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Mapping and Influencing Global Perceptions of Waste to Energy


Although more than 800 Waste to Energy (WtE) plants operate in over 40 countries worldwide, this still only represents about 10% of global municipal solid waste processing, meaning now is the perfect time to make the most of the opportunities to expand the global use of WtE.

This is not just because of available capacity, but more because of the current combination of three factors: The move away from landfill; the need for more renewable energy; and the need for greater energy security.

On the global map these attitudes to WtE, illustrated simply by a traffic light system of red, yellow or green to highlight the level of positive or negative perceptions, show that many prospects exist, especially in the U.S. where over half of all states still rely on landfill alone.

However, given the right communications and messaging, there are real opportunities in WtE and us making the most of this hugely beneficial technology. Key to this communication is learning from previous experiences when it comes to conveying the advantages of waste to energy technology and knowing where, and why, others have failed.

Quite simply, without knowing the historical context of waste to energy, it’s likely the mistakes of others will continue to be repeated very quickly.

Attitude Problem

WtE that conforms with the European Waste Incineration Directive (WID) emissions standards is clean and provides a win-win with the disposal of waste and the generation of energy. If plants effectively use the waste heat generated in an efficient Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system, then the environmental advantages are even more significant.

So what’s the problem and why aren’t countries rushing to adopt WtE? In a nutshell, globalisation over the last 10 years has transformed international trade and, to be more accurate, international finance, into a very small market indeed, with a handful of major corporations enjoying world dominance.

This, coupled with the rise of the Internet and more recently, global social media, has resulted in information from one part of the world being quickly transported to another. We live in a truly ‘Global Village’ and, whilst this brings many advantages, one disadvantage is that the misunderstandings and outdated views about WtE – many of which come from the time of poor performing incineration plants from the 1970s – continue to circulate.

As a result, countries new to WtE may find a surprising amount of opposition from communities near to proposed plants, even when they have no experience of the technology previously. Interestingly, in some countries where pre-WID technology was used some years ago with no issues at the time, opposition is now growing to new plants that are far cleaner and much more efficient than their predecessors.

Opposition groups around the world learn from each other very quickly, and although some organisations are good at forming new arguments to focus their opposition in new directions, most community-based groups tend to use material that is being circulated by other groups. This distribution of outdated information leads to the assimilation of arguments which match a person’s negative perceptions rather than allowing for the genuine reviews of all literature available.

This mindset means that excellent websites, such as that of CEWEP – which present all the counter-arguments in increasingly engaging ways – are being ignored with the key audience e.g. those who live near proposed plants, not considering their information as objective and dismissing it, while collecting anti-information.

What Not To Do: Hong Kong

Although Europe has been the main focus for WtE development and growth over the last 20 years, the next 20 years is likely to see global growth will move to Asia. With a classic mistake of failing to learn from the past, many Asian governments, like Hong Kong, which is trying to develop alternatives to landfill, are running into the same old arguments about WtE.

Hong Kong has huge cash reserves and, as such, can afford any technology to address its significant waste problem. It has limited land availability, with landfill sites reaching capacity and neighbours objecting to extensions, coupled with a rapidly growing population significantly increasing waste volumes.

With increasing interest in environmental issues among Hong Kong residents, and a need for more renewable energy, WtE would seem an obvious solution. However, the government’s early attempts to suggest this have resulted in significant opposition and the moving of a large proposed plant (900,000 tonnes pa) away from the centres of population bringing with it a dramatic increase in costs.

Most of the opposition in Hong Kong has focused on the impact of emissions, and the legitimate argument that, although the electricity at the high-cost island development could be utilised, the heat cannot.

The result has been significant protests against the plant and delays in both the funding allocation. In the meanwhile, the volume of waste is ever increasing and landfills are getting closer to capacity and closure.

Early attempts by Hong Kong’s government to introduce waste to energy resulted in a 900,000 tpa plant attracting significant opposition and being relocated away from populous areas

Hong Kong‘s main mistake made was the failure to deliver the immaculate three-stage communications model to generate public acceptance for change:

  • Step 1: There is a problem
  • Step 2: Generate a desire for a solution
  • Step 3: Propose the solution

This model ensures that the population not only becomes aware there is a problem waiting to be solved, but that they understand the context for that change and, with encouragement, are happy to be involved in the delivery of the solution. This buy in is essential to an effective integrated waste management plan that is likely to involve substantial changes in behaviour.

Hong Kong isn’t alone, the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh have all run into similar problems with significant public opposition, mostly centring on perceived health hazards due to toxic emissions. Even in China, there is increasing public protests to WtE. Between 2007 and 2012, there were at least a dozen protests by local residents. This year in Hangzhou, more than 10,000 tea farmers took direct action against a proposed plant in the Zhongtai suburb, upwind of the tea plantations.

The protest achieved its objective. Shanghai Daily reported that work on the construction has stopped. City officials said: “We will invite the local people to participate, fully listen to and seek every one’s opinions…” Clearly, public consultation before the decision to construct the plant could have been more helpful.

