Meet Jan Palm, IWMSA President fighting the war on waste

When he isn’t fighting the war on waste or designing waste management infrastructure, the President of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA), Jan Palm, enjoys riding around the country on his Harley Davidson.

Palm is a Civil Engineer by training, but he explains what makes his job slightly different to that of his peers. “Most civil engineers design infrastructure for mankind to live better whereas in waste management we design infrastructure to protect the environment from mankind’s footprint.”

Long before it became ‘trendy’ to recycle and think about one’s environmental impact, Palm saw the need to develop infrastructure to manage waste: “In 1987 I read about the concept of landfills as bioreactors. This sparked my interest and I told my boss that we should explore the field of waste management as a future engineering opportunity.  After some debate, I was allowed to ‘look into it’.”

Palm, who was designing sewage treatment projects for the engineering firm GFJ Inc at the time, certainly ‘looked into it’, and his foresight back then to specialise in this exciting and growing field has paid off.

In 1988 Palm established the Solid Waste Division of GFJ, and later rose to the position of Associate and shareholder before becoming a Regional Director of the company in 1995. The Western Cape offices of GFJ became Entech Consultants in 1996, and he left Entech and formed JPCE in 2003. Throughout his career Palm has specialised in designing engineering infrastructure for waste management.

Amongst the noteworthy projects he has been involved in, Palm mentions the first landfill using geosynthetics for the town of Windhoek in Namibia in the early 1990s. “The Windhoek landfill project was innovative in its design and opened up a whole new field of geosynthetics,” says Palm. He is currently working on a state of the art Waste-to-Energy project for the Drakenstein Municipality in the Western Cape.

Palm says each project has been fascinating in its own way, and adds that he finds great satisfaction in helping clients to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills and thereby move up the waste hierarchy. He is also aware of the unique aspects of designing waste management plants in Southern Africa: “We have to ensure that our designs balance out mechanical efficiency with the socio-economic need for jobs,” says Palm.

The biggest change in the field of Waste Management has been surrounding legislation, says Palm. “The changing legislation has opened many opportunities for environmental scientists and engineers to improve the level of design and quality of the infrastructure, leading to reduced risk to the environment.” The problem, however, says Palm is when legislation is not enforced.

Looking ahead Palm explains what worries him about landfills. “I am concerned about the pollution burden that poorly located, poorly designed and poorly managed landfills still place on our environment.” He adds that local political will to resolve these challenges appears to be lacking in many municipalities, and that the cost of legal compliance with norms and standards is often used as an excuse to do nothing.

Despite his concerns, the people in the field of Waste Management give Palm hope for the future. “Their enthusiasm, innovation and drive astonishes me,” he says, adding that he is excited about the innovative approaches being followed to reduce our environmental footprint, making green living more affordable.

While Palm seeks to add value in the industry through the various training courses and networking opportunities offered by the IWMSA, his personal dream is to tour around countries on his Harley Davidson motorbike with his wife. “Having done Route 66 in the USA, other countries that come to mind are New Zealand and Scandinavia,” concludes Palm.

For more information on the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa visit You can also follow IWMSA on Facebook ( and Twitter (

Know where your waste goes

Each piece of waste has the potential to pollute the environment in a different way, which is also the reason why there is no single suitable waste management approach to address all types of waste. The waste management hierarchy1 ranks waste management options in order of preference according to the type of waste, and therefore the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA) recognises the importance of putting emphasis on the hierarchy in its upcoming its flagship conference, WasteCon 2018.

“It is important that the cycle of waste, from consumer to final disposal is governed by the internationally accepted waste hierarchy, which through its successful application can have several benefits, such as pollution reduction, resource conservation, and job creation,” says Jan Palm, President of the IWMSA. “The application of the waste hierarchy most often starts in households with consumers,” Palm adds.

Household waste can be separated into three parts: solid waste that can be recycled, organic waste (food and garden), and non-recyclables; each type requiring different recovery, treatment and/or disposal methods. Recyclables are repurposed for commercial use, while organic waste should not be landfilled, but rather used to make compost or biogas. Non-recyclable waste is either landfilled or sent to a Waste-to-Energy (WtE) facility to be thermally treated to produce electricity.

“One of the primary waste management challenges today is ensuring that the different types of waste are adequately sorted so that it can be subjected to the correct recovery, treatment or disposal processes,” says Palm. “By being mindful at home and separating waste into its correct category, you are helping to prevent waste from ending up where it does not belong; contaminating the natural environment,” adds Palm.

