Amid all the talk of innovative recycling and waste sorting technologies, one fact can get lost; most of the world still disposes of most of its waste through landfill. And we’re not just talking about the developing world. In 2015, the latest year for which data is available, the USA sent 52.5% of its municipal solid waste to landfill, equal to 137.7 million tonnes. The amount landfilled rose slightly in 2015, from 136.2 million tonnes in 2014. The rate of recycling has barely changed since 2010, at around 26% of the total, while waste-to-energy is below 13%.
There’s a lot of investment in landfill. AcuComm currently has 344 active projects in the category, worth a total of US$6.6 billion, or US$21 million each on average. What landfill investments are there? Five main categories show up:
- Typically the upgrading of unregulated dumping grounds to meet current environmental standards. This tends to be a major area of activity in developing countries, and is often a component of development project ativity funded by external agencies.
- Straightforward expanding of existing landfill to accommodate extra waste.
- Specialist waste. Building of discrete capability to handle waste types that are best landfilled; such as hazardous, chemical or other forms of industrial waste.
- Landfill gas. Installation or expansion of gas engines in order to generate electricity.
- Infrequently, work done to restore a closed landfill to a ‘greener’ use, such as parkland.
The majority deal either with modernisation/expansion of MSW landfill, or addition of gas facilities at existing sites. These account for 84% of the total landfill projects in the AcuComm database.
Where is the investment going? As might be expected, the USA figures strongly. For general MSW landfill projects, the USA accounts for 34 projects with an estimated total investment of US$587 million. This is equal to US$17 million on average and 22% of the total. For landfill gas projects, the preponderance of the USA is far greater; 71 projects, with an estimated US$1,061 million, equal to US$15 million on average and 62% of the total.
Other countries to feature heavily are Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and Russia. One thing all these countries share with the USA is vast land areas and generally low population densities. All things being equal, its far easier to live with landfill if there is plenty of room for it, away from anyone who might complain about the perceived inconvenience. Environmental pressures and tax incentives may be reducing the use of landfill in Europe, but for much of the wider world it remains the principal – and if properly managed the most credible – means of waste disposal.
Réunion – Waste Management Complex.
Brazil – Development of a corn-based ethanol production plant.
Waste investments can be found in all sorts of places you might not expect. While the bulk of attention naturally focuses on the major developed economies, it may pay to glance occasionally elsewhere. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently released its latest economic GDP forecasts. The top fastest-growing countries for the 2019-2024 period are listed in the chart below, ranked by the value of new waste sector investment, as reported in the AcuComm database.
Almost all of these countries are classed as developing economies, with some still at a very low level of economic development. It’s only natural that these should register the highest growth levels. What’s perhaps more surprising is the amount of waste and related investment there is. Out of the top 25 countries, 17 have at least one project either in the planning or construction stage. There are 566 in total, valued at US$48.1 billion; a considerable sum of money.
China dominates the list with US$34.0 billion, around 71% of the value. While China’s GDP growth is slowing a little, the waste management sector remains huge, both in terms of its current size and potential. India, in second place, is faster-growing but at a lower level of development. Nevertheless, new waste projects in India are estimated at US$6.2 billion. Other countries where AcuComm lists new investments over US$500 million are the Philippines, Vietnam, Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda and Ivory Coast.
There’s activity further down the list too. One recent example is Bhutan, where a comprehensive clinical waste programme was announced in January 2019, supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Another is Uganda, where an anaerobic digestion plant at a sewage facility in Kampala neared completion in December 2018. Projects like this are not particularly large, but all need construction/engineering expertise and equipment, all of which will need to be imported.
Projects in developing countries often involve external funding agencies, such as the aforementioned ADB or its compatriot the African Development Bank (AfDB). The European Union is involved through a number of bodies, principally the European Investment Bank (EIB). The EIB is generally, though not exclusively, active in supporting projects in the less-well-off parts of Europe, whether in or out of the European Union. Recent part-funded projects include the establishment of new WtE, landfill and recycling facilities in Serbia, modern landfill in Armenia, and improvement of landfill and waste management expertise in Kyrgyzstan. You can see the full list here.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is an even bigger lender. AcuComm lists around 100 projects with EBRD involvement. It is not an EU agency, although it sometimes works in tandem with the EIB. It tends to concentrate on supporting projects in eastern Europe and the former USSR, often in countries or regions with little prior experience of modern waste management.
