Can our bins brighten our future?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Brussels produces enough electricity from waste combustion to power its metro and tram services. [Samuel White]

There is energy in your bin. A large part of it is renewable. And it works even when there is no wind or sun. Why not use it, asks Patrick Clerens.

Patrick Clerens is the secretary general of ESWET, the association of European Suppliers of Waste to Energy Technology.

Waste powers the trams

Brussels residents may not know it, but their white bags help power their public transport. These white bags are filled with residual waste, which is household waste that cannot be recycled. As no household waste from the Brussels Region is landfilled, these bags are brought to the Brussels waste-to-energy plant, where they are burned to generate energy. This is done in an environmentally-friendly manner, thanks to various filtering systems ensuring that the plant meets the very strict requirements of the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive. In addition to this, as this residual waste contains a lot of biomass, the generated energy is considered 50% renewable!

Every year, the waste-to-energy plant exports around 230 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity, which is roughly what the Brussels Public Transport Company MIVB/STIB consumes.

Waste-to-energy in the EU

Many other European cities have come to the same conclusion: recycling should be the priority and landfilling should be avoided. For everything else, there is waste-to-energy. Some countries have managed to altogether stop landfilling and maximise the energy content of their residual waste.

According to the Waste Hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, dispose), it makes sense to first reduce and reuse waste. And recycling and composting are preferred solutions for different types of materials. But due to economic and ecological limitations, there is still residual waste, as most things cannot be recycled indefinitely, and some would require too many (harmful) chemicals to come up with a marketable product. In many countries this residual waste is landfilled and risks polluting the water and air while contributing to climate change.

Waste-to-energy is the safest option for waste and it also allows for the production of energy. This type of waste management should be incentivised by the EU. Now is the best time to do this, as the Waste Framework Directive is currently being revised in the European Parliament.

Waste helps to wean the EU from imported fuels

The Energy Union is now promoting the use of waste-to-energy, within its role in the Waste Hierarchy, as a useful tool to reach the renewable energy targets of the EU, and to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste is a domestic EU energy source, which means that its use will help reduce imports of fossil fuels. For instance, the energy content of the waste treated by waste-to-energy plants in the EU equals that of 19% of Russian gas imports in 2012, that is, 106 billion m³.

Residents of Klaipeda in Lithuania understood this, and now 40% of their city is heated by residual waste instead of Russian natural gas.

Getting more energy out of less waste

As we are all pondering how to improve waste management while getting cleaner energy, it makes sense to look at our residual waste bins. And since we should not aim to burn recyclables, we need to extract more energy out of less residual waste.

For this, it is useful to avoid individual heating and instead rely on district heating, like in Malmö, Sweden, where waste underpins the heating supply. Using district heating not only maximises how much of the energy content of the waste can be used; it also helps in the fight against climate change, increases reliance on renewable energy and helps secure energy supplies.

On these long and cold Scandinavian nights, waste brings brightness and warmth at an affordable price to residents.

As the Malmö, Klaipeda and Brussels examples show, waste can also drive, among other things, sustainable heating and sustainable urban mobility.

It would be foolish not to demand better value from your bin.

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