|The incineration of municipal waste has been the subject of
controversy for many years and has been widely opposed because of
concerns about the pollution of the air with toxic materials,
particularly dioxins. Many incinerators have had to stop operation and
many projects have been abandoned. At the same time, communities
continue to be faced with the challenge of handling growing amounts of
waste, particularly with the growth of large urban areas producing
thousands of tonnes of waste every day.
What solutions are available?Separation at source with recycling and composting, landfilling, or possibly incineration (if the associated controversy can be resolved satisfactorily for the community) are all possible solutions to the growing MSW problem.
Separation at source of glass, metals, plastics, paper and hazardous materials from the organic portion of household waste, together with selective collection, is being adopted gradually in most urban centres where it is replacing attempts to separate waste mechanically or manually after collection. This approach, which was tested in Amsterdam in 1920 and again in 1987, was not successful because the separated items were not sufficiently clean for recycling and the use of manual labour proved undesirable.
Recycling of these source-separated materials, which would be theoretically feasible and attractive, has been only partly successful because the volumes collected have often exceeded the recycling capacity. Composting the organic portion has also been carried out, but the economics of large-scale composting remains problematical.
Landfilling is also controversial because of the nuisances of odour, the emission of greenhouse gases, the contamination of groundwater, explosion risks and the generally unsightly appearance of the sites. Early landfills were ugly, chaotic waste dumps and it has been difficult to overcome this image in spite of the many significant improvements in landfill design, operation, biogas recovery, leachate treatment and aftercare of the site. In any case, it has become increasingly apparent that burying waste in landfills cannot be a long-term solution. Even if biogas is extracted correctly and its energy recovered efficiently, other potentially recoverable materials remain buried forever.
Can incineration provide a solution that overcomes the shortcomings of these options? Amsterdam's experience would suggest that the answer is a clear 'yes'!
|Communities continue to be faced with the challenge of handling growing amounts of waste|
In 1992, the City of Amsterdam created Afval Energie Bedrijf (AEB), a waste-to-energy enterprise that operates as a self-contained entity but is owned by the City. AEB's mission is to recover as much energy and materials as possible from municipal waste while protecting the environment. It seeks to provide residents with the lowest-cost waste treatment, to generate sustainable electricity and heat, and to extract all useful materials.
In 1993, AEB began operating a large incinerator on a site at the western end of the city in the area known as Westpoort. After 12 years of operation, it can be confidently said that it has been an important success. While treating more than 800,000 tonnes per year of waste, the installation has produced 580,000 MWh of electrical energy, 102,000 GJ of heat and 180,000 tonnes of construction materials from bottom ash - all this with minimal air pollution and with a positive reaction from the population.
In 2006, AEB will start operating a 66% expansion of the incineration facilities (currently under construction). At the same time, an adjoining new sewage treatment plant serving one million inhabitants will start operating. The two installations will take advantage of several positive interactions, including utilization of the biogas produced from sewage sludge digestion. This €338 million expansion will create the world's largest municipal waste treatment centre. It has been granted all the relevant permits without any public opposition and with support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
What AEB wanted to communicate was that the negatives associated with incineration had been overcome and that state-of- the-art incineration offered many tangible benefits for the citizen.
In approaching its communication programme, AEB acknowledged fully the negative image that incineration had developed. Historically, many incinerators had incomplete flue gas cleaning leading to unacceptable emission levels. Effective cleaning technology to remove the harmful contaminants became available, but it was necessary to justify the heavy investment required by showing clear benefits for the community and the environment.
AEB's experiences since 1993 demonstrate that incineration can provide important benefits:
|AEB's E338 million expansion will create the world's largest municipal waste treatment centre|
It became clear from these discussions that early on AEB adopted a deliberate strategy and programme of communications with national authorities, city officials responsible for funding the projects, regulatory officials, NGOs and the general public. This strategy can be described in two words total transparency.
The implementation of this strategy involved a lengthy programme of activities, extending over several years, with the primary objectives of building trust and credibility for its activities. Its key features are outlined below.
In these discussions, AEB recognized that political leaders, regulatory officials, environmental NGOs, consumer groups, waste management industries, other societal groups and the media all have a definite sense of their roles and responsibilities in the community. These had to be acknowledged and treated with respect.
AEB was totally open in its communications: no information was held back, all requests and questions were answered, and visits to the installations were arranged. Regarding the operation itself, AEB responded readily to requests for performance data including emissions. There were no secrets.
|A special effort was made to communicate technical complexities in terms that non-experts could understand|
AEB was equally open in revealing promptly to the authorities, NGOs and the media any operating problems that resulted in temporary deviations from emission regulations. In these communications, the corrective action being taken was also confirmed.
AEB continues to publish annual reports giving full details of the financial, technical, social and environmental aspects of its operations.
The AEB experience not only demonstrates what can be done with incineration. It is an excellent example of integrated waste management from which other urban centres in the Netherlands and in Europe could derive similar benefits.
The immediate results of AEB's achievements are the direct benefits to its community. Longer term, the trust and credibility that AEB has developed in the community will prove helpful in supporting the further improvements in energy efficiency and resource recovery that AEB is already planning.
|Thomas M. McCarthy
is Senior Partner at European Environmental Consulting based at Limal in
Fax: +32 10 41 13 34