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Waste to Energy: Considerations for Informed Decision-Making

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UN Environment, IETC
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Thermal Waste-to-Energy (WtE), also known as incineration with energy recovery, is a major waste treatment method in some developed countries and the most widely adopted technology that dominates the global WtE market. The European Union, however, which has relied on waste incineration for the past few decades, is now moving away from thermal WtE and other forms of incineration and is focusing on more ecologically acceptable solutions such as waste prevention, reuse and recycling as it shifts towards a circular economy. Though thermal WtE is still used in developing countries as a waste management approach, in particular Asia Pacific countries such as China, India, and Thailand, it is located at the bottom of the waste management hierarchy below reduction, reuse and recycling.

These three actions are now increasingly recognized as priorities for governments in terms of policies and investments. All materials have an end-life and eventually become waste, and in these cases thermal WtE is the preferred way of treatment compared to landfilling and open burning. Thermal WtE has received considerable attention in developing countries due to its potential benefits for waste volume reduction and energy generation despite continuing concerns in regard to its applicability and potential health, environment and climate change impacts. Thermal WtE development also remains a challenge in developing countries due to factors such as waste characteristics, social opposition, economic feasibility and noncompliance of environmental standards.

This report aims to illustrate the key facts and major considerations of thermal WtE implementation for informed decision-making in developing countries, taking into account that it should be the option of last resort. An overview of the development and global status and trends that includes a description of thermal WtE technology is presented first, followed by the challenges for developing countries in terms of technical, economic, environmental, legal and social aspects. A discussion of thermal WtE opportunities under different contexts, including the climate perspective and the context of small island developing states, follows. The last chapter presents key considerations for decision makers when implementing thermal WtE in developing countries.

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