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A Tour of Amsterdam’s Waste-to-Energy Plant

Leon Kaye | Tuesday June 15th, 2010 | 11 Comments

Towards the end of my trip in Amsterdam to attend the Global Reporting Initiative Conference, I toured the city’s waste fired power plant (WFPP), which is a cornerstone of Amsterdam’s long-term sustainability plan.

On a sunny Friday morning, I biked to the incineration plant, which is in the western dockyards of Amsterdam.  Just like anywhere else in this city of 750,000, Amsterdam’s WFPP is easily accessible via bicycle paths.  Cycling to the facility was almost surreal:  as I approached the huge smokestacks, I could hear birds chirping, and wind rustling through tree branches as huge wind turbines churned high above me.

Harmen Veldman, the Innovation Center’s Manager of Amsterdam’s Waste to Energy Company (or AEB, Afval Energie Bedrijf), who granted me the tour, greeted me in the company’s sleek headquarters.  My two hours at AEB gave me insight as to how a small, densely populated country, with little landfill space, and much of its land lying under sea level, has made its choice in dealing with trash and waste.

Amsterdam overall is a solid model of sustainable living.  The city’s residents mostly commute by riding the 600,000 bicycles within the city, trees line its streets and charming canals, and cars are discouraged–residents in the center wait up to seven years to snare an automobile parking permit.  Recycling, however, is not a large component of the city’s waste management plan.  Bins for glass and paper are found on most street corners, but in Amsterdam, everything else goes in the trash.

That trash from Amsterdam and 18 other municipalities is hauled by train and truck to the WFPP. Incinerating trash into energy is nothing new in Amsterdam; the city’s first waste incinerator entered service in 1919, replaced 50 years later with a plant that burned up to 500,000 tons of garbage per year.  But the concern over the environmental effects of dioxins, coupled with improved technology, led to Amsterdam constructing a new plant in 1993 that converted that waste into energy.  That plant has 22% energy efficiency—and in 2007, AEB built the new WFPP that has an energy efficiency rate of 32%, among the highest in the world.  That is lower than the average efficiency of coal-fired power plants, which is about 45%.  Nevertheless, incinerating trash allows the Netherlands to maintain almost no landfill space, and helps the country meet its carbon reduction goals.  Furthermore, the technology used in the WFPP prevents particulates and most greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere, while giving the city a revenue stream from garbage collection and the sales of raw materials post-incineration.  That said, it’s not a benign system. For every ton of garbage incinerated, one ton of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

The Netherlands has some of the world’s strictest landfill codes.  Amsterdam’s WFPP helps the country meet those codes because 64% of the garbage that ends up at the plant is recycled.  I asked Harmen why metal is not recycled in Amsterdam—he replied that they are, but AFTER incineration.  Harmen replied that the AEB has a vendor that sorts through the resulting ash, filtering out metals like iron, aluminum, and copper.  The AEB also claims that the resulting metal is purer and more valuable than what can be separated from comingled recycling—Harmen explained that cans are often contaminated by food and other waste.  And plastic?  Amsterdam has a pilot plastic recycling programs in the works, but after the AEB analyzed the economics of recycling, its officials concluded that turning such waste into energy made better fiscal and environmental sense:  the different grades of plastic make effective plastic recycling expensive.

From the eighth floor office, I noticed two huge mounds of fly ash, which AEB sells to a building materials company that processes the byproduct into asphalt and other construction uses.  After the resulting incineration, only 2% of the initial waste remains:  in a flue gas residue that AEB ships to Germany, where it is stored in empty salt mines.

I watched Friday morning as truck after truck drove up a ramp, depositing its load into a huge ramp:  just on load of the 1.4 million tons  a year that are incinerated into energy. Then the tour began.  I was struck by how clean the facility was. There was a faint campfire-like smell, but no overpowering stench that I was expecting.  Harmen took me to the control room facing the enormous waste bunker, where an enormous crane sorts and piles tons of trash that churn through a massive furnace.   Wearing my hardhat and lab coat, I peeked into the furnaces, which provide the heat that provides electricity for Amsterdam’s city offices and public transport network at the total of one million megawatt hours annually.  An additional 300,000 gigajoules circulate through Amsterdam’s center, providing heat to most of its homes during the cold winter months.

