The Rise of Biogas in the US

Just this week, the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas (RNG Coalition) announced that the North American renewable natural gas (RNG) industry has reached the 100 facility benchmark this summer. With the addition of three recent operational facilities, the 101 RNG production sites across the continent, (91 in the United States and 10 in Canada), equate to nearly 150% growth over the past five years from the 41 projects built between 1982 and 2014.

While RNG or biogas plants have obviously been around for a long time in the United States and Canada, an acceleration in development is apparent. Technological developments, specialist operators and state legislation promoting biogas development, are all contributing to a wave of larger-scale facilities, invariably linked to pipelines rather than simply meeting on-site demand.

Pig and dairy farms feature prominently as locations in the current wave of projects, with developers such as Dominion, California Bioenergy, Vanguard Renewables, GESS International and Calgren Dairy Fuels announcing large deals with livestock producers, such as Dominion’s November 2018 announcement to tie up with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and pig producer.

AcuComm currently lists 196 biogas/AD active projects in the United States and Canada in its database.

US AD biogas July 2019

Sea-Change for Plastic Waste Exports

Reuters reported this week that Indonesia is planning to tighten its rules regarding plastic waste imports. This follows a rapid rise in shipments over the past year, following the Chinese import ban. Indonesia is one of several countries to experience this rapid growth, which far outstrips any apparent recycling capacity.

This is becoming a well-rehearsed issue, so I thought I’d try to put some numbers behind it to see what trends can be identified. For the data below I looked at the volume of the UK’s exports of plastic waste each month since 2014, as collected and published by the HMRC. The UK is identified as one of the leading exporters of plastic waste.

The first thing to note is that the volume of plastic waste exported has fallen in the past couple of years. The total peaked at 789.9 million tonnes in 2016 but fell back considerably to 613.2 million tonnes in 2018. Data for the first five months of 2019 shows a total of 209.7 million tonnes, which can be crudely extrapolated to around 503 million tonnes as an estimate for the whole year.

Where does all this plastic get sent? There’s been a major change in the destinations for plastic waste. The main driver is of course the Chinese import ban which came into effect in 2018. If we look back to 2014, China accounted for 36% of UK plastic waste exports, equal to 275,760 tonnes. Hong Kong was second with 218,295 tonnes, or 29%. We can assume that China was the final destination for most if not all plastic sent to Hong Kong in that year. Behind China/Hong Kong were India, Vietnam, the Netherlands and Malaysia, although none had a share greater than 5% in 2014.

andy-graph1Move forward to 2018 and the picture is radically different. China and Hong Kong have all but disappeared. No one country dominates, with Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and Taiwan heading the field. The Netherlands is still an important destination, and Poland has appeared in the mix from almost nowhere in 2014.


The situation looks to be changing again in 2019. The graph below illustrates several interesting trends. It compares China with three of the leading newer destinations, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. Plastic waste exports to China collapsed rapidly in the latter part of 2017. There was a brief one-off resurgence in May/June 2018 as, I’d guess, people rushed to beat the import ban. In the corresponding period, shipments to Malaysia rose rapidly, but have declined equally quickly since mid-2018. There is a similar although less-pronounced trend for Indonesia. In contrast, Turkey appears – as of mid-2019 – to be increasingly the destination of choice for UK plastic waste exports.


The main conclusion would appear to be that China has rapidly been replaced by a range of countries, the geographic mix of which can be expected to change as the local economic and regulatory conditions evolve. Which is where we came in with the planned changes in Indonesia as an example. Aside from the countries in the graph below, Taiwan, Poland, Thailand and Spain have also grown rapidly as plastic waste destinations in the past year.

While the expansion of waste exports to new countries is not in itself a bad thing – there’s money to be made after all – much depends on the infrastructure, regulatory and physical, of the countries doing the importing. I’ve written recently that a lot of ‘recycling’ may be nothing of the sort and ends up in the sea. China tightened its rules after realising that waste imports weren’t being dealt with in a responsible manner, and others such as Indonesia are following suit.