Have you ever wondered how good South Africa is at sorting and recycling their waste? Looking at a common consumer item, the plastic bag, which is quickly becoming known as South Africa’s unofficial national flower, is one of the biggest environmental burdens posed on coastal and ocean environments. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Clean-up reportindicates that during the 2016 effort to clean-up South Africa’s coastlines, plastic bags ranked as the fifth most picked up item. Four out of the top five items picked up all include plastics (plastic bags, food wrappers, beverage bottles and caps), most of which could have been recycled. “Another challenge is that once these items are picked up off beaches during clean-ups most recycling depots are reluctant to accept them as they are dirty and require further sorting and cleaning before they can actually be recycled,” says Palm.

“As we [IWMSA] continue to monitor the waste situation in our country, I would like to encourage all consumers to prevent waste where possible and to give upcycling a try,” encourages Palm.

The topics of ‘zero waste lifestyle’ and upcycling are trending more than ever on social media platforms nowadays. Living a zero waste lifestyle may seem like a challenge, however it can be a great opportunity to cut out short term use items such as plastic bags and bottles, and replace them with environmentally responsible reusable items. By doing this you have just taken a personal step up the waste management hierarchy.

If you feel like you need some guidance on your waste management have a look at the IWMSA’s training schedule, or register for WasteCon 2018 which will provide a wealth of insight into applying the waste management hierarchy. To submit an abstract to be considered to present a paper at WasteCon 2018, visit the Abstracts page on the WasteCon 2018 website.

For more information on the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa visit You can also follow IWMSA on Facebook ( and Twitter (

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Rubbish can power Africa’s cities

Energy generated from rubbish could power an estimated 40 million households across Africa by 2025, proposes a study.
Using existing data on refuse and urban population growth, the researchers measured the total energy potential of all Africa’s urban solid waste from both incineration and methane produced from landfill sites.

Their study was published last month in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

“Our analysis shows that waste, and in particular municipal solid waste, is a renewable energy resource that could provide a meaningful share of both gross energy consumption and electricity on the African continent,” says study author Fabio Monforti-Ferrario, from the European Commission’s in-house science service the Joint Research Centre.

The study reveals that Africa’s urban rubbish could have generated 62.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2012 if it had been used in waste-powered plants, for example those at incinerate rubbish or use methane from decaying waste matter to generate electricity. This could increase to 122.2 TWh in 2025 as such plants become more efficient and widespread, the paper says. By comparison, Africa’s overall energy consumption in 2010 was 661.5 TWh.

But the researchers found a vast difference in waste production and management from country to country. Some data points to a drop in the production of suitable waste over the coming decade (see chart). Yet even if this happens, municipal waste could still produce energy for 27 million families in 2025, based on the average African electricity consumption in 2010, the researchers say.

The World Bank predicts Africa’s population will expand to 2.8 billion people by 2060. This growth will bring greater demands on already struggling waste management systems, according to Mark Borchers, technical director at not-for-profit company Sustainable Energy Africa.

“Waste in African cities is often not effectively collected and, when it is, the landfill sites are often not managed in a way that will enable technologies, such as methane capture for energy purposes,” he says.

Financing is also a concern. Bettina Kamuk, chairwoman of the International Solid Waste Association’s working group on energy recovery, says it can be hard to find the money to build electricity plants that burn waste. “In the short term, treatment of waste by incineration is more expensive than landfilling or dumping,” she says.
Logan Moodley, manager of the Engineering, Cleansing and Solid Waste Unit of Durban,  South Africa, adds that political support for renewable technologies is lacking.

“There is a need for legislation and incentives to support development,” he says. “For waste-to-energy to be a feasible way forward, political buy-in is needed on all levels.”

Source: scidev

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Waste-to-energy plant opened at City waste management facility

A new waste-to-energy plant at the City’s Kraaifontein Integrated Waste Management Facility (KIWMF) will see roughly 500 kg of plastic converted to 500 litres of oil per day.

The City of Cape Town, in partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), today opened its plastics-to-oil conversion plant, kicking off a six-month pilot project that will provide invaluable insights into the potential for creating fuel from plastic waste diverted from landfill sites.

Today’s ribbon-cutting (and carbon-cutting) ceremony marked the culmination of more than a year’s worth of preparation and cooperation between the City, JICA and its Japanese partner corporations. This was made possible by the generous donation of US$1million from the Japanese Government and the pyrolysis plant technology developed and supplied by the CFP Corporation and Kanemiya Co., Ltd.

