Feasibility of Waste-to-Energy plants in New Zealand

As the world debates climate change issues, and the market for fossil fuels wanes from a combination of lower prices and a slowing market, questions continue to arise about energy sources in the 21st Century. As one who thinks there is significant potential for a technological based solution, I have been wondering what alternative energy sources might be used in place of non renewables that take thousands of years to form and whose consumption is causing massive environmental degradation.

Waste to energy plants are in effect high powered incinerators, that burn waste at close to 900-950 degrees celsius, and generating electricity in the process. In 2011 there were 86 known waste-to-energy plants in the United States, which generated about 2,700 megawatts of electricity powering about 2 million homes. The total installed U.S. waste-to-energy generation capacity at that time was roughly equivalent to three Huntly sized power stations in a New Zealand context.

In Norway a growing market for waste-to-energy power generation has been established. The country imports waste from towns in the United Kingdom to help feed the incinerator. It is divisive however, with some people and organizations believing the facility, near Bergen, to be a blot on the landscape. Others are concerned that it may undermine recycling efforts by causing confusion and providing an easy throw-away option. Supporters point to the large volume of waste dumped across Europe per annum – in 2013, roughly 150 million tons – saying it only represents a tiny fraction of the total amount dumped.

Could New Zealand apply such technology here? Possibly. Given the concentration of much of New Zealand’s population in urban areas, it is certainly worth investigating. I would envisage plants being built in the industrial parts of Auckland Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton. Rather than taking the waste to landfills for dumping, the waste collected from kerb side collection could instead go to a waste-to-energy facility. This would have an added benefit of possibly lengthening the life time of existing landfills.

Each year 80,000 tons of electronic waste (e-waste)gets generated in New Zealand and can be as diverse as old  dumb and smart phones, printers, lap/desktops, kindles, digital camera’s, GPS units, microwaves, televisions and so forth. Less than 1% of it gets recycled. E-waste has significant minerals in it, including neodymium, europium and tantalum. The Basel Accord prevents toxics being sent to third world countries, but only a few first world countries have proper facilities and protocol for disposing of e-waste. Although New Zealand has ratified the Basel Convention, it has only made ad hoc efforts to support the recycling of e-waste.

New Zealand also throws out a large amount of plastics, ranging from soft drink and milk bottles, to product wrapping and bags. Despite assertions to the contrary the vast majority of this ends up in landfills. As a nation on the Pacific Rim, some of the plastics from ships that leave/enter New Zealand waters find their way into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large area of seawater in the northern Pacific where ocean currents are depositing huge amounts of waste – one estimate suggests 5 trillion individual pieces of waste.


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