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Energy Transition and Circular Economy - Unthinkable without Thermal Waste Treatment

Thermal waste treatment plants in Germany are, as a sink for pollutants and for the efficient recycling of non-recyclable waste materials, a decisive piece of the puzzle of a modern circular economy. In the energy transition, they also play an important role as a stabilizer of the energy system. In view of Germany's climate targets, policymakers must set the course even more strongly in the direction of sustainable product design and resource protection.

ITAD e.V., Germany

The status report shows the enormous and increasingly important role of thermal waste treatment for the circular economy and climate-friendly energy supply in Germany.  "The circular economy urgently needs a sink for non-recyclable or contaminated waste.  Many materials in our industrial society cannot be returned to the material cycle at the end of their service life or for hygienic and/or infection-preventive reasons," says Carsten Spohn. 

The managing director of ITAD sees an increasing importance of thermal waste treatment, especially outside of Germany.  "Landfills will be closed for non-mineral waste throughout Europe in the future. This means that also there thermal waste treatment will have the task of guaranteeing the highest possible level of recycling and a clean circular economy," says Spohn.

According to the Prognos Report, the importance of thermal waste treatment is continuing to grow, particularly in the context of climate protection. The decoupling of power-, district- and process heating from waste treatment plants reduces CO2 emissions and helps to keep the renewable energy-based power grid of the future stable.  In 2019, the member plants of ITAD alone, which represent 92% of the total thermal treatment capacities for municipal and commercial waste, produced around 10 TWh of electricity and made 22 TWh of heat and process steam available to external customers.

Thermal waste treatment important for energy transition

"Already today, the thermal waste treatment plants obtain 50 percent of the decoupled energy from renewable raw materials, i.e. from materials such as wood in bulky waste or non-recyclable cardboard and soiled sanitary paper," explains Spohn. 

Thus, the heat recovery of the thermal waste treatment in district heating systems is one of the most climate-friendly forms of energy use.

The status report shows that thermal waste treatment plants will, in the future, provide even more so-called "system services" such as frequency and voltage maintenance.  Moreover, they will be able to bear even more responsibility in rebuilding the power supply after local grid failures.  In the past, nuclear and coal-fired power plants, in particular, have had this system performance function.  These are now increasingly being shut down. 

In future, the production of hydrogen will also be on the agenda of plant operators as a further energy-specific topic. 

To the extent that Germany and Europe succeed in producing more sustainable products, e.g. from renewable resources, the energy from thermal waste treatment will also become increasingly "greener".  Here society as a whole, from the engineers and marketing specialists in the companies to the politicians, has to pay attention to ecological product design in the first step. This is because thermal waste treatment plants cannot influence the material flows that are delivered with the residual waste by themselves.

Thermal waste treatment recovers metals from waste

An industry survey has shown that in 2019 almost half a million tons of metals were recovered from incineration residues.  These metals are fully recycled into steel and metal production, thus saving energy and resources. 

However, the mineral fraction is also to be used more intensively again in the future.

"We welcome the political approach of creating uniform nationwide regulations for the use of mineral substitute construction materials and thus also slags from thermal waste treatment in technical structures outside landfills," said Spohn.  This would further strengthen material recovery from thermal waste treatment.  The problem: Especially in public tenders, preference is usually given to primary raw materials - this makes a commitment to the circular economy absurd and wastes valuable landfill space.  In addition to the establishment of a corresponding priority regulation for suitable mineral substitute construction materials by the legislator, a rethinking process must take place in particular among the parties issuing tenders.

In order to further increase resource efficiency, however, in the future it will also be possible to remove carbon from emissions of thermal waste treatment plants within the framework of Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) projects and return it to the material cycles – for example as methanol.
Thus, thermal waste treatment plants will remain an indispensable component of the circular economy in the future and under changing boundary conditions.
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