Japan is a world leader in waste minimisation and applying their technology in a South African context aligns with the City’s commitment to a future that is more energy secure, resource-efficient, and resilient to the impact of climate change.

By using the existing structures in the form of its Think Twice recycling collection initiative, the City, together with technical assistance from the Japanese engineers, built on available resources to support the functioning of the plant. After harvesting the three types of plastic (polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene) from the stream processed at the KIWMF, these materials (which come in the form of all manner of plastic packaging) are brought to the processing plant where they are then washed, shredded, heated and converted to oil.

The yield of 500 kg of plastic materials per day works out to approximately 500 litres of fuel. These yields will be assessed by specialised technicians on site to determine the quality and quantity of fuel being produced in different combinations and ratios of the three types of plastic. Ultimately, the aim is to test the best combinations to yield the highest quality.

Approximately 70% of fuel produced by the pilot plant will be channelled back into the running of the plant, powering the 150 kilowatt generator on site. The rest could be used to power any other machinery that runs on diesel if the oil is of a good quality.

‘The rising volumes of waste material produced in countries across the world represent a problem that cannot be ignored. They pose a threat to the health of the environment, and to the health of human beings. Sadly, we are united as a global community in this regard.

“The agreement signed between JICA, the CFP Corporation and the City of Cape Town in 2014 is an exciting step towards progress. Through partnership, we are able to explore possibilities and share ideas. We are not just united by the challenges we face, but are partners in finding the solutions,” said the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Utility Services, Councillor Ernest Sonnenberg.

While the City of Cape Town is a leader in the country in terms of waste minimisation, there is still a long road ahead. The amount of waste plastic is increasing as one of the major waste materials in South Africa, at a rate of 6%. Meanwhile, the City’s recycling rate is still low, at 16%, and the bulk of the waste is sent to landfill sites.

“In terms of the National Waste Management Strategy of 2011, South Africa aims to achieve a recycling rate of 25% of the waste currently sent to landfill by the end of 2015. Considering this, we are naturally very keen to learn about new technologies that would help us to achieve that goal in a sustainable manner.”

“South Africa is the only G20 member in Africa and considered a newly industrialised country. The City of Cape Town recognises that cities are in a key position to steer a lower carbon, more resilient and sustainable future, and that this type of investment and research is key to joining the ranks of Japan in terms of waste, environment, and employment solutions,” added Councillor Sonnenberg.

Source: cbn

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Innovations in Waste

As waste management climbs the political and environmental agenda, bright sparks in the industry respond with innovation. These are some of the ideas that have changed our industry over the past few years, and given us potential answers to global problems.

Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion came about as the result of a long process of people searching for the best way to deal with biowaste. Even before awareness of climate change made us realize landfill was not the right home for our organic waste, we had problems with leachate and gas. So, early technologies found ways to convert organic waste into compost and fertilizer instead. This process was completed on open air windrows until odour became a problem and ‘in-vessel’ composting plants were developed.

Anaerobic digestion is the latest and greatest process of in-vessel treatment of waste, and is generally considered to be one of the most innovative and useful technologies developed by our industry in recent years. Not only does it give us a large-scale solution to our organic waste but it allows us to turns the resulting gases into energy.

The process, put simply, is the degradation of waste by microorganisms in an environment starved of oxygen. It can be used to treat organic solid waste and wastewater of almost any kind. The process works quickly and the remainder can be used as fertilizer while the biogas produced is converted into energy.

As people will always produce biowaste, whether it be food or sewage, anaerobic digestion is seen not only as a waste management process but also as a source of renewable energy.

Waste to energy

Waste to energy Waste to energy (WTE), sometimes known as energy from waste (EfW) has seen some of the most interesting developments in the industry, as it has the advantage of being able to completely remove waste, rather than reuse or process it.

Traditionally, WTE plants have operated by incinerating waste and converting the resulting heat into energy – and most plants still use this technology today. But public opposition to incinerators, which are often seen as dangerous and noisy has meant new types of WTE – such as gasification, pyrolysis, thermal depolymerization and plasma arc gasification – have been developed and are leading the way forward in this area.

