THE BURNING QUESTION: How is the public perception of waste to energy improving?

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New waste to energy facilities may be welcomed in certain countries in Western Europe, but elsewhere it's still a controversial issue. WMW asked several of the leading international industry experts to see how the image of thermal treatment is improving among the public.

Engaging UK stakeholders, UK waste management company

Mike Snell,
General Manager,
external affairs,
Waste Recycling Group, UK

There's no doubt that the role of waste to energy incineration in meeting the world's residual waste treatment needs is catching on. A new German report states that there are 2150 waste incineration plants in operation in the world and global capacity is set to increase by 60 million tonnes annually by 2015. Unsurprisingly, China is at the head of this expansion.

Europe too continues to expand with the UK market as one of the most dynamic, driven principally by the need to meet pressing EU landfill diversion targets. The reality in the UK though is stark. While there is growing acknowledgement by authorities and businesses of the role of WtE in balanced, waste and energy strategies, the public remains stubbornly sceptical of the arguments in favour of treating residual waste in this way.

Government, local authorities and industry must continue to work together to erase the public's out of date view of "incineration" as dirty and polluting, and to demonstrate how WtE is an important option in helping to reach targets for landfill diversion and renewable energy generation.

An open, transparent and proactive approach by developers with their stakeholders remains the best way of overcoming the genuinely-held concerns of a sceptical public.

There are examples of some excellent communications practice out there, and this shows in the successes achieved in winning permissions for facilities.

The coalition Government's Localism Bill is a scary vista for many developers as there is uncertainty as to what it means. But those companies that are prepared to get under the skin of localism and fully understand how it will impact future planning processes, will be the ones that reap the rewards of successful waste infrastructure delivery. And that's vital if the UK is to realise a truly sustainable, low carbon economy.


Skiing to success in Denmark, Danish waste management firm

Ulla Röttger,
Amagerforbrænding, Denmark

Denmark has a long tradition of waste incineration and in general the public is sympathetic on the matter. This may be because waste is a part of the district heating system and thus a cheap way to get heating. In Denmark we have never experienced more resistance to waste incineration than towards power plants in general.

At the same time we are a politically driven company. It provides safety for the citizens to know that waste incineration for us isn't just about the financial bottom line but also includes emphasis on the environment. Our location just four kilometres from the centre of Copenhagen makes Amagerforbrænding an integrated part of the capital. However, this also commits us to not step outside the lines and to continuously strive to maintain a good relationship with our neighbours.

Furthermore, Denmark has a tradition of inviting public schoolchildren to visit the waste incineration plants. This is something we prioritise very much as it has an educational element to it - especially when children subsequently go home to their parents and discuss why batteries are not to be thrown in the trash. And then finally we have our new plant. We put a lot of effort into organising the day when Amager Bakke was revealed - both in relation to the media but also the actual event of the day. Afterwards Amager Bakke has communicated itself.

With the architect Bjarke Ingels we have a fantastic ambassador. He travels around the world, talks to many people and he uses Amager Bakke as an example of 'Hedonistic Sustainability' - not only in relation to the architecture but also in relation to our way of seeing waste – namely as a resource.


Improving knowledge across Europe, European association

Dr Ella Stengler,
Managing director,
Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants (CEWEP), Brussels

Contrary to old impressions of dirty incinerators, modern WtE plants are all equipped with sophisticated filter devices in order to ensure very low emissions. The energy efficiency requirement (R1 formula) set in the European Waste Framework Directive raises public awareness to the fact that WtE does not only destroy the pollutants in the waste, but, at the same time produces energy.

We observe better public acceptance of WtE plants that are energy efficient. By raising energy prices people also notice that energy from waste is an affordable, locally available energy source. Although there tends to be higher resistance in countries not (yet) familiar with WtE, we can see now that more information and better knowledge about WtE helps to improve public acceptance of it.

Also the energy side of WtE is receiving more and more attention, as we have to produce cleaner energy (less CO2 emissions) and work towards greater independence from limited fossil fuels and nuclear.

People are more and more aware that WtE plays an important role in both sustainable waste management and energy supply.


