Energy recovery at the heart of the circular economy

Written by: Adam Read | Published:

In the last two weeks I have been fortunate in having both the time and opportunity to think a little longer and deeper about the issues surrounding energy recovery from a range of waste sources, both here in the UK and farther afield - most notably in the Middle East.

In the last two weeks I have been fortunate in having both the time and opportunity to think a little longer and deeper about the issues surrounding energy recovery from a range of waste sources, both here in the UK and farther afield - most notably in the Middle East.

Now to those firm advocates of the circular economy, energy recovery is considered as unwanted, just as undesirable as landfill, and with the stigma of being the source of atmospheric pollution and materials destruction. Clearly, I am much more of a pragmatist, and recognise that energy recovery is just as important as materials recovery for more sustainable societies and ultimately the delivery of more circular economies.

If we take the situation in the Middle East, some countries like Saudi Arabia are oil rich and might historically consider energy recovery from residual MSW as unnecessary given the availability of cheap oil.

But in recent months the thinking locally has changed.

With increasing urbanisation across the Middle East, and with greater consumer demand, waste arisings are on the up and are forecast to grow at rates significantly greater than in the UK. So there is a prevalent source of materials from which to recover energy in one form or another, even if we expect organic wastes to be treated in AD plants, and the recyclates to be segregated at source or in MRFs to recover key resources like plastics and metals.

Add to this the consumer and commercial needs for water (energy needed to run desalination plants) and air conditioning, energy demand is only going to increase. So why not recover energy, chemicals, resources from the commercial and municipal waste streams (the contaminated, poor quality, and materials with no obvious end market) and use this to feed some of this increasing internal demand, enabling finite oil resources to be saved for the external market where the income levels are much higher?

Seems like a no-brainer to me, and I don't believe the circular economy protagonists could argue differently, because closed loop systems in the Middle East are a long way off, given the poor waste collection coverage, the low levels of recycling and the lack of cost recovery currently operating in the region. Let's move things forward, and not try and score the home run with our first swing.

If you look around the world, there are many countries transitioning from low income to middle/high income and with that comes pressures from urbanisation, consumption, energy security etc. So in non-oil rich countries, like Qatar, Jordan or Bahrain in the Middle East, the need to recover much needed energy from their waste streams seems even more critical.

Being reliant on energy provision from other countries/regions (as we are in the UK) only puts these countries at risk of rapidly increasing energy costs that could undermine their progress and the standards of living demanded by the people.

So energy recovery, in my opinion has a key role to play in helping develop the economies of these countries, while protecting the environment, public health and driving towards more sustainable resource use. The fully circular economy of re-design, re-use and recycling, may be a generation or two away from these countries, and so we need to help them take sensible steps, and not bite off more than they can chew in the journey towards sustainable cities and regions.

This issues was brought closer to home to me last week when Ricardo-AEA hosted the International Energy Agency Bioenergy Task 36 EfW working group at a seminar in Oxford when the development, role and future of EfW were openly discussed.

A small group of key people and organisations shared their experiences in advanced thermal treatment from both the UK and overseas (Finland and the USA), and considered the importance of EfW to the circular economy. With representatives from Enerkem, Sita, ISWA, the Green Investment Bank, WRAP, DECC, VTT and New Earth Solutions among others, the general consensus was that (1) the UK has progressed all forms of EfW (including advanced thermal technologies) significantly in the last 15 years, in spite of a policy vacuum (or if you are feeling more positive a shifting policy landscape) and the global economic recession; (2) EfW is vital for UK and international waste management and energy generation; and (3) we must stop talking about wastes and focus on the feedstock's for energy, power, heat recovery facilities - if we know what we have, we can select the most appropriate technology to treat it and produce the products needed in any given location.

Perhaps most importantly this group of innovators and leaders were very open and honest in sharing their experiences, identifying what had worked (and most importantly what hadn't) and what they might do next time.

Interestingly all of the main technology developers were heard at some point in the day saying 'next time we do it we won't do it like this' showcasing just how much they had learned about their chosen technology, their feedstocks and their products.

It was an honour to be in discussions with all the informed participants, looking at how chemical, energy and material recovery will grow and develop in the coming 15 to 20 years in Western Europe and North America. Perhaps more importantly, we openly considered how these technologies could be adapted and applied in transitioning economies around the world to help address their critical energy needs and waste treatment shortfall.

I learned a lot, but I always do when involved in these types of meeting - perhaps most importantly we all took something positive away from the day, and all believe that EfW has an important role to play in modern urban locations around the world for generations to come.

Not sure what the circular economists will think of this, but as I said I am a pragmatist, and although the ideals of a circular economy are laudable and are a target to drive our ambitions, cycling nutrients, energy, chemicals and materials are all critical parts of the bright green future we are spiralling towards.

As with all my 'comments' they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or share your opinions then email me on

For more of my blogs lease refer to

Adam is global practice director for Ricardo-AEA's resource efficiency and waste management practice, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Royal Geographical Society. He has more than 19 years of waste sector strategy, service design, procurement and communications experience, both in the UK and overseas, and is a regular industry commentator, author and conference speaker, both in the UK and around the world. He is currently developing the circular economy thinking of a number of clients, and is leading resource risk analysis and closed loop supply chain work with a range of major brands.

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