Gasification and plasma arc gasification are used to convert organic materials into a synthetic gas (syngas) made up of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The gas is then burnt to produce electricity and steam. A plasma gasification plant uses plasma torches which operate at approximately the same temperature as the surface of the sun (yes really!) to create an environment in which solid or liquid waste is turned into syngas. The process breaks down the molecular bonds of the waste and leaves it in elemental components. This syngas is then converted to energy, and the waste completely disappears.

Zero waste

‘Zero Waste’ is a philosophy, rather than a process or technology, but it certainly can be considered an innovation. The Zero Waste International Alliance define it as this: ‘Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

‘Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.’

The idea of reusing every bit of waste possible and turning the remainder into energy is a commendable and sustainable system of waste management, which could solve many of the world’s environmental problems. When one considers the way waste is managed worldwide currently, however, it starts to sound like an unrealistic fantasy. It is hard to know where to begin when implementing this kind of system. Yet there are towns, regions and countries which have given us all an example of how things should be done.

Scotland is one such place. Authorities announced plans to work towards Zero Waste in 2008, and the target to achieve the goal is 2025. Zero Waste can also be implemented by individual companies and organizations; the Zero Waste Alliance list Xerox Corp (Rochester, New York), Hewlett Packard (Roseland, California), Fetzer Vineyards (Hopland, California), Epson Portland Inc (Hillsboro, Oregon), Collins & Aikman (Dalton, Georgia) as companies that have committed to this path.

Ron Wainberg, the national president of the Waste Management Association of Australia, said in recent interview with Waste Management World. ‘The ISWA meeting during the last Annual Congress debating the ‘Zero Waste Concept’ showed [a] change in attitude. Most people will accept there will always be waste in society and the concept of zero waste is more about not wasting the value of the waste.’ This shows that Zero Waste is a question of changing attitudes, and taking responsibility for the waste that we produce by making sure it is reused, recycled, resold or turned into energy. We can’t stop producing it altogether but we can make sure we deal with it in the best ways possible.

The best thing about Zero Waste is that by working to it people stretch the boundaries of their imaginations. By aiming high they create an environment in which innovation abounds.

Extended producer responsibility (WEEE)

The WEEE issue is one of the greatest challenges facing the waste industry today. We know that when it comes to expensive, electrical equipment, repair is better than disposal. The toxicity and complexity of these types of product make them notoriously difficult to recycle, and sadly the rate of production is far greater than our ability or willingness to recycle them. The result? A violation of human rights, with the developed world sending piles of WEEE to developing countries to be dumped.

Clearly, this is a practice which must be controlled and stopped, but with many of these shipments being sent illegally it is very difficult to monitor the numbers involved.

One solution which seems to be providing part of the answer to this problem is Extended Producer Responsibility, sometimes known as ‘Product Stewardship’. Governments and authorities have begun introducing policies which hold the manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment responsible for managing their ‘end of life’ products when people have finished using them. And sometimes companies are opting to do this voluntarily. While this does not give us a way to deal with the mountains of WEEE piling up in Asian and African countries, it does look at the problem from a prevention angle which will surely be beneficial in the longer term.

Extended producer responsibility takes the onus for finding effective ways to reuse and recycle the components of electrical and electronic goods off waste management companies and puts it back on the producers themselves. This is an infinitely more sensible solution as manufacturers are able to recycle separate parts and use them to build new products of the same type, or more easily create a system to achieve this.

Companies participating in these schemes use methods such as reuse, buy-back or recycling programmes. They also sometimes pay separate organizations to deal with their waste.

Waste fighting climate change

Emissions from landfills can contribute directly to climate change when organic waste is left to biodegrade in a landfill. The solution is to either prevent organic waste being sent to landfill by separating at source or pre-processing the waste or, as a secondary measure, to capture the methane being emitted from the landfill and turn it into energy.

The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) established a task force in November 2007 to look at the interaction between waste management and the production of greenhouse gases. This group examined and made recommendations on the issues surrounding the subject. They produced a white paper which was released in the run up to the COP15 global climate change conference, and was discussed at a separate conference on ‘Waste and climate change’. Here are some of the findings of the ISWA white paper:

  1. The waste industry occupies a unique position as a potential reducer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As industries and countries worldwide struggle to address their carbon footprint, waste sector activities represent an opportunity for carbon reduction.
  2. The waste sector offers a portfolio of proven, practical and cost effective technologies which can contribute to GHG mitigation. When adapted and deployed according to local traditions and needs, they can help secure significant global GHG emission savings.
  3. Waste prevention, minimization, reuse and recycling are on the increase across the globe, representing a growing potential for reducing GHG emissions by conserving raw materials and fossil fuels.
  4. Through aerobic and anaerobic biological treatment technologies, organic wastes can be recovered and transformed into soil conditioners and fertilizers. These processes reduce GHG emissions by sequestering biogenic carbon in soils, improving soil physical properties, and adding soil nutrients.
  5. Waste offers a significant source of renewable energy. Incineration and other thermal processes for waste to energy, landfill gas recovery and utilization, and use of anaerobic digester biogas can play important roles in reducing fossil fuel consumption and GHG emission.


