Asian countries turning waste into electricity with the help of European companies

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European companies have started investing heavily in the waste to energy (WTE) market in Southeast Asia. The region’s energy needs are expected to increase further in the coming decades and Europe’s own demand for burning waste is now beginning to decline. European and Japanese companies have long dominated the WTE industry. It is generally seen that these power plants burn the waste which cannot be recycled to generate electricity.

Clean energy news website EnergyMonitor.ai recently estimated that more than 100 waste-to-energy projects are either recently completed or under construction in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Among them is the Philippines-based Pangasinan plant, which has received financial assistance from Britain’s Allied Project Services. A project, under the help of the Danish government, is also underway in the Indonesian city of Semarang.

French companies Engie and Suez Environment are supporting a project in Thailand-based Chonburi. The Netherlands-based Harvest Waste Company, formerly known as Waste Environmental Consultancy & Technology in Amsterdam, conducted preliminary studies last year on an estimated $100 million waste-to-energy project in Soc Trang province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta .

Why is the waste of the rich going to poor countries?

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In 2021, Harvest West also secured the necessary proportional status for a proposal to build a base in Cebu, Philippines. It is poised to become the most advanced WTE plant in Asia. According to company documents, technology similar to the Amsterdam landmark will be used here, which can generate 900 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of waste.

Europe looking at new markets

The South Asian market is growing as funding is pouring in from major development banks and governments in the region are taking a number of steps to increase investment, including feed-in tariffs, said Luc Riquet, Asia-Pacific head at Harvest West. “Across Asia, all municipal waste and commercial waste is dumped in one place or, for lack of alternatives, dumped in the open,” he told DW.

According to the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, around 500 WTEs are currently active in Europe. But Yanek Walk, air pollution program co-ordinator for the NGO Zero Waste Europe, says European technology providers are looking to new markets because of opportunities for growing demand elsewhere and retrenchment at home.

The “business climate” for Europe’s WTE industry has seen its biggest deterioration in a decade, according to energy consultancy EcoProg’s latest annual WTE Industry Barometer survey released in October. Similarly, Walk says, “Many other countries and regions of the world will have very few or no distilleries at all, so there is tremendous market potential in those areas.

Southeast Asia is one such region

According to various estimates, the urban population of Southeast Asian countries is expected to increase to 400 million by 2030, compared to 280 million in 2017. Energy demand will increase by two-thirds by 2040. For this reason, experts believe that the amount of garbage and non-recyclable waste will increase in the coming years. And in that way some way or the other will be found to make it useful.

Garbage burning is very common in Southeast AsiaPhoto: Jean-Pierre De Mann/Robert Hardi/picture alliance

Masaaki Takaoka, professor and chair of the Waste to Energy Research Council at Japan’s Kyoto University, told DW that policies to curb waste generation will be implemented but the area will need emergency treatment. He says, “It is estimated that many cities will focus on technology to generate energy by burning waste.” Vietnam’s largest WTE plant, commissioned in June, has the capacity to dispose of 4,000 tonnes of dry waste per day.

According to a recent estimate by research company Mordor Intelligence, Southeast Asia’s waste-to-energy market could grow at a double annual growth rate of 3.5 percent between 2021 and 2028. According to Mordor Intelligence, France-based trans-national company Violia Environment SA is one of the five big companies that were active in the WTE sector in Southeast Asia. Other companies include Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Indonesian and Singaporean local companies.

obstacles in the way of development

However there are problems too. Funding is a problem. According to Walk, the cost of hi-tech WTE furnaces in Europe is about 1000 Euro per ton every year. It can be very expensive in some countries of Asia. Nevertheless, select largest development banks such as the International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank are investing heavily in this industry. There is no scope of getting cash from EU.

In terms of investing in waste-to-energy, the EU has excluded this industry from economic activities considered sustainable finance, based on its classification of sustainable activities. Other investors are also facing fierce criticism from climate activists. Last year, a consortium of environmental groups objected to the Asian Development Bank funding a new WTE incineration project in Vietnam’s Bin Duong province.

Unlike Europe, there is not much differentiation between recyclable or non-recyclable materials and between natural and man-made materials in Asian landfills. That’s why sometimes such waste also goes in the furnaces which cannot be burnt. Climate activists have warned about this. If there is a need to burn more plastic for the purpose of increasing the temperature required for furnaces, then it can increase carbon dioxide emissions on a large scale.

fuel from vegetable waste

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Environmentalists are also concerned that the campaign for waste-to-energy incineration will discourage local efforts to promote recycling and alternative uses of less environmentally harmful waste. Walk, who is associated with Zero Waste Europe, says, “From our point of view, there is no justification or need for the construction of incinerators.

environmental cost of burning garbage

The European Union has made climate action central to its efforts to improve relations with countries in Southeast Asia. The EU’s Waste Framework Directive states that there are other methods of waste management that are more suitable than incineration. “Our aim is to ensure that waste-to-energy processes in the EU comply with circular economy objectives and are strongly guided by the EU’s waste hierarchy,” an EU spokesperson told DW.

According to the spokesperson, “waste prevention and recycling contribute the most in terms of energy savings and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” But advocates for the WTE industry say something needs to be done about the massive piles of waste in regions such as Southeast Asia. Apart from this, the rapid increase in the demand for electricity will also have to be dealt with.

This side also points to the study which was published last year in the journal Science Advances. In this study by several academic scholars in the Netherlands, it was told that the amount of methane gas may be emitting twice as much from the garbage sites as it was previously estimated. There is also an argument, since the countries of Southeast Asia have already gone a long way on the path of making electricity from waste, then why shouldn’t European companies also move forward.

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