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Evaluation of the environmental sustainability of different Waste-to-Energy plant configurations

Lombardi, Lidia, Carnevale, Ennio A.
Waste management 2017
European Union, bottom ash, burning, climate change, economies of scale, ecotoxicology, electricity, energy, energy recovery, environmental assessment, fossil fuels, fossils, heat, humans, life cycle assessment, municipal solid waste, toxicity
Residual municipal solid waste (MSW) has an average lower heating value higher than 10 GJ/Mg in the EU, and can be recovered in modern Waste-to-Energy (WtE) plants, producing combined heat and power (CHP) and reaching high levels of energy recovery. CHP is pinpointed as the best technique for energy recovery from waste. However, in some cases, heat recovery is not technically feasible – due to the absence of a thermal user (industrial plant or district heating) in the vicinity of the WtE plant - and power production remains the sole possibility. In these cases, there are some challenges involved in increasing the energy performance as much as possible. High energy recovery efficiency values are very important for the environmental sustainability of WtE plants. The more electricity and heat is produced, the better the saving of natural resources that can be achieved. Within this frame, the aim of this work is to carry out an environmental assessment, through Life Cycle Assessment, of an MSW WtE plant, considering different sizes and operated in different ways, from power production only to full cogeneration. The main assumption is that the electric conversion efficiency increases as the plant size increases, introducing technical improvements thanks to the economies of scale. Impact assessment results were calculated using ReCiPe 2008 methods.The climate change indicator is positive when the WtE plant is operated in power production only mode, with values decreasing for the increasing size. Values for the climate change are negative when cogeneration is applied, requiring increasing cogeneration ratios for decreasing size. Similarly, the fossil fuel depletion indicator benefits from increase of both the plant size and the cogeneration rate, but it is always negative, meaning that the residual MSW burning with energy recovery always provides a saving of fossil primary energy.Other indicator values are in general negative and are also beneficially affected by increasing the plant size, but they worsen when increasing the cogeneration rate. The remaining indicators – i.e. human toxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity - always have positive values, which decrease for increasing plant size and increase as the cogeneration rate increases.However, the local context should be evaluated carefully with reference to the type of electricity which is substituted and in view of a future massive production of renewable electricity, because conclusions change accordingly.Finally, it was evaluated that the inclusion of bottom ash recovery – instead of landfilling – can significantly improve the values of several impact assessment indicators.