Energy production

Waste to fuel and feedstock

Waste is increasingly being viewed as a resource in the wrong place. This applies particularly to the growing mountain of municipal solid waste (MSW) – over two billion tons of it annually worldwide, and set to grow by over 60% by 2050, driven by urbanization.

Most of this waste is biogenic and along with other combustibles, such as plastic, has long been tapped as a source of energy via incineration. In recent decades attention has shifted to MSW as a source of fuels, principally methane and biodiesel. 

Valorising waste into higher value fuels like hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) will likely be hot topics over the next five to ten years as technology solutions for decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors become ever more urgent. With the intensifying social and policy focus on circularity and reuse, feedstock recycling of waste is also gaining currency. This applies in particular to plastic waste, where technology for the chemical recycling of post-consumer plastic to effectively produce a virgin resin equivalent is attracting widespread interest from both leading brands and policymakers.

In this chapter, DNV's Technology Progress Report covers: 

  • Waste-to-energy (WTE)
  • Landfill gas
  • Incineration
  • Biogas
  • Waste-to-fuels
  • Waste-to-feedstock (plastics)
  • Mechanical recycling
  • Chemical recycling

DNV perspective

Potential exists for enormous progress in waste to fuel technologies, and, in the case of plastics, a waste-to-feedstock circular model via chemical recycling.

In developed countries, the viability of biogas-to-power projects will be challenged by low-cost electricity from renewables, and the emphasis should therefore fall on the production of renewable fuels for hard-to-abate sectors. This includes the production of sustainable aviation jet-fuels and hydrogen. In the developing world, enormous potential exists for an expansion to small-scale biogas to displace traditional, biomass-fueled cooking. The chemical recycling of plastic is set to scale, and will impact the long term outlook for virgin resin from oil and gas sources, which will flatten and then decline over the next 30 years as recycling rates increase. Finally, comprehensive understanding of the full life cycle of recycling options is needed. For example, biodegradable alternatives to single use plastic are predicated upon the idea that the material will in fact be left to biodegrade after use; our analysis shows that it is likely to end up as biogas, and hence be burned as a fuel. That compares unfavourably with (potentially) infinite cycles of chemically-recycled resin, especially if the original plastic item was bio-derived. In such cases, chemically-recycled bio-derived plastic could become an important net-negative contribution to decarbonization.