Going Circular: The Growing Role of Waste-to-Energy in Middle Eastern Economies

While the Waste-to-Energy (WTE) approach continues to raise eyebrows of environmentalists over its emissions issues, it is providing a viable alternative to landfill – a critical factor in the Middle East’s fight against waste generation and waste management challenges.

Assessing the situation: Where does WTE fit into the Middle East waste management scenario?

Improving waste management outcomes is one of the most pressing priorities in the Middle East with regards to the region’s ambitions to achieve long-term sustainability. The prospect of forging circular economies is felt as keenly here as anywhere else, perhaps more so, given the region’s ongoing challenges around high waste generation rates and the wide-ranging environmental issues this causes.

Advanced waste recycling is the key to solving (or at least alleviating) many of these problems, but the technology simply isn’t in place to recycle every waste stream. Accordingly, the waste-to-energy (WTE) segment continues to take on an increasingly important role as a complementary waste management activity. Thanks to increasing adoption and interest, the global waste to energy market was valued at $35.1 billion in 2019, and is projected to exceed $50 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 4.6% from 2020.

Wherever recycling isn’t possible or otherwise feasible, WTE provides a better alternative to landfill, helping to ‘close the circular economy loop’ by disposing of non-recyclable waste while offsetting the need for fossil fuels in the creation of heat and electricity. The principal weakness – environmentally speaking – of WTE is its high emissions rate. This too is changing for the better, with greater emphasis being placed on implementing carbon capture technologies into new and existing WTE plants. Last month, Oslo’s WTE plant announced plans to go carbon negative through the use of a carbon capture facility capable of trapping and storing 90% of the plant’s emissions. This is part of the wider ongoing European drive to embrace WTE in a way that maximises its potential to remain sustainable while supporting circular economies. The Middle East’s primary adopters of WTE are taking note, as you can see in the next section on recent projects and advancements.

Another key reason prompting the wider use of WTE in the Middle East is its potential regarding methane management. The battle to tackle climate change is partially a battle to limit the amount of methane – a key greenhouse gas – being emitted. This is why the closing down of landfill sites in favour of more advanced waste-to-energy facilities is essential; landfill is a huge generator of methane leakages worldwide. While it is currently not possible to accurately measure how much methane escapes from landfill, it’s known to be a big contributor to the global problem.

So, with WTE proving its ability to reduce reliance on landfill, combat methane leakage and lower its own emissions rates through more comprehensive carbon capture, its presence in the developing ME circular economies looks assured.

Major ME WTE adoptions and projects in 2021

Jan 2021: Abu Dhabi Department of Energy (DoE) launches its WTE policy, providing project developers with relevant management procedures, necessary commitments, regulatory guidance and general requirements for PPE projects. This has lowered potential barriers to WTE adoption in the UAE and it sets the tone for greater private-public collaboration on future projects.

Jan 2021: DoE also announces its intention to construct two major WTE facilities Mussafah and Al-Ain, with tenders expected to be issued and assigned this year.

Jan 2021: The Egyptian Government formalises its plans to develop 300MW of WTE capacity by 2025. If realised, this will represent Egypt’s national WTE capacity growing by more than 22 times its current level of 13MW.

Jan 2021: Emirates Waste to Energy Company signs deal to develop a UAE landfill site into a 120MW solar farm. While technically not a WTE itself, the new plant is representative of the UAE’s drive to reduce its reliance on landfill. The company’s dedicated 30MW WTE plant is due for completion this year, and will divert 300,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste from landfill annually.

March 2021: Dubal Holding, Itochu Corporation, Hitachi Zosen Inova, Besix Group and Tech Group announce that they will construct one of the world’s largest WTE facilities. Once operational, the $1.1 billion Dubai Centre for Waste Processing will be able to convert 1,900,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) per year into energy, providing 200 MW for the Dubai city grid. The facility’s annual capacity means that it will single-handedly process around 45% of the city’s municipal waste.

April 2021: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Project chooses Kiverco to design, build and install a WTE plant capable of processing the entire tourism megaproject’s waste. Its annual capacity will be 150,000 tonnes.

Closing the Loop: Waste-to-Energy’s place in the Middle East circular economy drive

Looking at any of the national strategies of leading Middle Eastern nations reveals a similar pattern when it comes to creating circular economies. Regional countries want invariably to: 1) produce less waste, 2) recycle more waste, and 3) manage currently non-recyclable waste more sustainably. While “reduce, reuse, recycle” is the mantra of circular economics, WTE fills the crucial role of providing better options for how we can deal with non-recyclable waste streams.

Even as technological advances make waste recycling more cost-effective and easier to scale up, WTE is already stepping in as an invaluable vehicle for reducing overreliance on landfill and increasing non-fossil fuel energy production in the Middle East. Even as emerging recycling techs continue to proliferate throughout the region, we can expect WTE projects to do the same.