ANALYSIS: Energy powers up as circular economy bottleneck

Questions are being asked over whether there is a valid role for energy-from-waste in the emerging circular economy as design principles underpinning goods and services start to be realigned with material optimisation.

Many of those leading on cradle-to-cradle agendas are now actively discriminating against energy recovery – this was borne out at a recent conference in London last month, hosted by the European Pathway to Zero Waste, where a twitter spat kicked off in reaction to a comment from one of the speakers that energy-from-waste had no place in a circular world.

And just last week, during a speech at a zero waste conference in Brussels, Environment European Commissioner Janez Potočnik asked whether energy recovery was now a “justified part of a waste management strategy” given Europe’s heightened focus on prevention – all EU member states have to draw up waste prevention plans by the end of this year.

“Energy recovery remains far from the top of the waste hierarchy,” he told delegates. “Incineration can be one element of a waste management strategy, but it is not optimal, particularly in the medium term.”

Potočnik further warned that member states should guard against creating over-capacity in incineration by investing heavily in such infrastructure – certain countries are already running into problems with feedstock for these facilities, hence the rise in demand for UK-sourced refuse-derived fuel.

The Commissioner maintains that materials need to kept in the loop for as long as possible, with energy-from-waste a last resort when every other recovery option has been exhausted. It’s a view echoed by the likes of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, both of whom are undertaking work in remapping resource flows for circularity.

For now, these organisations take a pragmatic view of incineration and other thermal treatment technologies believing it important to deal with current challenges, not least to divert material from landfill. But make no mistake, the mindset is very much to advocate a systems shift towards designing out waste in the first place. And what is left either enters the industrial cycle as secondary materials or the biological cycle as nutrients.

If this is indeed the future, then where will the tipping point be? At what point will investment in energy-from-waste be considered risky, if at all? Independent waste expert Peter Jones often cautions that some of these facilities might become redundant 20 years from now if they are not sited in the right locations, or employ the appropriate technologies – for him, it’s about bankability and clean, high value output extraction, such as hydrogen gas.

Even so, to start sidelining this low hierarchical option seems a dangerous game right now. If you look at the bigger picture across Europe, 37% – more than a third of waste – still goes to landfill. Only one-quarter is recycled. Zero waste (to landfill) is still an ambitious goal in our highly industrialised societies. The term ‘energy recovery’ doesn’t just mean incineration; there are a plethora of other energy-from-waste technologies that fall under this spectrum.

The circular economy is getting a lot of airtime right now, undoubtedly because it has the potential to be a real game-changer. But much of the detail is still being worked out – and when re-engineered systems do fall into place, these will happen at different time periods according to how material flows interlink. One gets the impression the evolutionary path won’t be smooth, but staggered. Very much a case of one step forward, two steps back.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Certainly for residual waste, energy recovery is about as good as it gets right now.

Maxine Perella

The role of energy-from-waste in a circular economy will be discussed during our Resource Revolution panel debate at Sustainability Live next month, 17 April, in the EFW Expo theatre

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