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Energy-from-waste vs. Incineration. What's the difference?

Energy from Waste v Incineration

What happens to the rubbish that leaves your home or business? In the UK, a lot of it is incinerated.

In 2018, UK households produced 26.4 million tonnes of waste, and businesses produced 42.6 million tonnes, according to Defra. Much of that waste — about 16 million tonnes — went to the incinerator.

In fact, of all the waste incinerated in the UK, 80% is municipal household waste. For comparison, only about 10% of the waste going into landfills each year is household waste. 

What happens when your rubbish is incinerated? In the UK, a little more than half of incinerated waste is burned at energy-from-waste (EfW) plants. These plants generate electricity from the combustion of waste. 

What's the difference between EfW and incineration? And what about the environmental impacts? 

How did we get here?

In the UK, it was once a generally accepted practice to send waste straight to landfill.  Abundant landfill space was made available from declining mining activity, so there was little incentive to explore other technologies or even prevent waste.

Subsequently, this put the UK behind our counterparts in Europe in terms of incineration. 

Early incinerators were used purely as a form of disposal rather than a source of energy. Waste entering these incinerators was not segregated (i.e. recyclables not removed) and there was little to no energy recovery. 

They also released toxic pollutants. Finally, legislators enacted tighter emissions standards, and no new incinerator plants were built between 1980 and 1993. 

Things changed in the 90s, and there was a lot of emphasis placed on the potential impact of waste management on climate change. This led to the UK's landfill tax. This tax was used as a deterrent and thus incentivised other technologies for waste treatment, which in turn drove the development of energy-from-waste plants. 

What is energy-from-waste (EfW)?

Energy-from-waste is a form of energy recovery. In a nutshell, as the rubbish is burned, heat is created that is used to convert water to steam. Steam turns a turbine and electricity is generated. 

Think of it like a conventional coal or gas power station, but the fuel is waste.

It sounds like dirty work, but filters are used to catch most of the toxic pollutants from the waste before they're released into the air. 

Energy-from-waste plants are administered by the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales in Wales. In order to be officially considered energy-from-waste incinerators, the plants need to meet certain efficiency benchmarks. They're then granted R1 accreditation.

In 2018, 8.5 million tonnes of waste were burned to produce energy at accredited EfW plants in the UK.

What is disposal incineration?

Not all incinerators in the UK produce energy. Older incinerators, those that aren't designed to capture energy, and those that fail to meet R1 standards, are considered disposal incinerators. 

In these incinerators, waste is burned and little to no heat is captured to create electricity. 

In 2018, 7.3 million tonnes of waste were burned at disposal incineration plants in the UK. 

What are the environmental impacts?

EfW is inarguably a greener alternative to disposal incineration. Some also consider energy-generating incineration to be a greener alternative to landfilling. 

That's because biodegradable waste in landfills produces methane as it breaks down, which has more warming potential than C02. Burning the waste produces C02 but prevents methane production. 

However, EfW has opponents that claim it's not as green as it seems. Recovery is near the bottom of the waste hierarchy and is much less effective than waste prevention or recycling at keeping carbon and pollutants out of the environment. 

However, in the UK EfW is often treated as a frontline solution. In fact, 11% of recyclables collected are actually incinerated. Some experts believe that up to 60% of what's being burned in UK incinerators is actually recyclable.

To achieve a truly circular economy, it's crucial that we focus on waste prevention, reduction, reuse, and recycling first and resort to energy recovery only when necessary. 

Rio can help with your waste management strategy.  Explore our solutions, view our library of learning content, or click below to schedule a meeting.