Amsterdam’s waste-to-energy plant has become a model for municipalities around the world who struggle with the growing trash problems resulting from increasing urbanization.  It meets only one small part of the Netherlands’ energy requirements, but it is an effective approach to waste diversion while creating a revenue stream for a city—instead of the financial and environmental burdens that result from municipal solid waste.  Waste prevention is the ultimate goal, but incineration brings Amsterdam halfway towards that goal, and makes more economic and environmental sense that creating more landfill space.

More information on Amsterdam’s WFPP can be found at the AEB’s website.


▼▼▼      11 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

    “I toured the city’s waste fired power plant (WFPP), which is a cornerstone of Amsterdam’s long-term sustainability plan.”

    Oh, come on. This is a strange and twisted definition of sustainability. Incinerators need regular supplies of burnable waste and so are directly antagonistic towards high recycling rates and also initiatives to reduce packaging and plastics. If such initiatives were to end up removing the bulk of the plastic, wood, paper, card and tyres from the waste there is precious little left that is combustible. Incinerators put a cap on recycling and waste reduction. If they go for serious recycling and waste reduction, they would end up burning such incombustible residue that the plant would need to fire up it's oil/gas fired burners to keep the temperature high enough to prevent the formation of dioxins, thus jacking up its greenhouse emissions. Don't believe the self-interested hype from the incinerator industry.

  • leonkaye

    Oh come on back at you. This isn't industry talking–this is a government agency that for 90 years has had to deal with limited space and a densely packed population. They do not have the space for landfill, and the economic analysis they have run concluded AEB to incinerate just about everything except glass and paper. Look at the plastic recycling rates in other countries–you may think that those plastic bottles you are putting in the blue bin are getting repurposed, but chances are they are not–there is often no market for them, and the various grades of plastic make recycling an expensive option. Amsterdam has pilot recycling programs underway, and they have a long term goal of reducing their waste, but this is the best solution for now. That energy in turn is used to heat homes, power city offices, and run their public transport system. Yes, there are carbon emissions, but that is it–only 1 to 2% of that trash ends up in any landfill–everything else is either recycled or used for energy. There's nothing strange and twisted about this solution–only your dogmatic assumptions match your words, for that matter.

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  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Hi Leon,
    Perhaps you believe that if each area such as Amsterdam works out what they think is the most immediately green(ish) answer for them that somehow the sum total of all the millions of areas in the world doing this will add up to an adequately globally sustainable solution. I don't think minimising or ignoring the international dynamics will bring home the bacon environmentally speaking.

    Here's post I made to somewhere else that partially explains why incineration is a dead-end/red herring.

    Hi XXXXX,

    The whole point about why we talk about composting, waste/energy/greenhouse gas reductions etc. is because we are not living in a sustainable way. The United Nations Environment Program identified a couple of years that we are living at least 20% beyond what the planet can sustainably supply and so clearly we need to make big moves to address this, or we are in for some grief.

    As an analogy, it's no good jumping, say, 6 feet to cross the ten foot crevasse that yawns between our current society and sustainability. Similarly, such things as incinerators, compost-able plastics etc are diversions that have green “feel-good” aspects to them but only 6 feet worth, not the whole enchilada. These apparent benefits are largely greenwash in the marketing of products to a naive public – the marketing industry shares a lot of the responsibility for the mess we are now in because they seem to work on the principle that if people think they are getting something, then that is just about as good as if they actually are getting it. In short, their business is identifying “needs”, amplifying them into greeds then, with their evil twin the advertising industry, to set about marketing the various wares to satisfy these created needs/greeds. The incinerator industry has tidal waves of greenwash flooding around which sound sensible to short term analyses which do not sufficiently consider the long term goals.

    Incineration with energy recovery, particularly if that includes district heating, is viewed as better than landfill and, from the greenhouse emissions perspective (particularly methane) that is probably right – but it's not good enough. We can’t cross the gap like that. Incinerators need a supply of burnable rubbish for their 25-30 year design life and so are directly antagonistic towards waste reduction measures. Anyway, the amount of energy they actually recover is a fraction of the embodied manufacturing energy of most waste. “Recovering” that fraction of the energy out of burning waste only appears, at a casual glance, to be a plus because most never think of the much larger amount of energy (not to mention the generated pollution, resource depletion, habitat change etc.) that was originally used to extract or mine, transport, process and manufacture the goods that became “waste” in the first place.

