Waste-to-Energy: Is it safe and who can do it?
The world is continuing to adapt to the challenges of energy consumption. And, while we might have rid the world of much of its natural resources, there is something that we do have in abundance that has taken its place – waste. Worryingly, every year we dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste around the world.
In a society that is so dependent on the production of goods, we sure do like to throw a lot of that hard work away. As we look to move away from traditional methods of oil and gas to more sustainable and renewable alternatives, innovations and developments continue to come to the fore.
The waste-to-energy industry continues to grow and is a solution that may help reduce the pressure on the planet to deal with our rubbish. With that in mind let’s take a closer look at what exactly waste-to-energy means and whether it’s a safe way to power our homes, businesses and facilities.
What is waste-to-energy?
Simply put, waste-to-energy is a method for converting our waste products into energy, whether that’s electricity or heat, which can then be used in our homes and businesses. It further entrenches the circular economy thinking that is helping many of us to reduce, reuse and recycle where possible.
Different types of waste-to-energy systems
There is more than one method of creating energy from waste but before we get to throwing things away we should first consider preventing and minimising waste, and recycling or recovering in greater quantities where possible. But if disposal is the only resort for certain products or produce, then it’s important to find a way to benefit from it while reducing the use of natural resources.
The ways we generate energy from waste are the following:
- Anaerobic digestion
- Landfill gas recovery
Combustion techniques involve burning waste materials which in turn creates heat that drives a turbine and ultimately generates electricity. However, there is potential for improvements to this method, such as the removal of pollutants from the burning process.
Gasification and pyrolysis are two similar methods which involve heating waste materials to produce a chemical reaction that produces a gas. Gasification introduces oxygen or steam to the waste to create the reaction while pyrolysis doesn’t, so the heat required for the creation of gas is lower, and therefore so is the energy used.
Anaerobic digestion follows a similar method to pyrolysis except the waste is purely organic, such as food or animal waste. This particular method has great waste-to-energy potential, as showcased in 2021 by the 3.5 TWh of electricity generated in the UK through anaerobic digestion.
Did you know that landfills produce their own levels of gas from the biodegrading materials found in them? We can harness this gas production, known as landfill gas recovery, however with less organic material being thrown in landfill this waste-to-energy production method is less effective than others. As a result, less energy is being created from landfill gas recovery than there was in 2010.
Where waste-to-energy is most commonly used
Developed nations already have a strong waste management infrastructure in place, so it’s little surprise that countries like Japan, Germany and the United States are leading the pack, along with Denmark and Sweden – processing millions of tonnes of waste each year.
You can already expect to find waste-to-energy production in the waste management industry because it acts as an additional revenue stream with minimal disruption to their main activities.
Other industries capitalising on waste-to-energy include power generation, food and beverage production, agriculture and the paper and pulp creation sector. Some big-name companies in the UK already use waste-to-energy systems, such as Veolia which identifies waste-to-energy as energy recovery.
What are the safety issues of waste-to-energy?
Waste-to-energy production has the potential to be a sustainable and cost-effective way to generate energy, reduce waste and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is important to ensure that the process is safe for both the environment and human health.
Whether you are creating a small-scale waste-to-energy project in your garden or installing a large-scale waste-to-energy plant, the environmental dangers must be considered all the same. From carbon filter solutions that purify biogas streams to adequate toxic waste management practices to ensure nothing harmful enters the environment, putting local wildlife and plant life at risk.
Risks to the public
As well as the risk to the environment, there are real dangers associated with waste-to-energy processes for humans. With biogas being produced, or heat through combustion, the air quality is a major risk to the public and it must be adequately dealt with when creating energy from waste.
The sustainability of waste-to-energy
While on the face of it, waste-to-energy seems like an environmentally responsible approach to heating and powering our homes, buildings and facilities, it’s important to note that it’s not always clean. This largely depends on the type of waste being converted, and in turn, how we deal with any byproducts, such as air pollution from burning waste.
Advanced pollution control is essential, from removing harmful particulates to properly handling the waste before it is incinerated, and without it waste-to-energy may cause more harm than good.
What can I do at home?
Creating a waste-to-energy system at home isn’t something you can just wake up one day and install – unfortunately. It requires proper planning, from detailing the equipment you are going to use to putting safety precautions in place.
Creating a waste-to-energy option at home can help you to cut down on your energy consumption but it must be done following local laws and regulations. That means ensuring hygienic waste management practices are implemented and considerations have been made regarding health, safety and pollution.
DIY waste-to-energy production
Typically, waste-to-energy production is reserved for companies as they have the facilities and the means to establish large-scale processing areas. But it is possible to create your own waste-to-energy processing unit that produces cooking biogas and liquid fertiliser from kitchen scraps and waste.
Known as a biogas digester, you can make your own with little more than an airtight container, inlet and outlet pipes, gas valve and funnel. Provided you are prepared to do adequate planning and gain authority from the relevant body, you can create renewable energy from household waste.