Creating public awareness about the need to sort trash into recyclables and non-recyclables can be a never-ending process. For one, our cities are getting increasingly globalized and there is a constant influx of people from outside who may not be aware of the local sorting processes. More importantly, any policy that requires collaboration among thousands of people is doomed to fail at some point in time.
But as landfills across the world clog up and energy demands shoot up simultaneously, there is a greater emphasis on reducing solid wastes and generating green energy in the process. Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) contain plastics, metals as well as a number of organic materials. While plastics and metals may be recycled, the organic materials may be used in generating energy. The inability to properly sort trash at source creates a bottleneck that can increase the cost of generating energy.
That could change however. New-age bio plants seek to shift the onus of sorting trash from the general public to the recycling agencies. The world’s largest waste-to-biogas conversion plant is coming up in Northwich, England and claims to own a patented process that can help achieve this. REnescience is partly owned by DONG Energy and makes use of enzymes to break down organic compounds from the trash that will be liquefied into a sludge that can be further processed to biogas. The remanant metal and plastic materials are sent for recycling while other non-recyclable materials are incinerated to generate more energy that is however not ecologically friendly.
DONG Energy estimates the plant to generate 5MW of renewable energy, sufficient to power 10,000 homes. More importantly, the company considers this a “potential game changer” for the waste industry that not only addresses a critical society need, but also has a large commercial potential. If successful, the REnescience project in Northwich may be replicated anywhere in the world where there is sufficient organic content in the waste generated.
Recycling trash is a critical need that needs immediate focus. Across the world, very few countries can boast of a recycling rate of over 50%. Countries like Germany and Austria lead the pack at nearly 62% and 63% respectively while large contributors to trash like the United States and United Kingdom still hover at recycling rates of around 34% and 39% respectively.
Germany is one of the few countries where the push towards zero waste is not driven by strategic constraints. Singapore, for instance, is a country that is hard-pressed for landfill space. The recycling rate in Singapore is around 61% and plans are afoot to push this figure up to 70% by 2030. One of the main reasons for this is believed to be the unavailability of landfill space in the country which is likely to become full sooner rather than later.
Shifting the responsibility of segregating trash from the general public to energy producers removes one of the biggest impediments to greater adoption of trash recycling processes. Proliferation of REnescience-like trash-to-biogas recycling plants will provide a commercial incentive for countries like the United States that do not face a landfill issue yet. It will however be interesting to see how the energy costs from these sources compare against other newer forms of renewable energy like solar whose costs have been in a downward spiral for a while now.
As long as energy generated from MSW can be priced competitively against other forms of energy, we are likely to see greater adoption of such technologies which can only mean good things for the modern cities.