Thermals are given a lift

Advanced forms of thermal treatment can make a contribution to sustainable development, according to a new report from The Natural Step (TNS), an international charity using science to promote sustainable development.

Growing volumes of waste present a major problem, with latest estimates suggesting the UK may need up to 31 new high-volume incinerators by 2010 (there are currently 13).

Thermal treatment has a place in a sustainable future if it forms an integrated part of resource and energy flow systems and is not applied as an end-of-pipe solution.

Incinerators are unpopular with local residents because of concerns about pollution and health, but TNS emphasises some forms of thermal treatment are more acceptable than others: advanced technologies are capable of dramatically reducing harmful emissions and producing useable energy.

Making decisions

The report, Thermal Treatment of Waste and Sustainability, aims to assist decision-makers in assessing thermal waste treatment technologies on the basis of their potential contribution towards the long-term goal of sustainability.

The report is structured around seven challenges, including a call for greater public and corporate involvement in the decision-making process regarding waste disposal. It argues the current delegation of decision-making to experts within narrow disciplines contributes to fragmented thinking, and militates against sustainable solutions.

TNS also finds a pressing need for a root-and-branch review of both economic and regulatory instruments. There is no commitment, for instance, to reforms that favour recovery of the potential energy value of waste disposal.

The report argues that rigid contracts, tying waste managers into providing constant volumes and composition of waste will make the problem worse. It also highlights a number of economic and legal factors in the UK that act as barriers to more sustainable reuse of resources.

Chairman’s comments

Speaking about the findings of the report, Jonathon Porritt, chairman of TNS, spelt out the nature of the challenge: “Out of sight and out of mind is no longer good enough. We all have to face up to the fact that we are creating more waste than we can handle. We need new ways of tackling this problem. Mass burn incineration has a lousy reputation in the UK – and quite understandably, from a sustainability point of view. But people need to understand there are different kinds of thermal treatment technologies, and it’s both irresponsible and scientifically illiterate to condemn all of them out of hand. This timely and ground-breaking report from The Natural Step demonstrates that some forms of advanced, small-scale thermal treatment processes, embedded within integrated waste management strategies, may well have an important part to play in a sustainable economy. We need to be much more radical and discriminatory in appraising these options.”

The report lists the key sustainability challenges for waste disposal as:

  • The goal of cyclic resource flows should guide all relevant decisions. There is no such thing as a sustainable form of mass disposal. The over-riding and pressing sustainability goal for society is the achievement of cyclic resource flows within a value recovery economy, setting a context within which decisions and policies about waste handling must be judged.
  • Ensure that technological solutions are flexible. Technological solutions must be flexible to deal with changing waste volume and composition, and to address changing priorities for waste disposal, feedstock and fuel regeneration, and energy generation (including transition to biofuels).
  • Ensure that contracts are flexible. All relevant contracts and agreements must allow adaptation to changing needs. Rigid contracts, tying waste managers into providing constant volumes and composition of waste, will automatically create a barrier to more sustainable resource use and deployment of disposal/regeneration infrastructure.
  • Ensure that regulatory and economic instruments address sustainability. Some current economic and regulatory signals create perverse barriers to more sustainable practice. There is a pressing need for a root-and-branch review of both economic and regulatory instruments, and a commitment to reforms that favour value recovery.
  • Utilise science to resolve poorly understood or contentious issues. Science provides an invaluable basis for addressing a range of questions and issues still to be resolved, both through research and through the building of consensus.
  • Overcome inertia in waste and other sectors of industry. Greater sustainability and new business opportunity are possible through synergy between policy areas (energy, waste, resource regeneration, etc). Common infrastructure needs for more cyclic use of different resource types, and for disassembling products at end-of-life, means there are also significant opportunities for collaboration between manufacturers of different materials and products.
  • Promote public and corporate engagement in decision-making. The way in which decision-making is delegated to ‘experts’ within narrow disciplines contributes to fragmented thinking. Better methods of participation in decision-making are required.

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