    It's no good promoting incinerators by only looking at (what appear to be green) marketing points. Ultimately, any system which demands a steady supply of combustible waste will ensure that we will fail to make the other side of the crevasse. Proponents of the idea that they will provide a stopgap, while we are waiting for recycling/re-use systems to arrive, miss the point of how the presence of a convenient disposal system mitigates against the arrival of those systems.

    see part 2

  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Part 2

    It's also no good using shallow LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) to point out the current shortcomings with plastic recycling and returnable schemes – these will take a long time to sort out sufficiently. Pressure and economic incentives will need to be applied to “encourage” manufacturers to change their materials, transport and packaging systems; ultimately their factory locations, product design and manufacturing methods too.

    It took almost 100 years for the consumer society to get where we are now – we can spare 20 years to put right what once went wrong by re-imagining things sustainably, but we will have to ignore the siren corporate calls for easy disposal technology.

    One of the chess moves that will lead to a sustainable society being created is the instituting of reliable collection of recyclable material ahead of the moment when there will be enough of a supply for most manufacturers to commit to greatly reducing, or eliminating, the use of “virgin” material. Thus we need a “build it and they will come” period for recyclable/returnables combined with economic carrots and sticks applied to discriminate against the use of virgin material and one-trip systems, so that the loop gets closed.

    To cross the metaphorical crevasse successfully might need a hard ten mile frustrating sideways detour which, for a time might not appear to be getting closer to (or may initially even draw further away from) our destination, whereas moves like the big “incinerator jump” across might appear, with a shallow LCA analysis, to be rapidly crossing the ten foot gap to sustainability, only will prove to fail disastrously later on, having wasted lots of time.

    There is currently an awful lot of faux-sustainability thinking in the corporate planning arena and this is largely due to a failure to realise that business-almost-as-usual, but with a few bright green knobs stuck on, will simply not cut the sustainability mustard. Simultaneously, it muddies the waters with promises of apparently clean, useful solutions and relatively painless “keep right on consuming” subliminal messages which unfortunately will prove to be red herrings and a tragic waste of time and effort and will, in due course, end up with the planet and us broken at the bottom of the crevasse.

  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Hi Leon,
    Perhaps you believe that if each area such as Amsterdam works out what they think is the most immediately green(ish) answer for them that somehow the sum total of all the millions of areas in the world doing this will add up to an adequately globally sustainable solution. I don't think minimising or ignoring the international dynamics will bring home the bacon environmentally speaking.

    Here's post I made to somewhere else that partially explains why incineration is a dead-end/red herring.

    Hi XXXXX,

    The whole point about why we talk about composting, waste/energy/greenhouse gas reductions etc. is because we are not living in a sustainable way. The United Nations Environment Program identified a couple of years that we are living at least 20% beyond what the planet can sustainably supply and so clearly we need to make big moves to address this, or we are in for some grief.

    As an analogy, it's no good jumping, say, 6 feet to cross the ten foot crevasse that yawns between our current society and sustainability. Similarly, such things as incinerators, compost-able plastics etc are diversions that have green “feel-good” aspects to them but only 6 feet worth, not the whole enchilada. These apparent benefits are largely greenwash in the marketing of products to a naive public – the marketing industry shares a lot of the responsibility for the mess we are now in because they seem to work on the principle that if people think they are getting something, then that is just about as good as if they actually are getting it. In short, their business is identifying “needs”, amplifying them into greeds then, with their evil twin the advertising industry, to set about marketing the various wares to satisfy these created needs/greeds. The incinerator industry has tidal waves of greenwash flooding around which sound sensible to short term analyses which do not sufficiently consider the long term goals.

    Incineration with energy recovery, particularly if that includes district heating, is viewed as better than landfill and, from the greenhouse emissions perspective (particularly methane) that is probably right – but it's not good enough. We can’t cross the gap like that. Incinerators need a supply of burnable rubbish for their 25-30 year design life and so are directly antagonistic towards waste reduction measures. Anyway, the amount of energy they actually recover is a fraction of the embodied manufacturing energy of most waste. “Recovering” that fraction of the energy out of burning waste only appears, at a casual glance, to be a plus because most never think of the much larger amount of energy (not to mention the generated pollution, resource depletion, habitat change etc.) that was originally used to extract or mine, transport, process and manufacture the goods that became “waste” in the first place.

