Energy from waste can deliver 9% of Australia’s emissions abatement

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Energy from waste should not cannibalise recycling but – as a direct alternative to landfill and as a source of energy – it has huge potential.

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waste_to_energyThere has been much said recently about the need to use nuclear energy as a bridging technology while renewable technologies and battery systems in particular, are improved.

It seems to me that waste and recycling have again been overlooked as serious contributors to Australia’s emission abatement task.

In 2007 Warnken ISE and SITA Australia published a report showing that Australia could reduce its emissions by 57 MT/annum CO2e through better recycling, diversion of organics from landfill (where they decompose to generate methane which is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the carbon forcing potential of CO2e) and burning the existing methane stocks in landfills.

With the State Governments of NSW, Vic, SA and WA now encouraging energy from waste, this begs its inclusion in national greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

The equation for the emissions benefit of thermally treating waste is as follows:

Net benefit of EfW (for the same energy output) =

 Avoided landfill emissions – direct emissions of thermally treating waste + avoided coal emissions.

Here are the facts:

  • Australia landfills 23 million tonnes of waste each year;
  • Avoided landfill emissions by keeping this waste out of landfill = 12.8 MT CO2e (taking into account an average gas capture rate of 50%)
  • If this waste was thermally treated it would generate 14.1 MT CO2e direct emissions

But for the same energy output EfW would:

  • Offset the burning of 20 MT of coal; and
  • Avoid the emissions by coal of 48.0 MT CO2e.

This corresponds to: Net benefit of EfW = 12.8 – 14.1 + 48.0 = 46.7 MT CO2e

In other words thermally treating all waste that currently goes to landfill (and generates methane) would have a net benefit of 46.7 MT CO2e. (The slight difference to Warnken 2006 is that his report assumed additional recycling, than herein and which should also be pursued).

That would reduce Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 9% on the 542 MT CO2e we currently generate. It is the emissions equivalent of removing 90% of the 13.3 million passenger vehicles from Australian roads (ABS 2014). It is essentially carbon neutral, base-load energy.

EfW should not cannibalise recycling but as a direct alternative to landfill and as a source of energy, it has huge potential. It must be much higher on the national abatement options list and well before nuclear.

Mike Ritchie is director of MRA Consulting

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5 Comments
  1. Jason 4 years ago

    great article and exciting potential!

  2. Raahul Kumar 4 years ago

    Energy from waste is an interesting idea, and why hasn’t it been implemented?

  3. david H 4 years ago

    Mike, Thanks for providing a very constructive case for thermally treating our waste.
    Proven technology is available and has been implemented in Europe for several decades. Furthermore, Western energy from waste (EfW) technology is being implemented in Asia at costs more in line with the Asian market, which mean it will be cost effective in the Australian areas where we have the higher landfill levies.

    What we do not have is any thermal EfW plants of reasonable size operating in Australia, as such we have a public (and bureaucrats) who have no knowledge and therefore a fear of such plants and this will require a serious education program. But who will take this on and fund it? The alternative is for the EfW “developers” to take on this challenge along with the the red tape and the NIMBY brigade. (This could be a real opportunity for the Greens to make a positive contribution).

    There is no doubt that as our population and population density increases, so will the demand for EfW solutions. With the W.A. EPA already approving several thermal EfW projects it should not be long before we start to close the decades of gap that we currently have with Europe.

  4. Lorraine Bates 4 years ago

    As a Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea, my husband set up bio-digester waste systems in several villages over 40 years ago, and these villages produced their own cooking and lighting gas from their own human, pig and garden waste. He tried to interest the Logan council in doing exactly this in the early ’80s but his idea was considered whacky. Small, single-household bio-digesters are produced and provided for rural households in India, and they do the same thing. How long will it take for councils and governments to stop treating methane as a troublesome by-product and begin to see it as a valuable, free energy source???

    • Coley 4 years ago

      Not so long ago, solar and wind and EVs were considered “wacky ideas” times are a changing;)

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