Waste-to-Energy 2050: clean technologies for sustainable waste management

Full document: ESWET_Vision2050

Infographic: "Waste-to-Energy Plant of the Future"

Executive summary

Waste management is a crucial topic for the sustainable development of our society. Globally, waste generation is expected to grow by roughly 60% by 2050. That’s why the acknowledgement and cooperation of all parties involved – politics, research, technology providers, plant operators, policy makers and civil society – is essential towards the common good for the environment.

Thanks to advanced technologies, waste management is turning into an integrated waste and resource management logic, thus reducing the exploitation of materials through recycling and transforming non-recyclable waste into a valuable resource for the whole society. To implement this change, the phasing out of polluting dumpsites is the first objective that should be pursued.

Our Vision demonstrates how Waste-to-Energy technologies produced by European suppliers are profoundly committed to resource efficiency and climate change mitigation and are ready to contribute to better waste management in the EU and on a global scale. It shows how, by 2050, Waste-to-Energy plants will contribute to low carbon energy systems and circular societies and the policy and regulatory milestones needed to get there.

Waste-to-Energy technologies treat residual waste: waste which is not fit for re-use or recycling and would otherwise be landfilled. For example, contaminated biomass such as wood treated with wood preservatives. Waste-to-Energy plants transform this waste into energy which is used for electricity generation, for heating and cooling and for various industrial applications – among others to produce hydrogen.

Renewable energy

Half of the energy recovered is renewable as it comes from waste of biogenic origin. Moreover, contrary to variable renewable energy production (such as wind or solar energy), renewable energy from Waste-to-Energy is plannable and reliable. On top of this, Waste-to-Energy recovers secondary raw materials which are used in a variety of sectors such as construction, metal recycling or strategic applications such as battery manufacturing.

By combining the effects of landfill diversion, energy-efficient processes and improved materials recovery, Waste-to Energy is a considerable sink for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Waste-to-Energy plants will allow to feed more renewable energy into the system which will be used, e.g. in the form of hydrogen, to decarbonise other sectors.

The future of WtE is circular

The future of Waste-to-Energy is circular, fully sustainable and widespread globally: hydrogen fuelled trucks will bring residual waste to the plant; while unloading the waste, they will refuel at the hydrogen station, thus avoiding fossil fuels use.

From households to industries, shopping centres and greenhouses, the amount of facilities heated and cooled by the energy recovered from waste will constantly grow. Integrated Waste-to-Water processes will be able to improve waste management in desert areas, and the energy recovered from the waste will power seawater desalination plants to produce drinking water sustainably.

The roads we walk along and the buildings we live in will be more and more constructed with secondary raw materials from bottom ashes, reducing the exploitation of primary materials.

The Waste-to-Energy plants themselves will turn into edutainment and sport centres, with ski slopes, climbing chimneys and tennis courts, restaurants with vantage points and education centres for school activities.

Policy recommendations

The European Union has the capacity to further progress and to expand the EU excellence in waste management well beyond its borders. This is why forthcoming policies should acknowledge this potential by:

• Promoting the waste hierarchy as the enabler of sound waste management policies.
• Promoting the role of Waste-to-Energy as the preferred treatment option for residual waste.
• Recognising Waste-to-Energy as a sustainable waste management option.
• Recognising the value of Waste-to-Energy for climate change mitigation.
• Minimising the amount of landfilling to the amount strictly necessary.
• Increasing trust in recycled products by setting transparent quality criteria.
• Enabling the recovery of waste for specific uses.
• Supporting the export of sound waste management technologies including Waste-to- Energy.

As one of the cleanest industries in Europe, Waste-to-Energy is too valuable to be underestimated or left aside. It’s a technology in constant evolution, open to innovation and linked with other industrial sectors in a circular and sustainable way.

Read and download the full document: ESWET_Vision2050