Couple this with greater efforts in developed countries to reduce plastic waste and to deal with it locally, and there is growing global scope for investment in additional plastic recycling facilities. The AcuComm database currently holds around 200 such facilities around the world. Around half are in Europe, but a growing number are in Asia or elsewhere. The following is perhaps a large caveat, but with the right regulatory and commercial environments there is no reason why plastic waste cannot be dealt with in a manner which is not both environmentally appropriate and profitable. Check the AcuComm database here to explore what’s already being done.

Is there a waste crisis in Amsterdam?

The issue of what to do with our waste is a constant problem which can very quickly unravel if the adequate infrastructure isn’t in place, or if for any reason it ceases to function. In a recent AcuComm article, you can read about the unsatisfactory situation in Rome and the wider picture in Italy. But the potential for a ‘waste crisis’ is everywhere. Italy may not have much waste-to-energy capacity for example, but as the Dutch authorities are currently finding, that doesn’t assure waste disposal.

Earlier in July, AEB, the waste-to-energy company owned by the municipality of Amsterdam announced the closure of four of its six incinerators, potentially for up to nine months, with the two remaining plants working at a reduced 80% capacity. The closure is the result of intervention from the environmental regulator, the OD NZKG, which placed AEB under stricter supervision back in February 2018. This sudden and massive reduction in waste processing capacity leaves Amsterdam with a major headache. There is much conjecture on what will become of the waste which can no longer be incinerated – with landfill an option and in the case of sewage sludge, a possible return to disposal at sea. The Amstel, Gooi and Vecht Water Board (Waterschap Amstel, Gooi en Vecht), for example, delivers some 250 tonnes of sewage sludge to AEB every day. Storage capacity is limited and the option of sending the sludge to Germany, where it used to be co-fired in brown coal plants, is no longer permitted under EU rules. AEB is reportedly prepared to bear the financial consequences of the shutdown, but money alone isn’t going to solve the immediate issue of what to do with Amsterdam’s waste.

AcuComm currently has 7 projects involving AEB listed in its database, valued at an estimated €163.3 million in total.

Rome: Fiddling while the waste grows

Waste disposal in the Italian capital, Rome, has been in the news lately, or more accurately, the lack of it. Rome has lacked waste management capacity since its principal landfill (Malagrotta) was closed on environmental and mismanagement grounds in 2013. This followed a long-running European Commission investigation into the Roman and wider Italian waste sector. Since then, the city’s politicians have argued about what should replace the landfill, to little obvious effect.

Other than, that is, a rising level of waste around the city which smells worse and poses a greater health hazard in the hot summer months. Rome currently exports its waste either to other parts of the country or abroad. But even this arrangement seems to be falling prey to mismanagement and a lack of capacity. The end result is waste left untreated or dealt with illegally.

At AcuComm we don’t unearth a lot of waste projects in Italy, we’ve wondered why but, given the Roman experience, this is probably a fair reflection of the investment climate. The AcuComm database currently contains 28 waste-related projects, worth an estimated US$886 million or US$32 million each on average. The majority are either anaerobic digestion/biogas projects or dedicated materials recycling plants. You can check them all out here.

Aside from AD/biogas, there is very little investment activity in the waste-to-energy field. In 2016, the government decided that eight new MSW WtE plants should be constructed, to provide a total capacity of 1.831 million tonnes per year. As yet, nothing seems to have come of any of these plans, however. Other planned facilities have also struck difficulties. A new plant in Florence was approved in 2016 but was cancelled in 2018. An expansion of a plant in Pavia was announced around the same time, but this was postponed in 2017. At present, the only WtE plants that look likely are smaller and high-tech industry-specific ones. An example is a waste paper pyrolysis facility announced in northern Italy in 2019. This has yet to be built but has received approval on environmental grounds from the regional government.


Italy’s official data for the generation and treatment of waste is interesting. The country generates more than it treats. In 2016, generation was 164 million tonnes, while treatment was 136 million tonnes, a treatment gap of 28 million tonnes or around 17%. Where does this unaccounted waste go? Assuming an accurate and consistent count (and the graph below demonstrates this may not be entirely the case), the best scenario is that it is exported to neighbouring countries. At worst, it’s disposed of illegally in an uncontrolled manner.

The official treatment figures themselves paint a suspiciously rosy picture. In 2016, recycling accounted for 79% of all waste treatment in Italy, landfill for 14% and incineration for the remaining 7%.  The broad story in the 2004-2016 period is that the proportion of landfill has more or less halved, while recycling and more or less doubled.