Positive Prospects

Every country has a different cultural and historical context for WtE and the UK is no exception. in the past, even though plants have existed since Victorian times when horse-drawn carts brought wastes ‘Destructors’, WtE plants were not actually needed.

However, countries like Denmark, Sweden and, to a degree, Germany have always had the need to maximise resources due to a lack of cheap landfill and the serious need for heat and energy, particularly in the winter. This was especially so in Denmark where a lack of fossil fuels meant that WtE constituted a necessity rather than a simply one option.

Two Asian countries with positive reception are Japan and Singapore. Recycling is taken very seriously in Japan, yet it still burns more waste in cities than any other developed country.

Tokyo has 21 WtE plants, all sited within the city and many with facilities for the community to use, such as leisure centres with swimming pools heated by the plants themselves. This community benefit and substantial community education programme has helped generate a more objective response from communities near to sites earmarked for new plants.

In Singapore, they took the decision to focus on WtE back in the 1970s as a solution to the country’s growing population, limited land space and the fact that energy recovery was needed due to a lack of natural resources. To manage increasing waste production, the City state published its Green Plan in 2012, with a significant shift to material recovery through recycling while looking to build new WtE. There is some limited opposition from groups such as Toxics Watch, but the majority of people are happy to accept the new plants.

So, how did Singapore and Japan get it right? There are undoubtedly some parallels with the positive situation in Denmark – the two problems of the need for energy and lack of landfill – but also the constructive ongoing public dialogue which has led to a good understanding of the two issues and therefore, the need for change.

Also crucial to their success is the fact that all three countries consider providing some form of community benefit as fundamental to their projects. Most WtE plants in Denmark are connected to district heating so near-neighbours get cheaper heating and hot water.

The Toshima Incineration Park in Japan has 180,000 visitors per year with most using the leisure facilities. In simple terms, these countries satisfy one of the fundamental principles of human behaviour when it comes to considering whether to protest – what’s in it for me?

Understanding Objection

It can be argued that there are three core principles about human motivational behaviour when it comes to development and change:

  1. The perceived impacts of the development, especially financial impacts
  2. What’s in it for me
  3. People don’t like change.

So, if the starting point for those people nearest to a proposed WtE plant is perceived emissions impacts, fear of a reduction in the value of their home and seeing nothing of any value in the development for them, then it’s hardly surprising that most people are opposed.

The fact that people don’t like change is almost irrelevant, but not quite. The point about this principal of reactionary behaviour is that it’s almost an instinctive human reaction to believe they don’t like change. People don’t mind change if principals one and two are positive for the individual, or perhaps more importantly, they have control over the change.

People change things all the time – they grow up, get an education, move/improve their homes and live in communities that change all the time. However, in most of these situations, changes are slow and/or people perceive some form of control over them i.e. it’s their choice (often when it’s not). Where the change is rapid and where they believe they have limited or no control, the reaction is generally negative.

This has implications for those people who are communicating messages about change. Far too often it’s the developer who drives any consultation process, often with local government looking on nervously. Our experience in the UK shows that the best combination for the successful delivery of WtE is where the developer and local government are committed to the proposed development with aligned interests.

Three Steps To Deliver

There are three essential steps to deliver this new paradigm, where WtE is seen as a positive development that communities will not only accept but, on occasion, may proactively seek to take place on their own doorstep.

Step 1: National Positioning
This provides the ground work to explain that there is a problem and something needs to be done about it. It takes the focus away from a proposed location and onto the problems. In the case of Hong Kong, this should have been a campaign that outlined the scale of the evolving problem of increasing population, the increase in waste, lack of landfill and the necessity for a more environmental solution.

This debate, supported by independent third parties, could have been held publically through the media before leading into the development of a strategic plan which included reference to feedback from public consultation.

Specifically in the case of Hong Kong, they could have specified that the need for change was urgent, and highlighted the crucial issue of all landfill sites closing within five years.

Step 2: A need for a solution
With greater awareness of the issues and the appreciation of urgency which can be achieved by step 1, it would be possible for any government to argue the need for a truly integrated waste management solution – explaining how wastes would be moved up the waste hierarchy with an enhanced recovery and recycling process.

This is an important step as it demonstrates that any residual waste solution will be considered from this context i.e. not simply sending all landfill to WtE without attempting to recover materials first. It also demonstrates of the need for public participation.

All the available and developing technologies would need to be discussed, along with likely time frames for delivery and relative costs. Research in the UK has shown that when all the facts are presented to communities about the issues, solutions and relative costs, they tend to review the issues in a far more objective light and therefore have the potential to accept change far more readily than before.

As part of this process, all renewable energy could be repositioned as desirable, but WtE also has the benefit of disposing of residual waste – it’s a genuine win-win solution.

