recycling in helping European Union nations meet the Landfill Directive, which aims to reduce the amount of waste being landfilled. Sorted waste that cannot be recycled is channelled to incineration plants, where state-of-the-art technology converts it into energy while removing pollutants.
In 2019, 48% of municipal waste was recycled and composted. Just under a quarter was sent to landfill – with resulting methane emissions contributing to global warming – while the remaining 27% was sent to WtE plants, providing energy without the need to burn fossil fuels.
Now, the advent of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) could bring additional climate protection if WtE operators start building the technology into their decarbonisation strategies – which is exactly what is happening in the Netherlands.
Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emissions vented to the atmosphere and, in the context of WtE, could contribute to achieving net negative CO2 emissions.
The deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies in the waste management sector can make municipal and industrial waste a strategic resource for climate change mitigation. The generation of energy, in the form of electricity and heat, via the processing and incineration of waste already avoids methane emissions from landfills.
The introduction of CCS technologies in WtE plants with CO2 capture levels close to 99%, can reduce their CO2 emissions to almost zero. With CCS, biogenic carbon in waste becomes a domestic source of negative emissions with a supply chain that would complement other negative emission technologies, such as bio-energy with CCS (BECCS).
The NEWEST-CCUS project is an ongoing €2.5M multidisciplinary (2019-2022) project involving academics and researchers from six organisations and four European countries. It seeks to improve understanding of technologies and opportunities for negative emissions in the waste-to-energy sector.