September 9, 2021 by Frank Raschke

Over the past decades, the focus has shifted from waste treatment to: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. There are very strong numbers that support this trend, as the % of waste that is being put in landfill or treated has gone down in developing countries. This is fantastic news in itself and rightly should be applauded. We hope that development is strong and will continue to deliver further encouraging results.

It did impact the trend, which did lead to the building of large waste treatment facilities in the 70s and 80s. Several large facilities need to import Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) to enable the efficient operation. Investments always have an element of risk. As waste projects tend to be large, we like to compare this with that of typical infrastructure investments. In an ideal world the normal risk profile of infrastructure investments should reflect low risk, as sums are high, technologies are proven and return should be solid over a long time period. Investors do their best to mitigate and protect themselves from political and other risks. There are plenty of projects that fulfil these expectations, some go spectacularly wrong (Germany: Berlin Airport; UK: HS2, I believe every country has their own).

Sadly, there is no golden technology in waste treatment. In fact, all current technologies have their strong limitations and drawbacks. Some of the effects are difficult to predict. Wuhan, in China, is just the latest example of community protests.

While the focus on the 3Rs has changed the world of waste, it has taken away the focus on waste treatment technologies. We spoke to a lot of International Financial Institutes (IFIs), discussing the possibility for funding in waste treatment projects (which we have quite a few), only to be told that the main focus of investment currently is in the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. When looking closer at this investment focus, it is predominantly data, not treatment, driven. Data driven focus also wants to influence people and companies to change their waste behaviour, which should lead to less waste being produced, the disposal done in a smarter way, thus allowing more efficient recycling. To show the complexity companies have to deal with, not only waste, I have included the reports, compiled by Turnkey Group, that companies have to publish and that are as important as the P&L. Correct and efficient data collection is key.

Waste, anywhere, is a risk that is often underestimated and ignored. After all, once it is removed from inner cities and households, it is out of sight. How do we treat the waste that is mixed, despite all the attempts to separate at source? What do we do with plastic? Do we continue burning it and hope that filters to remove dioxins work well?

Attitudes are changing, also emerging markets. China imposed the Green Wall, not to import garbage any more. This points out several things: A) We still like to dump waste that is too expensive to treat to countries that have even less chance of treating the garbage. It is mixed, wet and nasty. B) We still produce too much garbage, not less. The 3Rs are moving the % positive, there is still the need for proper waste treatment. C) There is a black market. Someone will accept some payment for taking the waste. And then???? It disappears? Unlikely. D) Recent publicity got more people thinking of waste treatment.

When presenting our technologies to municipalities in emerging markets, one of the first questions we need to answer is regarding emissions. This highlights concerns governments, rightly, have on the safety of the technology in regards to the impact on communities.

We still need to continue to look at improving waste treatment. Investment in this is still needed. Plants run at relatively low capacity utilisation or require high maintenance. Not ideal in emerging markets.

Landfill sites are busting everywhere, not only in China but all(-)over developing countries. Do not get me wrong. The focus on 3Rs is all important and fantastic. Sadly, there is still a massive amount of waste being produced that is currently not being treated. What happens with this? There are plenty of challenges also in developed countries desperately needing to be addressed. Sites are past their sell-by date with governments looking to impose new and very strict laws and guidelines, with high levels of punishments. I wonder how prepared a lot of the facilities are; doubtful that all will be meeting the new standards.

Yet, again, investing into the 3 Rs is vital for the future. It is part of the solution mix needed. However, it seems that investment in the current day-to-day waste, that is around, rising and needing viable solutions, is actively pushed back, which is ignorant and dangerous.

Why we still need to look at improving current waste treatment technologies:

  1. For a starter, they need to be big, which moves the risk from technology via politics to logistics. Is the infrastructure in place to deal with these large plants? The famous plant in Copenhagen is included in the number of projects that do not meet intended and investment criteria. I could have also picked the 270 pyrolysis tire treatment plants in India, that are ordered to be closed due to massive emissions (mostly lacking emission controls when treating tires). Expectations in other technologies have been way too high: Plasma Gasification Plant 'Ditched'.
  2. Municipal Solid Waste is diverse and changes constantly in composition and moisture. With that it becomes very difficult to make reliable business case assumptions. The cost of pre-treatment can be massive, putting a strong dent on investment return expectations.
  3. A typical investor likes a 5 year return. Infrastructure investment returns are a lot longer, but barely pose this type of risk that waste technologies have. While old technologies lack efficiency and reliability, new technologies come with high promise and huge potential to disappoint.
  4. Western business models do not work in emerging markets, where collecting gate fee is ‘a deal breaker’.

Looking at all the points above, it is understandable that IFIs and others do not like to invest in waste treatment projects. But is there a choice to turn our backs on this still growing waste problem, which is happening now? How long will it take before the 3 Rs will take care of all our waste properly, if ever?

The waste situation is critical. Turning our back on treatment, shifting the focus, will hardly solve the growing waste issue worldwide. We need to tackle the problem with a suite of possible solutions to make any difference.

Frank Raschke is cofounder and partner at Frontline Waste


Cover photo: Recyclers

Photograph of a dump in Minh Khai, Vietnam, by Bennett Murray for The Guardian. The Minh Khai village is receiving plastic recycling waste from around the world.