How believable these figures are I’ll leave you to speculate on; the definition of ‘recycling’ can be very wide indeed. But the most pertinent point to note in the case of Italy is the near-total lack of adoption of WtE as a treatment method, in contrast to other major European economies.

As we are seeing in Rome, the options are limited once landfill is taken out of the treatment mix. The contrast with, for example, London, is great. London has reduced its reliance on landfill over the past 15 years but has also had a policy of building capacity to treat its own waste where possible, and not ship it elsewhere. Hence, a number of waste plants have been built or are earmarked across the city. Rome, like London, is a rich city. What it lacks is the political will to outline a solution.

France announces draft ‘circular economy’ bill

Brune Poirson, the Secretary of State for Ecological Transition in France, has presented a draft ‘circular economy’ bill (Loi Anti-Gaspillage pour une economie circulaire) which is expected to go before Parliament in September.

Building on the plan announced by prime minister Edouard Philippe in April 2018 which seeks to embrace a philosophy of repair, re-use and recycle, the bill seeks to reduce built-in obsolescence in electrical goods, broaden the country’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme, ban the destruction of unsold textiles and return to the ‘consigne’ deposit-return system.

The draft bill appears to have been broadly welcomed. Elipso, the professional association representing manufacturers of plastic packaging in France calls it an ambitious and strong text, a ‘big bang’ which will profoundly change the world of waste. Elipso has called for a calm debate and asks that the law should support the deployment of new plastic recycling channels and encourage innovation.

There is opposition in some quarters however. Federec, the Federation of Recycling Companies, has said that bringing back the consigne will be “costly for French people, local councils and small shopkeepers” which won’t have the resources to set up a deposit-return system. Federec sees the higher value recyclable drinks bottle/can streams being diverted to the major industrial groups which will operate the schemes, while smaller recyclers and local sorting centres will be left to handle less profitable schemes. Local councils stand to lose a source of revenue estimated at up to €300 million each year, says Federec.

What is undeniable is that France needs to tackle the issue of waste, and especially plastics. Data released by Citeo indicates that France lags behind Europe in its recycling of household plastics, managing to recycle only 26.5% compared to a European average of 41%. If Brune Poirson can push her legislation through, France may well become a European leader in plastic recycling, rather than lagging behind.

Japan seeks to expand regional WtE influence

Japan has long made use of extensive use of waste-to-energy (WtE) plants in dealing with its municipal waste. As a result, the country has built extensive local expertise for the design, building, equipping and maintenance of waste plants. Now, the Japanese government is working in partnership with these companies to extend the use of WtE to other countries across South East Asia. According to a report in the Nikkei last month, the Japanese Environment Ministry is seeking to create public-private partnerships with ten cities across the region by 2023.

Countries being targeted are on the lower income level of the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China is not on the list, although the drivers for waste management are much the same as in China’s eastern cities. Other Asian cities such as Jakarta, Manila, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are experiencing rapid growth in population and income levels, while still relying on outdated and inadequate means of dealing with waste. This often involves dumping on land or in seas/rivers, which is at best poorly-regulated. Managed landfill, where it exists, is often not adequate in terms of capacity or environmental control, and there is often little political will or geographic scope to expand it.

A related imperative is the controversy over plastic waste. Following China’s import ban in 2018, other developing countries have been accepting plastic and other waste from developed countries, which they are even less capable of dealing with than China in a manner acceptable to the environmental standards of the West. We’ve all seen the pictures. It’s a fair point to say that it would be best all round if developed countries stopped exporting waste at all and sought to boost their domestic recycling capacity instead. That’s the direction things are moving, but right now, we are where we are.

Promotion of WtE across Asia therefore makes sense on a number of levels. It’s naturally good business for Japanese companies, and promises a relatively quick fix for cities seeking to dispose of waste – both domestic and imported – in a more responsible manner. It hardly need be said that there are many who will point out the drawbacks of WtE, but such a plan has form. It’s what is happening in most of China’s cities right now, the wealthy states of Hong Kong and Singapore are following suit, and it’s what Japan has been doing for decades.