Using waste management as a way to combat GHG and climate change is one of the most innovative and common-sense concepts in waste today. The role that the waste industry can play in helping to avert climate change must not be underestimated. Given the correct legislation to work to the technologies which are already making great leaps in this area will show how much good they can really do. Although the costs of implementing these processes is often seen as prohibitive, the cost to the planet and the resulting financial cost of dealing with this, make all of these moves more than worthwhile.

Waste to fuel

Given the oil crisis and the ever-increasing price of fossil fuel, turning waste into fuel is a fantastic solution. Biofuel is the most common form, and the term encompasses a range of different fuels derived from organic matter, including biowaste. Biofuel can be solid, liquid or gas and be used to power vehicles or used to enhance other types of fuel. Biogas – a product of anaerobic digestion – and syngas – which is produced during gasification – are both types of biofuel.

Landfill gas also has an up-and-coming role in this field. Most landfill-gas-to-energy projects involve turning otherwise harmful emissions into electricity to power homes. But it is also being increasingly used as a vehicle fuel or as a substitute for mains household gas supply.

Source separation of waste

The waste hierarchy as laid out in European law states the ideal chain of events when it comes to waste is reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery, and dispose, and it is interesting to look at the wide variation of systems in Europe today for citizens disposing of their household waste. Where some countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have had efficient methods in place for years, other countries still have the majority of residents throwing all their household waste into one bin and leaving it for the local authority to separate it. It seems that more stringent measures need to come into play to ensure that the waste hierarchy is followed wherever possible.

While streams of mixed MSW can be collected and then separated into the various components, i.e. recyclable items and organic waste, it is much better to separate the waste stream at the source. This has several benefits:

  • maintains a higher quality of material for recycling, meaning there is more value to be recovered,
  • decreases the occupational risks for waste workers, and
  • means that waste can most often be sent straight to the correct place for processing, instead of one facility to be separated and then another to be processed.

There are many separation schemes in effect across the world and it depends on each municipality as to what will work best. The collection of food scraps into a separate bin is one of the most common and has an important role to play in making sure organic waste does not end up in landfill. It also means that biowaste can be turned into compost or biodegraded in a safe manner without emitting harmful gases. Systems for separating glass bottles, aluminium cans and plastics also mean that recycling becomes easier, safer and more efficient.

Sorting technology

People will always, either through ignorance or carelessness, throw their waste in the wrong bin every now and then. So, however good our separate collection schemes may be – and let us remember that it is not always practical to have them in place; we need a way to take a mixed waste stream and divide into reusable, separate waste streams. Enter one of the greatest innovations in waste technology – the sorter.

Sorting technology comes in many guises, from water-based technologies such as ArrowBio which separates the organic fraction from recyclables, to the whirring, whizzing, sorting machines we see at trade shows every year.

When mixed waste is fed into a single stream recycling facility the process will include some or all of these processes:

  • removal of larger items by hand
  • separation of items by weight, which means metals, plastics, paper, glass etc. are sorted from each other
  • use of screens to separate items by size
  • Magnetic separation of metals, such as eddy current separators for aluminium
  • ultraviolet optical scanners (Near Infra-red and Medium Infra-red) combined with targeted air jets that send items of certain types in separate collection bins e.g. PET and non PET plastics

Many companies have done brilliant work in this field over the past few years, leading the way in the development and manufacture of these types of technologies. One example is France-based Pellenc ST which has recently launched a new MIR (Medium Infra-red) sorter which sorts paper according to its quality, and has improved its NIR (Near Infra-red) system to sort wood into category A and category B.

Pellenc ST is working on a research project in partnership with OSEO dedicated to the development of new machines and sorting technologies worth over 18 million euro (US $24.5 million). So we can expect to see even greater things in future.

Source: Waste Management World


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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.


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