While in Poland, we attended Poleko 2014, Poland’s largest environmental protection trade fair. I had meetings with many people around the subject of construction waste management. Europe in general and Germany in particular are known for its progressive waste management policies, so I wanted to find out what they do and how they do it.
Anyone involved in the waste sector, especially on a global level, already knows how they do it — the phrase “burn baby burn” comes to mind. Incineration is a big part of European waste management, whether you are in a Scandinavian country, Germany or Holland, all rely on incineration.
I spoke with Peter Meinlschmidt a physicist with the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research about how Germany handles waste. He told me that all organic material (including plastic) is forbidden to go to landfill.
“So, then, what do you do with it?” I asked since not all plastics can be recycled.
“It’s burned, and the waste heat is converted to electricity and fed to the grid.”
I don’t know a lot about new incineration technologies, so I said, “But what about the fumes from burning the plastic? Doesn’t it create terrible air pollution?” I must still be living in the ’70s.
“It’s all about the filters, and we have developed excellent filters which permit extremely low levels of emissions. In fact, it’s practically none,” he said.
There went one of my big misgivings and misunderstandings about incineration — good filters mean little, if any air pollution.
So let’s hop over to another conversation I had with a fellow from Holland who sells recycling equipment. Holland too, is a country that turns waste into energy. According to this fellow, waste to energy providers are under contractual obligations to sell a certain amount of electricity to the grid. If they fail to meet their targets they can be fined. Here’s the problem: incinerators are now running short of “fuel” ie., garbage. So the operators will pay more for recycling material than the recyclers. Further, he told me, that in the older incinerators still in operation, in order to moderate the temperature of the stuff being burned, they have to add wet organics to keep the temperature from getting too hot. So there is a double whammy created: One, in some cases organics that are supposed to be bound for anaerobic digesters are diverted to incinerators, and two, material that should be getting recycled is being burned. As for the companies that sell recycling sorting equipment? “It’s killing our business,” he said.
Waste to Energy policy too successful?
There are plenty of articles out there highlighting how Norway and Sweden have run out of material to burn and are now importing garbage from other countries to fuel their incinerators.
And this is the point. Sometimes policies intended to solve a problem, do it a little too well. Running out of feedstock and poaching from other sources isn’t a progressive way of handling waste; once it’s burned, the energy and resource is lost forever. When a product is recycled it extends its life and saves energy and resources. While researchers are working on infinite recycling loops, for now we can get two, sometimes three uses out of a product before it’s reached the end of its useful life, but it’s better than it going up in a puff of smoke after its first life.
North America may be behind Europe in its waste management efforts, but being behind also gives us the opportunity to benefit from other countries’ missteps. In this case, while burning waste is full of good intentions (waste to energy, less landfill) and technology has advanced far enough that emissions issues are (potentially) a thing of the past, in reality, incinerating material misses the target of the circular economy (something the EU is striving for) and encourages societies to consume more stuff to provide waste for the incinerators to power the grid. It is in fact why more European companies and researchers are looking at moving to adopting the Cradle to Cradle approach, and why the EU’s Horizon 2020 program is encouraging researchers and companies to develop an interim step called the “cascading model of recycling,” — get as many uses out of a material before it’s finally burned.
Back to Germany, where Peter Meinlschmidt and his team are looking at getting wood waste out of incinerators. It is here that they are researching combining recycled wood pulp and plastic for use as a new decking material, and reusing old window frames, scraping off the painted and treated wood layers, remilling the wood and turning it into “new” wood to make new window frames. These products are still in the research stage, but they demonstrate that the government recognizes that burning waste isn’t the end solution.