Paid Engagement

Waste to energy : Three unexpected consequences of the Ukraine conflict on the Waste to Energy sector

Keppel Seghers
© Keppel Seghers

Interestingly, this also had some unexpected indirect consequences on the Waste to Energy sector.

  1. Acceleration of the transition to renewable energy.

    One of the axes of the recent European REPowerEU Plan is the accelerated roll-out of renewable energy.

    Here, it is more the European willingness to phase out its dependency on Russian fossil fuels than the willingness to become carbon neutral that was the driver to boost the development of renewable energy. The result kills two birds with one stone: a faster decarbonization of our energy landscape.

    Most European countries are deprived of fossil fuel energy sources. However, there is a fuel, called residual waste which is produced locally. Thermal valorization by means of a Waste to Energy can make up for a portion of a country’s energy needs and is considered 50% renewable (from the 50% biogenic portion of residual waste).

    Currently, European Waste to Energy generates electricity for about 20 million people and heat for about 17 million citizens.

    In 2012, this replaced 13,8 m³ of natural gas, which corresponds to 9% of the Russian gas import

    By 2025, if 90% European residual waste from domestic and commercial origin would be diverted from landfills and either recycled or treated in a Waste to Energy plant -like prescribed in the European Circular Economy Package-, this would replace 19,4 million m³ of imported gas. Which represents 12.7 % of pre-war Russian gas imports.

  2. Improving circular economy

    Another consequence of Russian invasion is a protectionist behavior: again, to be less dependent on Russian raw materials and products like iron, aluminium or fertilizers. Between February 2022 and September 2022, the value of EU imports from Russia fell by 31%.

    Circular economy is by essence reusing a maximum of resources and decreasing the need to use/import new resources.

    Waste to energy contributes to the circular economy by:

    +) Providing a hygienic service to the community by treating non-recyclable combustible waste and pollutants, which would otherwise end up in landfills.

    +) Providing secondary raw materials from incineration residues, a process known as material recovery and including aggregates, minerals, ferrous (steel and iron) and non-ferrous metals (copper, aluminium, zinc) and even precious metals, such as silver and gold.
    For instance, if we consider all the Waste-to-Energy plants in Europe, it should be possible to recover almost 1.2 million tonnes of iron equivalent to building 164 Eiffel towers, and about 250.000 tonnes of aluminium per year, i.e. the amount contained by roughly 8 billion smartphones. Recovery of aluminium in bottom ash would replace 11% of all European imports from Russia while iron recovery represents 27% of all European imports. Furthermore, heavier, and more precious metals (Copper, Zinc, Silver, Gold, etc) can be recovered as well

    +) Recovering the emitted carbon from its processes through carbon capture technologies and producing further products and fuels from the captured carbon.

  3. Biomethane as an alternative to the 90% imported European natural gas

    Another axe of the REPowerEU plan is the Biomethane Action Plan that sets out a new biomethane industrial partnership and financial incentives to increase production of biomethane to 35bcm (billion cubic meters) by 2030 up from 3bcm in 2020.

    By the end of the decade, biomethane should replace 20% of gas imported from Russia. And if the trend continues, 30-40% of the EU’s gas demand could be covered by 2050.

    50% of residual waste is from biogenic origin. When landfilled, the biogenic fraction will decompose to produce biomethane, which is often lost in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. According to the World Bank, untreated residual waste is responsible for 11% of global methane emissions and is even predicted to reach a staggering 70% in 2050.

    Diverting untreated residual waste from landfills to treat them in waste to energy plants enables to avoid those emissions while producing a renewable energy and recyclables.

    Segregating at the source the 50% biogenic portion of residual waste to produce biomethane is another way to avoid those emission.

    At the same time it contributes to the Biomethane Action Plan by producing biomethane. In France, for example, this segregation will be mandatory for all residual waste as of 1st
    January 2024 with the goal to recover biogenic waste as compost of biomethane.

    The biogenic fraction of residual waste is not the only contributor to the Biomethane Action Plan. Other sources of organic matter like agriculture, forestry and livestock will also contribute.

    One of the lessons learned from the Ukranian conflict is that the energy- and the material independency are crucial for EU resilience and to fast forward the EU race towards carbon neutrality.
    Waste to energy sector has a central role to play in this accelerated transition.