29. April 2020
Topic:  Technology

Let's talk about transforming waste into energy with Aleš Bláha

Reusing and recycling plastic waste sounds like a no-brainer. But it’s not always the smartest solution. What should be done with waste that can’t be efficiently recycled to avoid landfills? How do other European states deal with the issue? Dr. Ing. Aleš Bláha from ZEVO Malešice joins Michael to explain the role of Waste to Energy plants in circular economy.

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Interview transcript 

ML (Michael Londesborough): Today, I have with me Aleš Bláha, director of ZEVO, which is a facility for energy utilization of waste located here, in Prague. Aleš began his education in Zlín before moving to Germany, where he completed his PhD. Now, he is running the Malešická incinerator, where they believe that a good way how to deal with our waste is to burn it. But do we risk polluting our atmosphere? Today, Aleš will provide the answers. Aleš, welcome to “Let's talk about it”. Let’s start with a simple question: Are we running our waste management intelligently here in Prague?

AB (Aleš Bláha): In Prague, yes. If I compare this with Germany, where I lived for 40 years, I would say that the waste management is comparable with the waste management in developed west cities like Nuremberg, Munich, Vienna, etc.

ML: And if we widen the context to the Czech Republic, are we doing the right things?

AB: Well, there are still some regions in Czech Republic, which are landfilling a huge amount of waste, because they don't have the incinerator. But, I don't think that everything should be incinerated (burned). The incineration is the nearly last method of how to deal with the waste that has no better use. It is only a part of the circular economy. Of course, we have a waste streams resulting from the life cycle of products. Then you have to make a decision, what can we do with it – for example, reuse. However, not everything is reusable. The rest can either be landfilled or burned in devices trained for it, like ZEVO, as a by-product in coal-fired power plants and also in factories that produce, for example, concrete, etc. 

ML: Okay, so if we really make it in simple terms, there's three possibilities. We can recycle or reuse, we can put it into landfill sites or we can burn it and receive some energy. Now, if I've got here a breakdown of how we're treating for example, our plastic wastes and if I compare the Czech Republic to Greece, for example, I see the Czech Republic is recycling about 37% of its plastic waste, it's dumping into landfill sites 40% and incinerating only 23%. Greece puts up to 75% of its plastic waste into landfills. Whereas Germany and Switzerland have essentially zero landfill and they are incinerating a lot more plastic. Should we burn more plastic here in the Czech Republic?

AB: It depends on the market. If the material is reusable and in demand, it is better to reuse it. But not all the time is the demand same as the production, so you have to be quite flexible and adapt to the situation. But it is definitively better to incinerate or to recover the energy contained in the plastic or the waste as general than to landfill, because that is only wasted money and destroyed nature in the landfill. 

ML: On that point, I'm going to split our waste production into plastic waste that can be recycled and then communal waste produced by us – when we sort plastic into yellow containers, for example. These plastics are often dirty, e.g. from food. Can this type of plastics be recycled at all, or should it go straight to you?

AB: That is a very good question. You know what entropy is…Entropy is the disorder in the universe that increases with every step. I think it is better to separate the waste at the household in the right ways and to put, for example, the very dirty packages from the yogurt directly into the black bin. When you wash it ,you use hot water, detergent etc. and you increase entropy. So I think, the task is to educate people about what can be really reused and what is better to use as an energy source. Of course, BT, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or some polypropylene packages could be reused as a material. But, for example, the thin foils, which are very dirty from fume, cannot be cleaned in an intelligent way. This should be put directly into the black bin and come to our plant.

ML: Aleši, to your plant comes every day 200 trucks full of waste, each truck containing roughly 5 tons of waste. That’s a thousand tons of waste going through your facility every single day and you're burning that at a rate of about 12 to 15 tons every hour. What is the output of that incineration? Are we just getting rid of a problem or do we do we actually gain something from the incineration?

AB: Well, now you are talking about municipal mixed waste. It's not just plastics. Here, we need to divide the discussion. We talked about plastics, now we talk about mixed waste.

ML: But if I follow your advice and throw the yogurt cup in the trash, it becomes part of that mix… 

AB: … and I make heat from this yoghurt package. If you are connected to this central heating, you will get back the warm water from your yoghurt cup.

ML: So, you´re cleverly playing with entropy now. You're using this stored energy in the waste, in the molecules of the plastics, the paper, the food residues - whatever it might be, and you're burning that. Then, you're releasing a lot more heat energy, which by doing this, this presumably drives turbines to generate electricity or provide direct heat for the locality?

AB: Both.

ML: And is this an efficient process?

AB: Yes, the efficiency of our plant is about 70 to 75 percent. It means that 75 percent of the energy comes in the municipal solid waste - about one thousand metric tons per day, as you mentioned. This energy, covered or hidden in the waste, is reused as heat or electricity – for our own use or also for the public net. For example, we have a surplus of energy heat and electricity, which we deliver to 20 000 households in Prague.

ML: Okay, what about your waste energy plant? Doesn’t it require more energy than we get back? 

AB: No, we are self-sufficient.

ML: …So the 20 000 households is the surplus?

