IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

10.4.3 Incineration and other thermal processes for waste-to-energy

These processes include incineration with and without energy recovery, production of refuse-derived fuel (RDF), and industrial co-combustion (including cement kilns: see Onuma et al., 2004 and Section 7.3.3). Incineration reduces the mass of waste and can offset fossil-fuel use; in addition, GHG emissions are avoided, except for the small contribution from fossil carbon (Consonni et al., 2005). Incineration has been widely applied in many developed countries, especially those with limited space for landfilling such as Japan and many European countries. Globally, about 130 million tonnes of waste are annually combusted in >600 plants in 35 countries (Themelis, 2003).

Waste incinerators have been extensively used for more than 20 years with increasingly stringent emission standards in Japan, the EU, the US and other countries. Mass burning is relatively expensive and, depending on plant scale and flue-gas treatment, currently ranges from about 95–150 €/t waste (87–140 US$/t) (Faaij et al., 1998; EIPPC Bureau, 2006). Waste-to-energy plants can also produce useful heat or electricity, which improves process economics. Japanese incinerators have routinely implemented energy recovery or power generation (Japan Ministry of the Environment, 2006). In northern Europe, urban incinerators have historically supplied fuel for district heating of residential and commercial buildings. Starting in the 1980s, large waste incinerators with stringent emission standards have been widely deployed in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. Typically such plants have a capacity of about 1 Mt waste/yr, moving grate boilers (which allow mass burning of waste with diverse properties), low steam pressures and temperatures (to avoid corrosion) and extensive flue gas cleaning to conform with EU Directive 2000/76/EC. In 2002, European incinerators for waste-to-energy generated 41 million GJ electrical energy and 110 million GJ thermal energy (Themelis, 2003). Typical electrical efficiencies are 15% to >20% with more efficient designs becoming available. In recent years, more advanced combustion concepts have penetrated the market, including fluidized bed technology.

10.4.4 Biological treatment including composting, anaerobic digestion, and MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment)

Many developed and developing countries practise composting and anaerobic digestion of mixed waste or biodegradable waste fractions (kitchen or restaurant wastes, garden waste, sewage sludge). Both processes are best applied to source-separated waste fractions: anaerobic digestion is particularly appropriate for wet wastes, while composting is often appropriate for drier feedstocks. Composting decomposes waste aerobically into CO2, water and a humic fraction; some carbon storage also occurs in the residual compost (see references on Figure 10.1). Composting can be sustainable at reasonable cost in developing countries; however, choosing more labour-intensive processes over highly mechanized technology at large scale is typically more appropriate and sustainable; Hoornweg et al. (1999) give examples from India and other countries. Depending on compost quality, there are many potential applications for compost in agriculture, horticulture, soil stabilization and soil improvement (increased organic matter, higher water-holding capacity) (Cointreau, 2001). However, CH4 and N2O can both be formed during composting by poor management and the initiation of semi-aerobic (N2O) or anaerobic (CH4) conditions; recent studies also indicate potential production of CH4 and N2O in well-managed systems (Hobson et al., 2005).

Anaerobic digestion produces biogas (CH4 + CO2) and biosolids. In particular, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France have implemented anaerobic digestion systems for waste processing, with the resulting biogas used for process heating, onsite electrical generation and other uses. Minor quantities of CH4 can be vented from digesters during start-ups, shutdowns and malfunctions. However, the GHG emissions from controlled biological treatment are small in comparison to uncontrolled CH4 emissions from landfills without gas recovery (e.g. Petersen et al. 1998; Hellebrand 1998; Vesterinen 1996; Beck-Friis, 2001; Detzel et al. 2003). The advantages of biological treatment over landfilling are reduced volume and more rapid waste stabilization. Depending on quality, the residual solids can be recycled as fertilizer or soil amendments, used as a CH4-oxidizing biocovers on landfills (Barlaz et al., 2004; Huber-Humer, 2004), or landfilled at reduced volumes with lower CH4 emissions.

Mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste is now being widely implemented in Germany, Austria, Italy and other EU countries. In 2004, there were 15 facilities in Austria, 60 in Germany and more than 90 in Italy; the total throughput was approximately 13 million tonnes with larger plants having a capacity of 600–1300 tonnes/day (Diaz et al., 2006). Mixed waste is subjected to a series of mechanical and biological operations to reduce volume and achieve partial stabilization of the organic carbon. Typically, mechanical operations (sorting, shredding, crushing) first produce a series of waste fractions for recycling or for subsequent treatment (including combustion or secondary biological processes). The biological steps consist of either aerobic composting or anaerobic digestion. Composting can occur either in open windrows or in closed buildings with gas collection and treatment. In-vessel anaerobic digestion of selected organic fractions produces biogas for energy use. Compost products and digestion residuals can have potential horticultural or agricultural applications; some MBT residuals are landfilled, or soil-like residuals can be used as landfill cover. Under landfill conditions, residual materials retain some potential for CH4 generation (Bockreis and Steinberg, 2005). Reductions of as much as 40–60% of the original organic carbon are possible with MBT (Kaartinen, 2004). Compared with landfilling, MBT can theoretically reduce CH4 generation by as much as 90% (Kuehle-Weidemeier and Doedens, 2003). In practice, reductions are smaller and dependent on the specific MBT processes employed (see Binner, 2002).