Proximity principle, communications consultancy

Paul Davison,
Managing director,
Proteus Public Relations, UK

Having conducted community and stakeholder consultation about many waste to energy projects, I'd say that the physical appearance of the facility is pretty low down on most peoples' list of priorities. They may superficially ask 'what will it look like?' but this question is not aimed at the design. It is intended to discover just how close the WtE facility is going to be to their homes – and can they see it from their bedroom window? In other words, proximity is the single largest influence on peoples' perceptions. The closer the facility is to a community, the less they are going to like it. This trend is particularly prevalent in Britain and Ireland, but it exists in places like Denmark and Germany too.

Despite this, the principle of using waste to generate energy is becoming increasingly accepted. The promotion of recycling and waste minimisation, coupled with messages about energy security, means that the public is increasingly aware of their role in ensuring that waste materials are sorted for recycling or reprocessing. In the UK, targetting food waste as a renewable energy source has certainly encouraged more positive perceptions about energy-from-waste in general.

To help improve perceptions about WtE we must focus on addressing one fundamental question: "What's in it for me?". If people understand the benefits – whether it's funding for their local school, free heat or cheap electricity – they will be more likely to accept WtE.


Experience from the Far East Asian technology supplier

Dr Masamitsu Takahashi,

Our technology was developed to meet new dioxin reduction policy introduced in Japan since 1995. At the final stage of the development a demonstration plant of 30 tonnes per day was constructed to be authorised by the Japan Waste Research Foundation. In 1999 it was approved as applicable technology for MSW treatment after the operation for more than 90 days of criteria. Disclosing the operation data and the authorisation was the first step to be accepted by the people concerned.

The company now has 14 track records of successful plants in Japan and two in South Korea. Almost all of these plants supply heat as well as electricity. Residents can enjoy the benefit of a swimming pool, hot water for baths and district heating.

We have a lot of meetings to explain the features, safety and stable operation of our system to residents who live in a town planning to have a new waste to energy plant. This is as well as the people living near facilities being constructed. Sometimes, these residents are invited to the plant in operation.

Through these communications, we have learned the importance of answering residents' questions. After all, this helps protect ourselves.


European waste management, company perspective

David Palmer-Jones,

During research completed for a report that SITA UK recently published, 79% of 1000 participants who were interviewed, felt that waste to energy was a good idea. This statistic is at odds with the fact that minority groups continue to challenge planning decisions even when granted by the Secretary of State. We need to get back to a situation where the total needs and opinions of the community are addressed and responsible "localism" creates the atmosphere for communities to take decisions for the provision of waste facilities to cater for their own domestic and commercial arisings.

I spent a number of years working in Sweden where waste to energy is embraced by the public because of its tangible link to the provision of district heating. I have for some time argued that if we in the UK found a mechanism to provide a form of incentive that residents living close to a proposed facility could benefit from, we may go some way to making the development of waste infrastructure more acceptable.

The findings in our report provide a real insight into the way people think and feel about waste infrastructure and the kind of conditions that they believe are acceptable in order to gain their support. I firmly believe that we must listen carefully to them but act swiftly if we are to have any hope of making up the shortfall of modern, sustainable facilities needed to extract value from this country's waste and head off the impending energy gap which we face.


Conquering NIMBYism in the U.S., Technology supplier

Ole Hedegaard Madsen,
Director of Technology & Marketing,
Babcock & Wilcox Vølund

When comparing the public perception of waste to energy in the United States, a country reluctant to the idea of turning waste into energy, and Scandinavia, where the technology has been in use for many years, there is a clear difference in the public opinion.

In the United States, where Babcock & Wilcox Vølund is participating in constructing one of the world's largest WtE plants, there has so far been a tradition for disposing of all forms of waste in enormous landfills. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) effect has stopped several WtE plants. But a growing awareness in the American public about greenhouse gases together with the realisation that waste is an energy resource that doesn't have to be imported means that the Americans are beginning to view waste in a different light.

The positive effects of WtE to the local area in Florida - both in environmental and financial terms (a modern WtE plant creates many new jobs) will convince the inhabitants of the many environmental benefits associated with energy production based on waste.

On the other hand in Scandinavia, WtE plants are accepted by the general public and that's even though the plants are often built in central urban areas, due to the advantages in terms of the supply of electricity and heat to 'district heating'. The Scandinavian public understands that WtE plants are preferable to energy based on oil and coal. Hopefully, the public in countries new to the WtE concept will in the future get the same understanding of waste to energy as in Scandinavia.

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