Why we should be turning waste into fuel

May 19, 2017 by Nick Florin, The Conversation
Briquettes or fuel pellets can be made out of paper, plastic, wood waste or textiles. Credit: Dario Sabljak/shutterstock

The federal government recently announced that it is giving recycling company ResourceCo a loan of A$30 million to build two waste-to-fuel plants producing "solid waste fuel".

Waste-to-energy is an important part of the waste industry in Europe. Significant demand for heat means efficient and tightly controlled waste incinerators are common. However, Australia lacks an established market, with low levels of community acceptance and no clear government policy encouraging its uptake.

But the federal announcement, coupled with an uptake in state funding, a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry and several new projects in the pipeline, signals a growing interest in waste-to-energy and waste-to-fuels.

But what is solid waste fuel, and where does it fit in a sustainable future for Australian waste management?

What are solid waste fuels?

Australians are becoming more wasteful. The amount of rubbish we produce is growing more rapidly than both our population and our economy.

Recycling has been the main approach for recovering resources and reducing landfill over the past 20 years, but a lot more needs to be done.

One part of the solution is "waste-to-energy": using a range of thermal or biological processes, the energy embedded in waste is captured, making it available for the direct generation of heat and electricity, or for solid fuel production (also known as "processed engineered fuel").

Fuel pellets made from waste can be burned for energy. Credit: tchara/shutterstock

Waste-to-fuel plants produce fuels from the combustible (energy-rich) materials found in waste from households and industry. Suitable materials include non-recyclable papers, plastics, wood waste and textiles. All of these typically end up in landfill.

These materials are preferably sourced from existing recycling facilities, which currently have to throw out contaminated matter that can't be recycled.

Solid waste fuels are produced to specified qualities by different treatment methods. These include drying, shredding, and compressing into briquettes or fuel pellets. Fuels can be specifically tailored for ease of transportation and for different uses where industrial heat is required. This make them suitable alternatives to .

What are solid waste fuels used for?

As a replacement for coal and gas, solid waste fuel can be burned to generate electricity with a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

In addition to the power sector, other industries requiring high-temperature heat use solid waste fuels – for example, in cement works in Australia and around the world. There may also be scope to expand their use to other energy-intensive industries, such as metals recycling and manufacturing industrial chemical products.

What are the key benefits?

The primary environmental benefit of solid waste fuel comes from the reductions in landfill emissions and fossil fuel use.

Arma banchang. Credit: shutterstock

Biodegradable carbon sources decompose in landfill, creating methane. This is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 25 times that of . Technology already exist for capturing and converting landfill gases to energy, but waste-to-fuel is a complementary measure that limits landfill in the first instance.

Waste-derived fuel can also have a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels. This depends on the carbon content of the fuel, and whether it is derived from biological sources (such as paper, wood or natural fibres). Even though carbon dioxide is emitted when the fuel is burned, this is partly offset by the carbon dioxide captured by the plants that produced the materials in the first place.

In these cases, solid waste fuels are eligible for renewable energy certificates. More advanced closed-loop concepts achieve even better carbon balances by capturing the carbon dioxide released when the fuel is used. This can used for other processes that require dioxide as an input, such as growing fruit and vegetables.

Further environmental benefits can come from the management of problem wastes such as treated timbers, car tyres, and e-plastics. Converting them into fuel prevents the leaching of harmful substances into the environment, and other potential problems.

What are the challenges?

Communities are legitimately concerned about energy recovery from waste owing to public health risks. Without appropriate emission control, burning solid fuel can release nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxides, particulate matter and other harmful pollutants. But, with solid regulation and the best available pollution-control technology, these emissions can be managed.

The recycling industry is also worried that energy recovery has the potential to undermine existing recycling by diverting waste flows. Famously, fuel is so important to Sweden it actually imports garbage from other European countries.

These challenges point to the importance of investing in the appropriate infrastructure at the right size, and creating regulations that balance the needs of existing recycling processes. With careful planning, -to- can be an important part of a broad strategy for transitioning towards a zero-landfill future.

Explore further: Scientist calls for industrial scale-up of greenhouse gas-eating microbe technology in UK

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6 comments

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Shootist
1 / 5 (2) May 19, 2017
We, somehow, have to shutter the Federal government. Beyond keeping the sea lanes open for trade and delivering the mail, little of what the feds do actually has a constitutional basis..

If the marketplace wanted to recycle waste, it would. Boondoggles waste scarce resources.
Guy_Underbridge
5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2017
We, somehow, have to shutter the Federal government
Then contact your government representative, rather than spewing your basement-view political opinions all over a science aggregator site. Grow a pair.
LED_Guy
5 / 5 (2) May 19, 2017
Better to find a way to bury the waste under anoxic conditions so it doesn't decompose. At least then we would be putting some carbon back into the ground and sequestering it.

Biodegradable means increasing CO2 releases. Waste to energy does the same thing.

When will people realize that the billions of tons of carbon compounds we pulled out of the ground and burned need to be replaced before we cook ourselves?
Benni
1 / 5 (1) May 19, 2017
When will people realize that the billions of tons of carbon compounds we pulled out of the ground and burned need to be replaced before we cook ourselves?


We've been cooking ourselves for a million years, so stop sweating it.

For disposing the waste I generate from my rural lifestyle, I created a simple fluidized bed combustion pit which gets so hot it will even melt steel beer bottle caps, copper wire, & aluminum foil & generates very little smoke except for when I add the wet garbage, at the end of a burn the only thing left is a handful of ash with a few small bits of metal that is a plus for adding much needed copper & iron to the mucky clay ladened soil I have to garden in.

I only make a trip to the recycling center twice a year to get rid of glass & cans.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet May 19, 2017
For disposing the waste I generate from my rural lifestyle, I created a simple fluidized bed combustion pit which gets so hot it will even melt steel beer bottle caps, copper wire, & aluminum foil & generates very little smoke except for when I add the wet garbage,

What sort of particulate are you using in the bed? How are you maintaining the airflow? Piping?
at the end of a burn the only thing left is a handful of ash with a few small bits of metal that is a plus for adding much needed copper & iron to the mucky clay ladened soil I have to garden in.

Pretty clumpy, clay dirt here, too. Try burning wood and pulling out the black char before it burns completely. (Really good as soil additive)
Also, til in some sand and unburned biomass, as well (would make it loamier)
Lastly - a few bags of Miracle Gro doesn't hurt...:-)

carbon_unit
5 / 5 (1) May 21, 2017
If the marketplace wanted to recycle waste, it would. Boondoggles waste scarce resources.
The problem with relying on the marketplace is that it only cares about allocating things efficiently for PROFIT now. It does not care about social consequences. It doesn't care about screwing/poisoning people. It doesn't care about future needs. It will happily pump fossil carbon into the atmosphere, so that money can be earned now. Those that did it will be dead and gone before the real consequences of that hit home. Make money now, lose big chunks of Florida later. This is locust-like behavior. Take something, leave a mess behind. Who's going to take care of all those hundreds of thousands of fracking wells in the future when they start to leak? Externalized costs are a wonderful thing!

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