What’s the current state of play across South East Asia? The AcuComm database lists around 23 WtE plant investments in the three countries mentioned above (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam). Most are in various stages of planning, with only a handful being under construction. There are six active projects in Indonesia, of which five are located in and around Jakarta. The sixth is in Jambi City. Most are at an early stage and the only identified overseas company involved is Babcock & Wilcox Volund, which was selected as equipment supplier for a proposed plant in Jakarta in 2017.

There are eight projects in the Philippines, spread across the country. All are at the planning stage. The Japan International Cooperation Agency is involved with one project, a 12 MW facility in Davao. This is being developed in collaboration with the Tokyo-based EX Research Institute and Nippon Steel & Sumikin Engineering. Construction is due to begin by the end of 2019, with commissioning due in 2023. Japan already has competition in the Philippines; Covanta and China Everbright are also actively pursuing projects in the country.

There are around nine projects in Vietnam, although there appears not to be any major Japanese involvement as yet. One project is operational, a 7.5 MW plant in Can Tho, southern Vietnam, is already operational; it was constructed by China Everbright. The Finnish company, Watrec, is involved with a couple of proposed sites in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but these are at an earlier stage of development.

As yet, therefore, Japanese companies are not to the fore in the region. There are many potential pitfalls in all three countries, regarding funding, bureaucracy and sustainability of WtE plants, and as highlighted above, there are at present few concrete development proposals. The Japanese government and industry have clearly decided the region is worth investing time and attention in, but they already face competition from non-Japanese suppliers.

MPs launch inquiry into e-waste

The UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry into Electronic Waste (e-waste) and the circular economy.

The increasing use of electronic devices and equipment has led to a rapid increase in e-waste. Globally, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2017, 90% of which, the Committee says was sent to landfill, incinerated, illegally traded or treated in a sub-standard way. Europe and the US account for almost half of all e-waste globally, with the EU predicted to produce 12 million tonnes by 2020. As the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, put it: “Our old fridges, freezers, computers, TVs, kettles and mobile phones are piling up in a ‘tsunami of e-waste’.

According to Ms Creagh “The UK produces more e-waste than the EU average. We are missing EU targets and are one of the worst offenders for exporting waste to developing countries, who are ill equipped to dispose of it in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Our attitude to e-waste is unsustainable and the need for radical action clear. We will be investigating the UK’s e-waste industry and looking at how we can create a circular economy for electronic goods.”

The UK produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, higher than the EU average of 17.7kg. Electronic waste in the UK is managed under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013.

Defra sets annual targets for the collection of WEEE across a range of categories. These are calculated based on the WEEE Directive’s target of 65% of the average annual weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the previous three years. The target for 2019 has been set at 550,577 tonnes, a 12% increase on 2018 levels. The UK missed its WEEE collection target by 45,000 tonnes in 2018.

The Government has committed to publishing a review of the 2013 WEEE Regulations this year and consulting on changing WEEE by the end of 2020. This consultation will consider ideas to incentivise sustainable product design and increase recycling. It has also committed £8 million in funding over the next three years to support research, behaviour change and local projects to boost reuse and recycling.

How do they recycle in New Jersey?

A couple of times recently I’ve touched on the issue of definitions in the waste industry, and how things might not always be how they initially seem. In the US, the New Jersey state legislature recently passed a new bill to deal with the state’s food waste. Under it, any establishment generating more than 52 tonnes of food waste per year will have to send this waste to an ‘authorised food waste recycling facility’. The only exception would be if the waste generator is not within 25 miles of such a facility.

The above probably conjures up images of anaerobic digesters and the like, and indeed these do form one type of authorised recycling facility. However, the legislation also mandates other types of disposal. Landfill sites are also acceptable, as long as they have gas collection facilities for the purpose of electricity generation. Also included are waste incineration facilities, with the proviso that these begin using anaerobic digestion methods within four years. Here then is another great example of the problem of defining anything in the waste industry, where New Jersey has created an extremely wide definition of ‘recycling’ indeed.

Whatever their merits, it’s unlikely that either landfill or incineration would be high on most people’s list when it comes to recycling. Indeed, recycling campaigners have criticised the bill for failing to promote recycling, in favour of established methods of waste disposal. Why the dispensation for incineration in the bill, given that it isn’t widely-adopted in the US? Well, New Jersey is one of the few US states to make much of WtE incineration; Covanta has its headquarters in the state and operates three WtE facilities there, at Camden, Newark and North Rahway. None of these currently operate anaerobic digestion facilities.

