The incineration sector in Switzerland; situation report and future challenges

This article aims to provide an overview of the value chain of incinerable waste throughout Switzerland. It follows on from the recent article "What happens to your waste after collection?" to take a closer look at one of the final destinations of our waste, the incineration plants (MSWIs). In addition to taking stock of the facilities available in Switzerland, in this article we try to shed light on the future challenges related to this sector, especially in relation to the location and capacity of the facilities, but also to the entire upstream logistics chain.

Situation report on MSWIs in Switzerland

We currently count 30 waste incineration plants in Switzerland, distributed throughout the country. For the exact locations, opendata.swiss offers you access to an overview.

The respective capacities per plant range from 30,000 to 230,000 tonnes of incinerable waste per year, resulting in a total volume of around 4 million tonnes per year throughout Switzerland. This figure also includes foreign waste that is imported and incinerated in Switzerland.

An analysis of waste flows in Switzerland, prepared by Sofies on behalf of the FOEN as part of the report "Eco-efficiency strategy for the waste incineration sector in Switzerland", illustrates the importance of combustible waste and its flows within the entire waste value chain.

Which wastes are combustible?

Three main groups can be distinguished among the wastes that are incinerated in MSWIs.

Household waste, which consists largely of everyday waste generated in households (plastics, food packaging, paper towels, etc.) that cannot be recycled.

Bulky waste, on the other hand, is any non-recyclable waste that cannot be put in household waste due to its size. Bulky waste can consist of a variety of materials, such as furniture, carpets, mattresses, accessories or sports equipment.

Finally, treated wood is also incinerated as it cannot be recycled and improper incineration can release harmful chemicals. Therefore, this wood must be burned in MSWIs with appropriate filters. To learn more about the disposal of treated wood, you can also read our article "Terrace renovation - how to get rid of your old wood".

How is our bulky waste treated?

Unlike household waste, bulky waste must be shredded and sorted before incineration. These two steps are intended to reduce the volume of waste and facilitate the sorting out of non-combustible or recyclable materials. However, these processes require expensive equipment and precise organisation. Moreover, waste incineration plants charge different rates for bulky waste with and without shredding. For example, SAIDEF in Fribourg charges an overcost of CHF 40 per tonne.

Therefore, in order to reduce costs and ensure high-quality sorting for the recovery of recyclable materials, it is important to break down bulky waste at source and sort the waste according to its type.

Recycling the energy generated during incineration

Heat is generated during incineration, which is either distributed directly via district heating networks or used to generate electricity and fed into the public grid. These amounts of energy are steadily increasing. According to the SFOE, Swiss waste incineration plants produced a total of 4’036 GWh of heat and 2’338 GWh of electricity in 2017. These figures correspond to about 2.5% of the coverage of the total energy demand in Switzerland and almost 4% of the national electricity generation.

Future challenges for increasing the eco-efficiency of the incineration chain

In addition to the more institutional challenges directly related to the power plants themselves, namely optimising the energy recovery from incineration and maximising the recovery of incineration residues, according to the SOFIES report, two other important challenges will play a role in the eco-efficiency of the combustible waste value chain.

The first, as mentioned above, is the importance of sorting at source. Every consumer and business need to take responsibility and break down their bulky waste to separate combustible from recyclable waste. Without sorting at source, some recyclable waste will be incinerated.

Finally, optimising the transport of combustible waste from its point of origin to its destination is a significant opportunity to reduce transport-related CO2 emissions. Big Sack plays an important role in this first part of the value chain. Our knowledge of waste flows and the different players enables us to apply the most economical and environmentally friendly solution in each situation. For example, depending on the location of the disposal, we will consider direct transport to the nearest waste incineration plant or alternatively to an intermediate sorting plant to optimise further transport to the plant. We are also developing intelligent IT solutions that will enable us to automate and minimise emissions on our tours.

For more information or questions, please feel free to contact us at info@bigsack.ch.

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