Trash to Treasure: Global Waste to Energy Market Scenario

Published on 18 Dec, 2018

The World Bank estimates global waste levels to rise by 70% of the current level by 2050, driven by growth in urbanization and population. Rising waste level, coupled with rapid increase in consumption of energy globally and the growing need for governments to meet their renewable energy targets, has given a boost to the waste to energy market worldwide.

Municipal solid waste to drive growth

Around 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste was generated globally in 2016; according to the World Bank, it would increase nearly 70% to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050.

Increase in solid waste levels, coupled with rapid growth in energy consumption across the world, especially in developing nations, is expected to drive the waste to energy market. The demand for energy globally rose 2.1% in 2017, double the rate recorded in 2016, led by strong economic growth. In 2017, fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the total demand for energy. Also, governments internationally are undertaking initiatives to increase the generation of clean energy in their bid to meet their renewable energy targets. This has given a boost to the waste to energy market worldwide.

Technologies utilized

Several technologies are available for the recovery of energy from waste, such as pyrolysis, incineration, and gasification or plasma treatment, among others. Of these, incineration is the most prevalent and approved technology globally.

Gasification is up to 30% more efficient than incineration. However, incineration is popular as the economic benefits associated with it are higher vis-à-vis other methods—it costs up to 1.5 times lesser and yields faster return on investments.

Waste to energy markets: Global perspective

According to the World Bank, high income countries (such as the US and UK) account for one-third of the solid waste generated globally, despite having just about 16% of the world’s population. On the other hand, regions like East-Asia and Pacific countries account for a quarter of the waste produced globally. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest contribution to global waste generation.

As per the World Energy Organization, historically Europe has accounted for more than one-third of the total waste to energy market, followed by Asia-Pacific. Europe’s domination is mainly ascribed to common European waste management and climate change policies, particularly those enacted after 2010 with an aim to promote investment in (and, consequently, development of) waste to energy technology.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan leads the waste to energy market for incineration. However, China has recorded the fastest growth, doubling its national waste to energy capacity during 2011–15.

Waste to energy in developing nations

Developing nations such as China and India are expanding their waste to energy capacity in order to safely dispose the increasing solid waste generated per annum.


According to Press Information Bureau, India annually generates ~62 million tonnes of solid waste, of which only ~5.6 million tonnes is processed. Around 90% of the waste generated is disposed indiscriminately at landfills and dump yards. Considering the annual rate of generation of municipal solid waste (MSW), 340,000 cubic meters of landfill area per day (i.e., approximately 1,240 hectares per year) would be required to dispose of the trash.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy estimates India’s waste to energy potential at ~1,700 MW per year, of which, only ~66.5 MW has been tapped so far. This implies that, in 2017, India achieved just 3.9% of its total waste to energy potential.

To promote waste to energy projects in the country, the Government of India is offering a capital subsidy (one that covers the upfront capital cost of the project) to players in the industry. The positive impact can be gauged from the 53 proposals for waste to energy plants received by the Ministry of Urban Development from 22 states in 2017. The electricity generation potential of these plants is estimated at 405.3 MW.


With a population surpassing 1.37 billion and solid waste generation at ~175 million tonnes per annum—China is the world’s largest generator of MSW—the country has been trying to expand its waste to energy capacity since 2012. The number of waste to energy plants in China grew at a CAGR of ~12% during 2012-16 and the country currently has ~299 number of waste to energy plants. It has a total treatment capacity of ~280,000 tonnes per day and a total waste to energy incineration volume of 74 million tonnes per annum.

In China, incineration and disposal at landfills are the two main methods for disposing waste. In 2016, ~60.3% of waste was disposed at landfills, ~37.5% via incineration and 2.2% through other methods. The volume of waste disposed via incineration is rising vis-à-vis disposal at landfills.

Along with developing waste to energy incineration systems, China needs to implement stringent laws for waste collection and emission control.


Incineration is the preferred technology for the conversion of waste to energy. However, indiscriminate usage of this method, without proper segregation of waste materials, may lead to the release of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere, which could impact human health and environment.

Across developed countries, nearly 50% of investments are diverted toward control systems for reducing toxic emissions such as cadmium, furans, lead, mercury, dioxins, and volatile organic compounds. Developing nations, too, would do well to create an effective regulatory system to monitor the use of incineration and (consequently) reduce its harmful impact on the environment.

Future perspective

Growing concerns regarding safe disposal of waste, amid increasing generation, are expected to drive growth in the waste to energy market. Currently, incineration dominates the global market with regard to waste disposal. However, it must be used in accordance with stringent regulations related to emission control to prevent negative impact on health and environment. Additionally, alternative waste to energy technologies (such as gasification and pyrolysis), currently in the nascent stage, need to be promoted by government bodies. These technologies not only serve as effective substitutes (to incineration) for handling municipal waste without harmfully impacting the environment but also function as sources of renewable energy.

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