In the case of landfill, these sites are publicly-operated in New Jersey, and there seems to be a reluctance to lose tonnage throughput. This is quite the opposite of the situation in Western Europe or China, where landfills are either full and/or being phased out. Is landfill a better alternative to AD/biogas when dealing with food and other organic waste? I don’t think it’s an argument you will hear made in the UK or Europe. Maybe things just are different in the US, which has plenty of open space for landfill.

AcuComm currently lists 17 active waste sector projects in New Jersey. These are worth a total estimated US$846 million, or US$50 million each. Seven of these, valued at US$172 million, are principally classed as recycling. AcuComm classes WtE and landfill separately! These account for 16% and 6% of new project investment respectively, since 2013. Check all the projects out here.


Expansion of mattress recycling

Mattresses have historically been a difficult waste stream to dispose of by conventional means. AcuComm recently reported on SUEZ Recycling and Recovery Belgium’s plans to build a dedicated mattress foam recycling plant in Belgium and last week Renewi plc announced that it has taken a 32% stake in RetourMatras, the biggest mattress recycling company within the Netherlands, alongside a minority stake of Ingka Investments (part of Ingka Group, the world’s largest franchisee of the IKEA Concept). RetourMatras has two operational facilities in the Netherlands.

The investment will fund the further expansion of RetourMatras throughout the Netherlands, cementing its market-leading position. Renewi provides the mattress recycling company access to a broader supply of mattresses and will gain operational benefits from the collaboration. IKEA is seen as the ideal circular partner with its strong commitment to sustainability and circular solutions for products.

RetourMatras has developed a unique mattress recycling technology for the sustainable processing of discarded mattresses. Using this technology, the mattresses can be 90% recycled into reusable materials.

RetourMatras estimates that 1.2 million mattresses are discarded in the Netherlands every year, while Belgian mattress recycler Vanheede Environment Group estimates that 1.1 million are thrown away in Belgium each year, equivalent to 22,000 tonnes of waste.

The persistence of landfill

An unusual new project turned up in the AcuComm database last week. The Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan, just north of Tokyo, is looking at the possible creation of a new landfill site for industrial waste. This is unusual because Japan sends very little waste to landfill. Space is at a premium, and the local press reports that no new landfill has opened in Ibaraki since 2005. New capacity is needed as all local landfill capacity is close to being filled.

It’s worth remembering that landfill is still the way most of the world deals with its waste. It is still the principal means of final waste disposal in the US, for example. WtE has never really caught on there and doesn’t look likely to do so in the near future. The same goes for Australia and New Zealand; both developed countries with plenty of space to bury waste. In all three of these, all legal landfill is closely regulated and controlled. In the developing world, there is a technology curve, as national and municipal governments seek to progress from uncontrolled dumping in fields or rivers to managed landfill.

The European perspective is very different. For at least two decades, EU regulations have reduced the commercial feasibility of landfill to a point where its use is negligible in many countries and is falling fast in most others. So landfill might not seem an interesting area of investment, but outside Europe there is plenty going on.

AcuComm currently has 358 active landfill projects in its database. These are worth just under US$8.0 billion, or around US$22 million each on average. The USA is by far the leading country for investment in landfill, accounting for 136 projects worth US$3.8 billion, or 48% of the global value. The main area of activity is the provision or expansion of landfill gas generation equipment, followed by creation or expansion of municipal landfill capacity, and development of specialist capacity for industrial or hazardous waste.


Outside the US, the principal countries for new landfill investment are Australia, Canada, China, India, Russia, Tajikistan and the UK. All have ten or more active projects. The UK looks the odd one out in that list, but it’s worth remembering that landfill was the main means of disposal in the UK barely more than a decade ago. New investment in the UK is centred on not on new muncipal sites but on expansion of landfill gas, provision of hazardous landfill capacity, and renovation/restoration of old landfill to other uses. Tajikistan is not a country that figures often; there are ten sites earmarked for modernisation and expansion, with international funding assistance. None are beyond the planning stage yet, however. Opportunities in the landfill sector occur around the world; AcuComm currently has active projects in 63 countries. You can explore them all here.