One for the future – Recycling space junk

Apparently there are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. Even worse, if you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1cm in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth’s orbit.

Jez Turner, a Teaching Associate in Foundation Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Nottingham in the UK, writing in The Conversation, informs us that a long-term solution is being proposed by The Gateway Earth Development Group. The Group is a collection of academics from universities around the world who propose turning this potential catastrophe into a resource. By 2050, Gateway Earth – a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other junk – could be up and running. This would reduce the potential for costly collisions between functioning satellites and debris (which could threaten communications, air navigation, meteorology etc.), as well as potentially providing a revenue stream for recycled materials and components.

Technology to clear up the estimated 7,000 tonnes of ‘junk’ currently in orbit is under development. One programme is the EU-sponsored RemoveDEBRIS; which is aimed at performing key Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations to find the best way to capture the space debris orbiting Earth. The consortium working on the programme includes the University of Surrey, Stellenbosch University, Airbus Defence and Space, Airbus Safran Launchers, SSTL, ISIS (Netherlands), CSEM (Switzerland) and Inria (France).

With the profusion of satellites being launched, Jez argues the need for a space equivalent of the plastics wake-up call that people received from Blue Planet 2. There is still time, but plans for cleaning up Earth’s orbit need to be acted on now.

The waste sector heats up: the role of pyrolysis

This week I thought I’d take a look at pyrolysis and its role in the waste sector. The technology is not new; essentially involving the deconstruction of waste or other matter through very high temperatures. While the overall numbers are small, it’s one of the more cutting-edge areas of waste management technology, with various patented approaches being developed. The following refers to projects in the AcuComm database where we can identify use of pyrolysis technology in some form. Related technologies such as gasification are not included.

AcuComm currently lists 90 projects which involve pyrolysis. The majority are not yet operational, however. Of the 90, 18 are either known to be on-hold or of uncertain status in some way. Only 23 are currently known to be operational, equal to 26% of the total. Interestingly, that percentage drops to 12% in terms of project value, suggesting that most of the operational activity to date is in smaller pilot projects.

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Pyrolysis projects cut across a number of AcuComm’s facility type categories. The bulk involve general disposal of waste. One example is a new clinical waste disposal facility in Avonmouth, near Bristol, UK, which went into operation in July 2018.

Recycling is also significant, particularly of rubber or plastics. A recent example is a planned plastics recycling plant in Perth, Scotland. Recycling Technologies Ltd plans to use its RT7000 pyrolysis technology to turn waste plastics into oil form, which can then be used to make new plastic projects. The site is relatively small, with capacity for 7,000 tonnes of waste plastic per year, but is expected to be operational by the end of 2019. A pilot plant is already operating in Swindon, Wiltshire.

The largest number of pyrolysis projects are to be found in the USA and UK, which between them account for 29 active projects, equal to 40% of the total. If only operational plants are considered, the USA has five, followed by the UK with three, and Australia, Germany and Spain with two apiece.

While other countries lack this mass of projects, significant potential investments can be found around the globe. One example is New Zealand, where the government issued a grant in 2017 for a pilot project for the disposal of used tyres through pyrolysis. This is currently ongoing, although its precise status is unclear. Additionally, a proposed WtE plant in Huntly, New Zealand, may also include some form of pyrolysis capacity. It is far from certain whether this will ever be built, although that has more to do with a general resistance to WtE plants in New Zealand rather than any specific objections to pyrolysis.

AcuComm lists around 98 companies (classified as operators, contractors or equipment suppliers) involved with pyrolysis projects. The USA is home to 29 of these, followed by 11 in the UK and 10 in Germany.

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AcuComm subscribers can easily explore and download the full data held on all these pyrolysis projects, including details on the companies involved, here.

Victoria’s Waste Crisis

A waste and recycling crisis in the Australian state of Victoria appears to be worsening week by week. Last week, one of the state’s major recyclers, SKM Recycling, was ordered into liquidation and this week Phoenix Environmental Group has been banned by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) from accepting rubbish at its Coolaroo facility.

SKM was contracted to process recyclables for more than 30 councils and started to run into difficulty when China imposed its ban on waste imports. With a throughput of 400,000 tonnes of recyclable material each year, SKM soon started accumulating stockpiles of waste. In July, the EPA ordered SKM to cease receiving materials at its Laverton North site, following concerns it had exceeded safe limits. The company’s difficulties have been spiralling, culminating in the Supreme Court appointing a liquidator and ordering the company to be wound up after it was unable to show it could repay debts of A$5.5 million.

The desperation to dispose of the rapidly growing stockpiles of waste has hit a new low just this week with the reported discovery that Phoenix Environmental Group was operating a massive illegal dump at an Altona warehouse and attempting to use an industrial incinerator to dispose of around 6,000 cubic metres of recyclable plastic in an alleged bid to escape enforcement action by the local council and the Environment Protection Authority.

Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s waste management system is under great strain, with at least 15 councils reportedly forced to dump paper, glass and cans in landfill until alternative processors can be found.

Shanghai shifts to WtE

In China, Shanghai recently opened a second phase of what may well be the largest WtE plant in the world. The Laogang Renewable Resource Recycling Centre is located near the city’s airport in the Pudong New Area. It is next to the Laogang landfill, which has been operating for 30 years and is nearing the end of its capacity. Phase one of the site opened in 2013. You can see the exact location of the site here. Note that the current google map dates to October 2018 and shows phase two under construction.

The new second phase was begun at the end of 2016 and officially opened at the end of June 2019. It can handle up to 6,000 tonnes per day, equal to one third of all the waste generated by the city. This takes the site’s overall capacity to 8,750 tonnes per day, or around three million tonnes per year. Power generation from the plant is estimated to reach 144 MW.

This makes the Laogang site by some margin the largest WtE site in the world. It is large even by Chinese standards; according to analysis of the AcuComm database, the average WtE project in China has an annual capacity of 1,543 tonnes per day. How does this compare internationally? AcuComm lists a few pipeline projects in Kuwait, Singapore and Turkey, each with annual capacity of around one million tonnes. None are currently operational, however. The largest wholly-new plant to begin operating in Europe in recent years is in Poolbeg in Ireland, which opened in 2017 and has capacity of around 600,000 tonnes per year; one third the size of the new expansion at Laogang.

Shanghai is arguably the largest city in the world, with around 26 million people. So it is not surprising that such a huge plant is seen by the city authorities as a good solution to rising waste levels and near-exhausted landfill capacity. On a related note, the past month has also seen a new law come into force which requires Shanghai residents to sort their waste into four broad types before disposal. It clearly makes sense for better pre-sorting of waste if the city is to move to a predominantly WtE solution rather than landfill. The measure is coercive – fines can be levied on those failing to comply – and it remains to be seen how effective the law will be in practice. But that’s a subject for another day.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.