Working in developing countries attracts risk, of course, and it is likely that not all the projects in the table above will come to fruition. Reliable funding is an issue, but there are challenges to be overcome even when cash is provided by an external donor. Bureaucracy is one, when dealing with funding agencies and local government agencies alike. Developing countries are less likely to have had time to establish the management structures and experience needed to progress a major project, and indeed strengthening such capacity is often a key element of donor-funded projects. A country’s climate or power/water infrastructure may present challenges not found in western Europe or north America. Finally, there can be political difficulties regarding the sustainability or even the desirability of major investments in developing countries.
And yet… for all that, US$48.1 billion is a lot of money. It’s a sign that attention is being paid to global opportunities, as countries grow wealthier, and in need of – and able to afford – modern waste infrastructure.
US$2,799 million worth of projects were covered by our researchers last week, including 19 new projects and 27 updates.
The top waste trends included:
- Ethanol facilities in Brazil – including the expansion of a biomass plant and ethanol facility in Frutal.
- Plastic recycling in Asia – including recent coverage of a 40,000 tpa plastics recycling plant in Omaezaki City, Japan.
- New planned MBT sites – including a new MBT plant that has begun trial operations in Spain.
Click on the above trends to access a real-time project search in the AcuComm database.
Canada – Organic waste treatment centres and biogas facility.
Egypt – Waste-to-RDF facility.
Russia – WtE Plants
Construction of four WtE plants
Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI) and PJSC ZiO-Podolsk have signed an agreement which will see them construct four waste-to-energy (WtE) plants in Moscow.
It is understood that HZI will be taking on the supply of technology and PJSC ZiO-Podolsk will be delivering manufacturing services for the power island equipment.
UK – WtE Facility
Construction of a 350,000 tpa WtE facility
Fortum Glasgow, a joint venture between Fortum Oyj and Verus Energy, has acquired the South Clyde Energy Centre. The site has planning permission for a 350,000 tpa capacity WtE plant, which was originally granted consent back in 2012.
The facility will divert waste from landfill and process it to generate electricity and heat. Work could start as early as 2020 if plans go ahead.
US – AD Facility
Development of a dairy biogas project
Brightmark Energy has revealed that it has launched its biogas project in Yakima County, WA, that will convert dairy waste into renewable natural gas (RNG) and other products.
The anaerobic digestion facility will process up to 150,000 gallons of manure, producing 160,000 MMBtu of RNG that will be cleaned, upgraded and compressed before being injected into the nearby Williams NW gas transmission line for sale as fuel.
The project has been valued at US$20 million and is just one of a number of developments that Brightmark is undertaking across the country.
Denmark – Biogas Plant
Construction of a biogas plant with 14 digesters
On 1st April, work officially commenced on the construction of a new biogas plant in Højslev. The facility will feature 14 of Stallkamp’s digesters which will treat around 400,000 tonnes of agricultural, animal and food waste each year, though its maximum capacity is 600,000 tonnes.
Construction work is expected to be completed later this year, with gas injection due to start by December.
US$2,521 million worth of projects were covered by our researchers last week, including 22 new additions and 24 updates.
The top waste trends included:
- Biogas projects in the US – including updates to a US$20 million project in Wisconsin.
- Tyre/rubber recycling facilities – including recent coverage of two developments in Australia.
- Biomass in Brazil – including new updates to three projects in the past month.
Click on the above trends to access a real-time project search in the AcuComm database.
A tax on waste incineration may soon be coming to the UK. What’s all that about? The landfill tax has had great success in reducing landfill volumes, and there has been a well-documented rise in WtE incineration, both in terms of volume and monetary investment. It seems that the government now thinks this has gone too far, and corrective measures are needed to boost, not landfill, but greater and greener recycling methods.
