To burn or not to burn… Is that a right question?

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the SOCRATES consortium or any of its members. The Consortium will not take any liability for such statements included in the article.

At first, I wanted to write about one weekend, June 15-17, that I spent in Berlin participating in the Inaugural Meeting of the EIT RawMaterials Alumni Association. Indeed, it was splendid event where I have met with very devoted people who had a lot of bright ideas regarding how the EIT RawMaterials Alumni Association might be organized and what could be its contribution to the society.

But then I have come across one blog written by Joan Marc Simon of Zero Waste Europe, which is called “Let Europe export only the practices we are proud off” [1]. As much as I agree with this motto, I cannot totally accept some statements made in this post. The main point the author tries to make in his article is that incineration (or waste-to-energy recovery) of municipal solid waste (MSW) does not belong to the concept of Circular Economy and hence shall not be promoted abroad. He warns that building incineration plants in, for instance, Latin America would divert the continent from its route to zero-waste society. By accident, this article came out just a few weeks after I was invited to give a talk on similar topic to the undergraduate students and faculty members at the T.F. Gorbachev Kuzbass State Technical University (Kemerovo, Russia) – so I have something to say about it.

It is undeniable that European countries have made an incredible progress towards circular economy and zero-waste society. Yet these changes didn’t come in a blink of an eye – it took time for efficient technologies to develop and what is much more important, it required people to change their attitude towards waste. Let me remind the situation we had with MSW in Europe some 20-25 years ago – they were mostly just dumped, piled and did not have any usage but to occupy already scarce land plots. When the society finally realized the scale of the problem, it started to look for a solution.

The easiest one was to burn the waste – people anyway do it sometimes on their backyards, so why not to build a bigger “bonfire”? Indeed, the incineration may reduce the volume of landfilled waste up to 75-90%; however, part of the valuables is lost in a landfill anyway while some of burnt matter could find a better use. And that’s how we end up with waste sorting, recycling, remanufacturing, ELFM, etc., etc. It was an evolution of our views on MSW which went hand in hand with education of the general public. On the Figure 1 you can see, how the treatment of MSW has developed in EU-28 countries during the last two decades.

Figure 1. Guided through via directives and regulations, European countries are moving towards the 2025 target of 65% recycling rate (modified after [3]).

Figure 1. Guided through via directives and regulations, European countries are moving towards the 2025 target of 65% recycling rate (modified after [3]).

But what Mr. Simon is offering is rather revolution, especially for the countries of Global South. Don’t get me wrong, by no means I am opposing the utopian idea of zero waste world; I just believe that evolutionary development tends to last and is more easily accepted by people.

And one more comment on incineration. If you have a look at classic waste hierarchy pyramid (Figure 2), the most favorable option is to reduce the amount of waste produced; then comes reuse and recycling. Unfortunately, unlike the metals (steel, aluminum, copper), most of the materials cannot be recycled forever. Such materials (e.g. plastics, wood, paper) will lose their functionally and degrade after several usage cycles and therefore they should exit the loop in one way or another. And at this point of their lifecycle I would prefer very much to have those materials being incinerated than just dumped in the environment.

Figure 2. Waste hierarchy pyramid (source: https://www2.le.ac.uk)

Figure 2. Waste hierarchy pyramid (source: https://www2.le.ac.uk)

Of course, this does not justify construction of such gigantic facilities like Amager Bakke with capacity exceeding the demand several times. But it would be wrong to state that incineration does not belong to circular economy at all.

In the end I want to say it is good to have such advocacies for circular economy like Zero Waste Europe, they do a great job in promoting and pushing forward a waste-free society. However, when communicating the ideas to general public we shall not slide to extremities, but rather try to enlighten people, to give sensible reasoning why one technology is better or worse than alternatives. Yes, it is a harder and sometimes ungrateful path, but as a society we have to walk down this road if we want one day to live in a truly sustainable world.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Univ.-Prof. DI Dr.mont. Roland Pomberger and DI Dr.mont. Renato Šarc from Montanuniversität Leoben for the inspiring lectures at DIM ESEE 2017, which were used as a background for this article.

References

[1] Simon, J.M. Let Europe export only the practices we are proud of. Zero Waste Europe. 31 May 2018

[2] Solid Waste Volume Reduction. Environmental Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. 8 Jul 2018.

[3] Pomberger, R., Sarc, R., Lorber, K.E., 2017. Dynamic visualisation of municipal waste management performance in the EU using Ternary Diagram method. Waste Manag. 61, 558–571. DOI: 10.1016/j.wasman.2017.01.018.

 

About the Author:

06 Ivan Korolev web

My name is Ivan, I am a Russian mining engineer. As many of you may know, my homeland is pretty rich in natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, metal ores. I come from a small mining town in Siberia, so my choice of profession was of little surprise. My current research is devoted to the development of such process for selective electrowinning of valuable metals from complex solutions. I am delighted to have on my side the leading technology provider for metal industry, Outotec Oy, and enthusiastic result-driven research group of Hydrometallurgy and Corrosion from the Aalto University. Should you have further interest in my current research project or just want to have a discussion about current state of mining and metallurgical industry worldwide, feel free to drop me a line: korolev.ivan@inbox.ru.

 

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