Plastics and Green House Gas Emissions from Waste-to-Energy
ARTICLE AND RECORDING OF FULL PANEL
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What is the comparison between carbon dioxide (CO2) or green house gas emissions from waste-to-energy and landfills with respect to plastics?
The question is to what degree is the energy utilized? So, if I talk about waste-to-energy, I refer to co-generation and substituting for fossil fuels. The use of plastic itself can be a saving of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. For example, automobiles. Plastic reduces the weight of an automobile, therefore fuel consumption, which means lesser CO2 emissions. If at the end, we use the shredder residues (from automobile end-of-life shredding) in a waste-to-energy plant, we substitute the need for fossil fuel. So, using mixed plastic wastes for waste-to-energy is helpful in terms of energy efficiency, resource conservation, and reducing adverse green house gas emissions.
We have done the material and energy balances for waste-to-energy in the city of Vienna. We found that by providing both district heating and electricity, waste-to-energy in Vienna reduces the equivalent of 1.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions compared to landfilling with recovery of some landfill gas for electricity generation. So, 1.4 tonnes of CO2 can be saved by 1 tonne of municipal residual waste going into the waste-to-energy facility in Vienna. That’s significant.
Is a waste-to-energy plant an economic disincentive to increasing diversion or recycling programs?
I just had a question for Franz from his perspective in Europe. One common objection that I hear is that once waste-to-energy facilities are built, you have to “feed the beast”. And that they work as an economic disincentive to increasing diversion or recycling programs. I wonder if he has a comment relative to that and whether that’s been true in his experience in Vienna?
It is not true. We have to see the complete picture and do not misunderstand some things. We have some big struggles in the European Union because we have countries who rely completely on landfills and they have a very strong landfill lobby with a lot of profit, and business practices I wouldn’t like to discuss. So, in these countries, the cost for just dumping waste in landfills is of course much lower than having proper waste-to-energy and proper recycling facilities. For example, in some countries, let’s say recycling facilities and waste-to-energy facilities would charge US$ 70/tonne and then you have a neighboring place with a waste dump, not far away, which takes the waste for US$ 20/tonne. In this case, the waste will go to where it is cheaper. I learned a very important political statement in the United States: Its economics stupid! You have to look into the economics and there is a very strong economic reason for the landfill lobby. It is big business.
People who understand about environmental issues are more likely to be pro waste-to-energy. I’ll give you a recent example.The third largest town in Austria is Linz. Linz is a city which does not have a very good air quality. They have some problems because of industry and poor meteorology. Now, they had an idea to build a waste-to-energy plant for the utility company of Linz in the city of Linz. So, we prepared a list of alternatives to recommend to the State Governor. The responsible head of this deputy department is a Green Party member and he issued the permit for that plant. The municipality in the (down) wind direction of Linz has a Mayor who is also a Green Party member. He did not oppose to the plant either. He accepted it. In the public discussions in the city of Linz, we did not have even one person objecting to the waste-to-energy plant. So, we received the permit with no objection. We have built it and everybody is happy with it. It provides for district heating, and for some electricity production and is in the middle of the city of Linz.
So, you see (that) the argument that environmentalists are against waste-to-energy does not hold. Typically there are other reasons like economic issues or a lack of understanding which create such a background. Or maybe inappropriate technology. I would not exclude that. There are some projects which are not designed well. There are some stupid projects, yes. But, in principle if waste-to-energy is designed properly, it is positive from the perspective of environmental impact.
Report: Recycling and Waste-to-Energy: Are They Compatible? – Eileen Berenyi (Link to PDF)
White Book: Waste-to-Energy in Austria, Figures, Data and Facts – Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (Link to PDF)