AB: Yes, it’s the surplus. Of course, we have our own demand for the machines - for fans, pumps running, etc. Our machines also need electrical and thermal energy. In addition, in the event of blackout, we are able to supply electricity to, for example, the Motolská hospital. We just need cooperation with electricity distributors to supply it.

ML: So you are an integral part of an emergency source of electricity of strategically important buildings and establishments in Prague…

AB: Yes.  

ML: Okay, this sounds great. I can imagine that burning a yogurt cup does not create dangerous emissions. But Aleši, surely people are throwing all sorts of things into the waste, batteries, etc. During burning, there's going to release emissions that are potentially very poisonous into the atmosphere…

AB: Our emissions are controlled. In landfills, the same waste is tipped into a hole somewhere in nature. It is only a matter of time before the pollutants contained in the base start to leak into the nature. In our plant, they are cleaned with a very sophisticated flue gas cleaning technology and concentrated in a very small amount as hazardous waste, which is converted into a solid form. Thus, the pests are embedded in a solid matrix. They have no chance to dissolve and escape into the wild in the nature.

ML: Okay, you're claiming landfills can leak into waterways and we don’t know where the pollutants end up. But how can you be sure that no pollutants are escaping from your 177.5 meters chimney at your site? 

AB: There's a European law that prescribes permitted emission limits. Compliance with these limits is controlled by a special program and also by government authorities. Our plant produces emissions lower than 10% of permitted limits – the so-called technical zero. There is no technology without emissions. 

ML: I checked your website, where there is a real-time graph showing the emissions coming from your chimney, from the incineration. It is comparing it to the allowed limits and they are very positive numbers – very clean emissions. So the device creates usable energy from waste. It can be a source of metal or raw materials usable for road construction and the amount of emissions produced is really negligible. This sounds like a dream ticket, Aleši. So why are we still putting so much waste into the ground? 

AB: Well, a lot of people are afraid of the technology. However, the emissions produced in ZEVO are comparable to equipment burning natural gas.

ML: Yes, however, 40% of waste is still landfilled. Why? 

AB: Because some people are afraid. Certain political voices, NGOs and landfill lobbies play a role in this. The landfill lobby funds some of these votes. In the past, the landfill lobby has campaigned heavily against incinerators and it lingers a bit. But the times are changing – today, some regions already want to install these devices, they know that from 2030 there will be a ban of landfills in the Czech Republic. I really hope that from 2030, because the date has already been moved a few times from 2024 to 2028, to 2030. For example, in Germany has been landfilling banned since 2005, which corresponds to the graph you showed before. So, I think it will come, but an incinerator is a more expensive investment than a landfill. Let’s compare the price of a landfill versus a waste-to-energy facility – the construction of a facility with a capacity of 100 000 metric tons per year costs approx. 70 million euros. The price of a landfill with the same capacity is in the order of hundreds of thousands.

ML: So it’s a question of initial investment. When we dump waste, we get nothing back, but when we burn it, we create energy and other streams are created that can earn money. How long does it take for a return on investment in ZEVO?

AB: 15 years.

ML: So, from an economic point of view, there's no reason not to favor burning? 

AB: No, and the entrance fees of both facilities are also comparable. The landfill fee is around 1 200 Kč per metric ton. In ZEVO, you pay 1 500 Kč per metric ton – that’s not a big difference. But from a long-term perspective, there is residual waste that cannot be recycled and material that cannot be reused.

ML: So your vision for the future is a combined effort – recycling quality waste materials and converting the rest into energy in the incinerator. 

AB: Exactly – the rest. 

ML: Okay, so would you be able to respond to the potential huge increase in demands on your equipment? For example, if the Czech Republic decides to follow Germany, it can change overnight. Are you ready to burn more? 

AB: Yes, we are ready. For example, in Germany or Switzerland, they have the philosophy of 50/50. It means 50% will be recycled and reused, 50% is burned and energy is used. In the Czech Republic, we will create approx.. 5 500 000 metric tons of municipal waste per year. This means that 2 750 000 metric tons will be used again and the same amount will be burned. The current burning capacity in the entire Czech Republic is roughly 800 000 metric tons. We would therefore have to increase the capacity by 1 950 000 metric tons – this is the real situation. 

ML: Do you open existing landfills and use that capacity to incinerate the material contained? 

AB: Yes. Part of our facility is currently under renovation. Two lines are ready and we have 4 lines in total – one is renovated every year. So today, we are halfway through a complete renovation of the entire facility. After the renovation is completed, we will be able to process 20-25% more waste. In the future, we will therefore be able to process around 400 000 tons of waste (per year). Not only municipal waste from households but also residual waste from small industries, shops etc. – this waste often goes to landfill. Some small shops and production lines in Prague are not connected to central waste collection, so there can be waste taken to a landfill, which is a big problem. In Germany, this waste must be taken to a municipal energy facility, if it’s available there.  

ML: Aleši, do you believe that people will accept the advantages of this incineration and support the shift from landfill to waste-to-energy in the Czech Republic? 

AB: I’m sure.

ML: Aleš Bláha, thank you very much for coming to “Let's talk about it”. It's been brilliant to talk to you and learn all about what you're doing. As a small present, I have a t-shirt with “Let's talk about it” badge for you. Thank you very much again. 

AB: Thank you.

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