In the past few weeks, the treatment of waste has been receiving increasing attention in the media further to the proposal of the Mayor of Rome to build a large waste-to-energy plant to treat some of the capital’s refuse.
Before assessing the Italian situation, we should recall that the treatment of waste, and in particular its conversion into energy, is not happening in a legislative vacuum but it is strictly regulated by European Union laws.
On 2 December 2015, the Commission adopted a Communication announcing an EU action plan for the circular economy. This emphasised that the transition to a circular economy requires: “action throughout the whole of a product life-cycle from production to the creation of markets for secondary (waste-derived) raw material”.
The Communication stated that, to be consistent with the EU hierarchy, waste should be ranked according to its sustainability and priority should be given to preventing and recycling waste. However, efforts should also be made to reduce the amount of waste disposed of in landfill facilities. In this respect, energy recovery from waste has a key role to play.
The Communication clarified that, besides incineration for the generation of power and heat, waste-to-energy technologies also include treatments such as anaerobic digestion of biodegradable waste, and the production of solid, liquid or gaseous fuels. The Communication also pointed out that all new installations should ensure full compliance with EU legislation for incineration and co-incineration facilities and in particular with the Industrial Emissions Directive 2010/75/EC.
Waste-to-energy to reduce landfilling
Those opposing waste-to-energy installations claim that the ultimate objective of the circular economy should be the complete reuse or recycling of our waste. However, even the most virtuous citiesstill generate approximatly 30% of residual waste, that needs to be treated in one way or another. In other words, while the transition towards a circular economy does require opportunities for reuse and recycling to be maximised, a certain amount of waste which cannot be reused or recycled is likely to remain.
The claim that recycling and energy-to-waste are in competition is therefore fundamentally flawed. The real competition is between land fill disposal and the production of energy from waste. In this respect, it should be recalled that the European Union has adopted the target of reducing the landfilling of waste to 10% by 2035. Data from Eurostat indicates that in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria this objective has already been achieved and only a small percentage of waste still ends up in landfill, with approximately 60% of waste recycled or reused and the remaining part treated in waste-to-energy plants.
In Rome, currently just over 40% of waste is recycled, with most of the remainder shipped outside the municipality. Efforts must therefore continue to align Rome’s rate of waste recycling with the European standards achieved by other Italian cities. However, we must also accept that even if efficiency is optimised, approximately 30% of the 1.7 million tons of waste generated annually in the municipality will still need to be treated.
To avoid disposing of this remaining 30%, or part of it, in landfill sites, and to comply with the European requirement of limiting landfilling to 10% by 2035, an incineration to energy plant will have to be constructed.
The capacity of this plant should be carefully calculated to avoid possible overcapacity when the level of recycling in Rome reaches standard of other cities and, as a consequence, the amount of residual waste is reduced.
Italian media have given much resonance to energy-to-waste plants outside Italy, such as the Amager Bakke in Copenhagen, which provides electricity and heat for 150,000 homes in the city. It is sometimes forgotten that similar plants have been operating in Italian cities like Milan, Turin and Brescia, for decades. The Turin plant, for example, can function in power generation mode to provide electricity to 200,000 households, or in cogeneration mode to provide both electricity and thermal energy.
The recent sharp increase in energy prices should give additional impetus to the construction of waste-to-energy plants. The utilisation of waste for the generation of electricity or heat would permit a decrease in fossil fuel imports besides a reduction in disposal to landfill. For example, the annual savings of the Turin plant is estimated at 70,000 tons of oil equivalent, which, at current oil prices, equates to almost 50 million euros.
Energy-to-waste plants therefore have a three-fold advantage: replacement of imported fossil fuels, benefitting our balance of payments; increased security of supply thanks to reduce dependence on third countries and an environmental benefit thanks to a reduction in fugitive emissions from imported gas. For example, gas imported from Russia travels for thousands of kilometres from Siberia to our border, generating leaks estimated at up to 10% of the total transported. it is to be noted that methane emissions in particular have a terrible carbon footprint as 1 ton of methane has the same global warming potential as 20 tons of CO2.
Finally, it should be added that incineration to produce energy is not the only way to reduce residual waste; additional opportunities exist in the form of plants that anaerobically digest biodegradable waste to produce biogas. The Italian National Plan for Climate and Energy includes the target of producing 7 billion cubic metres of biomethane by 2030, corresponding to almost a quarter of Italian imports of natural gas from Russia in 2021. Moreover, the waste-to-energy Communication sustains that diverting one tonne of biodegradable waste from landfill to anaerobic digestion for biogas production can prevent up to 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions.
As clearly indicated in the Commission's Communication on the role of waste-to-energy, this option “can play a key role in the transition to a circular economy provided the EU waste hierarchy is used as a guiding principle and choices do not prevent reuse and recycling”.
Therefore, building of energy-to-waste installations should not be disregarded as long as they fulfill the overarching principle of the Circular economy and comply with relevant EU legislation. A number of waste-to-energy plants have already been constructed in the European Union and in Italy, demonstrating the possibility of taking advantage of this technology while fully respecting relevant EU legislation.