    It's no good promoting incinerators by only looking at (what appear to be green) marketing points. Ultimately, any system which demands a steady supply of combustible waste will ensure that we will fail to make the other side of the crevasse. Proponents of the idea that they will provide a stopgap, while we are waiting for recycling/re-use systems to arrive, miss the point of how the presence of a convenient disposal system mitigates against the arrival of those systems.

    see part 2

  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Part 2

    It's also no good using shallow LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) to point out the current shortcomings with plastic recycling and returnable schemes – these will take a long time to sort out sufficiently. Pressure and economic incentives will need to be applied to “encourage” manufacturers to change their materials, transport and packaging systems; ultimately their factory locations, product design and manufacturing methods too.

    It took almost 100 years for the consumer society to get where we are now – we can spare 20 years to put right what once went wrong by re-imagining things sustainably, but we will have to ignore the siren corporate calls for easy disposal technology.

    One of the chess moves that will lead to a sustainable society being created is the instituting of reliable collection of recyclable material ahead of the moment when there will be enough of a supply for most manufacturers to commit to greatly reducing, or eliminating, the use of “virgin” material. Thus we need a “build it and they will come” period for recyclable/returnables combined with economic carrots and sticks applied to discriminate against the use of virgin material and one-trip systems, so that the loop gets closed.

    To cross the metaphorical crevasse successfully might need a hard ten mile frustrating sideways detour which, for a time might not appear to be getting closer to (or may initially even draw further away from) our destination, whereas moves like the big “incinerator jump” across might appear, with a shallow LCA analysis, to be rapidly crossing the ten foot gap to sustainability, only will prove to fail disastrously later on, having wasted lots of time.

    There is currently an awful lot of faux-sustainability thinking in the corporate planning arena and this is largely due to a failure to realise that business-almost-as-usual, but with a few bright green knobs stuck on, will simply not cut the sustainability mustard. Simultaneously, it muddies the waters with promises of apparently clean, useful solutions and relatively painless “keep right on consuming” subliminal messages which unfortunately will prove to be red herrings and a tragic waste of time and effort and will, in due course, end up with the planet and us broken at the bottom of the crevasse.

  • AlexisRowell

    Hi Leon – AEB say that the 1MW hours per annum of electricity they produce is equivalent to 3/4 of the power needs of Amsterdam's households. Yet you say it meets only a small part of the Netherlands energy requirements. You're right in one sense but it's still a significant chunk of Amsterdam's power needs. Well done on your piece BTW – Amsterdam is the key example of how incineration can potentially play a part in the recycling process.

    Rgds, Alexis

  • Leon

    The point of A'dam's waste to energy plant is to provide a solution to the resources that are available to the Dutch now. Nothing in the article says that this is the best solution for all other municipalities on the planet–but this is what works for them at this moment. This is a partial solution–

    Of course we need to consume less, but so many “greens” out there assume we are going to change our ways on a dime. We are talking about a society that already has made great strides in greening their cities, has a respectable public transport system, and by the way, they seem to be pretty healthy based on the fact that almost everyone from the age of 8 to 80 is on a bike.

    Pilot programs are underway, and the fellow who gave me the tour said that the goal is to improve recycling–and the long term goal is to find that “closed group” which of course is a goal our society needs to achieve.

    Dismissing an idea as “not good enough” won't move the discussion anywhere–but a combination of increased regulation and buy-in from business is what is needed to arrive at any of these solutions, from reducing waste to moving towards renewable energy.

    Want improved recycling? Create a market for it–of course the correct answer to to stop consuming stupid products like bottled water in the first place–but until we move way from this disposable society, this is the solution for now.

    • Bas Oskam

      Dismissing an idea as not good enough is not getting us in solving the problem with our garbage reduction. What do you opponents of incinerating recommend we do instead??
      Comments please .

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  • Ciaramerrick

    I was just wondering how you got in contact with AEB? I am carrying out some research regarding waste incineration and public perceptions and I am hoping to set up an interview with a member for AEB but am having difficulty getting in contact and would be grateful for any advice? Many thanks

  • World

    A much better solution for clean energy “Waste to Energy” without the use of incinerators.
    Please read about Compo Energy Inc.