Step 3 – Local delivery of WtE
After step 2, there should be regional debate about delivery before any planning applications or sites are mentioned. This will generate greater awareness of the issues and potential solutions before personal vested interest, and the three principals of personal behaviour can begin. This will result in an informed debate at a local level. It will be inevitable that some people who end up close to proposed facilities will still react in the same way as before, but they will now be doing so against the more widely understood and accepted need for the facilities from the wider community.

Conclusion

WtE should be one of the number one technologies for the 21st century, particularly in those parts of the world where population is growing fast and there is a real need for alternative energy sources – which is virtually everywhere.

To make the most of the huge potential global demand for this energy source, we must learn from past mistakes. By acknowledging the wealth of internet myths and outdated information still readily available surrounding WtE, and providing compelling information we can address these obsolete arguments and communicate effectively with communities.

Paul Davison is managing director of Proteus Environmental Communications

  1. New Zealand generates about 2.5m tonnes per annum (tpa) of MSW with around 25% going to WtE. Regulations would make further plants costly and time consuming to achieve.
  2. Each Australian state has its own WtE policy. About six plants exist with cogeneration and supporting manufacturers. Opposition includes the National Toxics Network of Australia. The Alliance for Clean Environment produced a report in 2008 suggesting a link with cancer.
  3. Singapore is densely populated with limited resources and so has always been pro WtE. In 2012, 2.45m tonnes of waste went through the existing four WtE plants with recycling at approximately 60%. New plants are being proposed to update the technology.
  4. Landfill dominates waste disposal in Thailand and Malaysia, but MSW is on the rise. There are three small WtE plants and around 96 landfills. Opposition in both countries has been strong.
  5. Urban India generates approximately 70m tpa of MSW which increases by 50% per decade. Much is handled by informal recyclers, but about 80% goes to landfill and, often, to dump sites. About six WtE plants are under construction or being commissioned with limited public opposition from informal recyclers who fear losing income.
  6. China overtook the U.S. as the world largest waste producer in 2012 and sees WtE as a significant opportunity. Three state owned energy companies have been established to manage the introduction of the technology. However green NGOs are increasing and groups, such as Green Beagles, report several public opposition protests to WtE.
  7. Hong Kong has a population in excess of eight million and is growing rapidly with limited land availability and four old landfills. A larger 900,000 tpa WtE being built on an island faces significant opposition arguing a lack of recycling, atmospheric pollution and impact on human health, as well as cost and alternative technologies.
  8. Densely-populated Japan has always had a need for more energy and, in a similar way to Scandinavia, was an early WtE technology adopter with good levels of public understanding. Home waste sorting is a national hobby, with some authorities succeeding with over 30 different bins. South Korea also has a positive attitude towards WtE.
  9. Landfill is still favoured in Russia, although a lot of wastes go to illegal dumps. Moscow and St Petersburg have looked at WtE and there are about 10 existing plants. New plants receive considerable opposition over pollution, human health, cost and the lack of significant recycling.
  10. Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, France and the Benelux all have significant numbers of WtE plants with little opposition and, in Denmark and Sweden, considerable support due to district heating. Recently there has been some opposition in France – mainly focused on dioxin emissions. Over capacity in Germany and Netherlands has resulted in significant imports of RDF from the UK.
  11. The UK and Ireland have the potential for more plants, but significant opposition has occurred and will continue for any proposed new plants, particularly for commercial plants not tied to a Local Authority.
  12. Waste disposal has featured heavily on Italy’s media agenda over the last 15 years. WtE’s biggest opposition relates to in Tuscany, specifically the Lucca provincial WtE. The plant, built despite massive opposition, failed dioxin limits in 2003 and was closed, reopening in 2007 before failing again in 2008. and again in 2009. It was ‘seized’ by officials in 2010 another failure and the plant’s manager sent to trial. Italy is focused on Zero waste and new WtE plants face opposition.
  13. The U.S. has significant numbers of WtE plants but most are quite old and will need updating in coming years. Obama’s recent focus on GHGs from energy generation provides a significant opportunity, but opposition focused on emissions, specifically dioxins, will be high
  14. Urban Brazil generates around 250,000 tonnes of MSW per day (2008) with 98% being landfilled and about 0.03% incinerated with no energy recovery. WtE is as a significant opportunity, although it will face difficulties with low landfill gate fees. Awareness of WtE is limited, however, energy is expensive.
  15. The Argentinian government brought in a zero-waste law in 2005, banning incineration. However, increasing volumes of waste in Buenos Aires and strict landfill avoidance regulations are forcing the city to look again and consider AD and mass burn WtE. Plants will face massive opposition with most of the arguments simply focusing on the fact it’s against the law!
  16. Most of Africa can’t finance WtE, lacks the supporting infrastructure or is prejudiced against it Also, MSW is roughly 70% ‘wet’ organics making some WtE technologies a challenge. In South Africa clinical waste incineration is the norm, but emissions checks are limited. A new law was adopted in 2009, but again, the country lacks the infrastructure to effectively monitor emissions. A new WtE in Tanzania was built with foreign assistance. If successful, it could encourage further trials.

Source: Waste Management World

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