The subject, unusually, reached Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons this month. West Wiltshire MP, Dr Andrew Murchison, asked ‘Will the Government strengthen their bid to host the 2020 United Nations climate change conference by putting a moratorium on new incinerator, gasification and pyrolysis applications, including the one in Westbury [see here for AcuComm’s coverage of this project], in my constituency?’. To which the prime minister replied ‘We want to maximise the amount of waste that is sent to recycling rather than to incineration and landfill. Waste plants continue to play an important role in reducing the amount of rubbish that is sent to landfill, and we welcome the efforts to drive it down further. but if wider policies do not deliver our waste ambitions in the future—including those higher recycling rates—we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste’.
The PM’s reply was taken more or less directly from the report outlined below. What was interesting about the question was that it lumped newer technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis together which traditional WtE facilities. All much the same in the eyes of campaigners, one suspects.
There are no details or timetables, and the composition of the UK government in a few months from now is anyone’s guess. But a tax on waste incineration has been around Whitehall for a while now. In December 2018, the government issued a strategy document, ‘Our Waste, Our Resources, A Strategy For England’. This deals with all aspects of waste management, but one area highlighted is better efficiency in the waste incineration sector. The principal government concern seems to be to make greater use of CHP (combined heat and power) than at present; most current facilities contribute electricity only. But there also seems to be a concern that there is now too much WtE incineration and too little recycling, and its use may need to be curtailed through tax, as has been the case with landfill:
‘Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long-term, we will consider the introduction of a tax on the incineration of waste. Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the Government expects this to continue. However, Budget 2018 set out the Government’s long term ambition to maximise the amount of waste sent to recycling instead of incineration and landfill. Any consideration would take into account how such a tax would work alongside Landfill Tax and the possible impacts on local authorities.’ (page 79, editor’s bold)
A tax might also, of course, incentivise CHP over current investment patterns, although the government does not explicitly say this. The idea of an incineration tax means different things to different people, depending on the desired outcome. Neil Grundon, of Grundon Waste Management, has a slightly different take. Writing on the CIWM web site in November 2018, he argued that the landfill tax has led to an increase in RDF exports rather than investment in domestic waste treatment capacity. A tax on RDF exports, rather than incineration itself, would, therefore, discourage these exports and provide cash for domestic investment in new, greener, treatment methods. Large incinerators would be taxed, to encourage the development of smaller, locally-sustainable facilities.
There is certainly a trend towards the construction of large – maybe too large – WtE facilities, which promise better economies of scale and greater return on investment. As we saw recently with Tata’s planned Cheshire facility, one objection raised is the inability of such large sites to survive just using local waste, whether in RDF or unprocessed form.
The export tax idea raises a couple of interesting issues, however. Firstly, it should be noted that this isn’t remotely what the government appears minded to introduce. Secondly, in regards to waste and, by extension, RDF as a problem to be dealt with, rather than a commodity with value. RDF exports are presumably profitable for the companies exporting them, and a worthwhile purchase for the overseas receivers. While an export tax would provide a clear benefit for local operators such as Grundon, it’s hard to see why any government should be keen to explicitly suppress a profitable export trade in this way.
Whatever the details, the broad direction of travel seems clear. To mix a metaphor, the UK seems to be aiming to move the circular economy up a gear. Where once the incentive was the reduction of landfill to the benefit of WtE and recycling, it is now to be the reduction of landfill and WtE, to the benefit of recycling alone. This may have profound implications for the industry, with smaller CHP-style units replacing the traditional incinerators and even perhaps gasification/pyrolysis technologies. In some ways, we’ve been here before. The UK pioneered waste incineration in the 1800s*, before abandoning it in favour of sanitary landfill in the mid-20th Century, and then re-embracing it in the 2000s in the wake of the landfill tax. So again today, the regulatory environment is not standing still. Planners must be aware of this changing environment and adjust their strategies accordingly.
* for anyone interested in the early history of UK waste incineration, I’d recommend ‘’The incineration of refuse is beautiful’ : Torquay and the introduction of municipal refuse destructors’, by J.F.M. Clark, Cambridge University Press, 2007. You can read it online here.