Turning Landfill Waste To Energy—What Can Malaysia Learn from Sweden's Success Story?

A landfill located in Penang, Malaysia
Turning Landfill Waste To Energy—What Can Malaysia Learn from Sweden's Success Story?
Vartaverket power plant from the outside, Stockholm
Värtaverket, Stockholm Exergi's largest combined biofuel heat and power (CHP) plant/Credit: Li Wei Soon.

According to reports, Sweden is not only saving money by replacing fossil fuel with waste to produce energy, it is generating US$100 million annually by importing trash and recycling the waste produced by other countries.

In fact, the country has ambitious targets to generate 100% renewable energy (RE) by 2040 and achieve net zero emissions by 2045. These goals are already within reach, the reports said, quoting the Swedish Energy Agency. 

 According to the agency, more than 90% of the renewable resources for district heating—which warms up indoor environments and supplies hot water—are produced from biomass and waste incineration as at November 2022. 

Last month, this writer and 10 other international journalists were invited by the Internews Earth Journalism Network and Swedish Postcode Foundation to attend an energy transition workshop in Stockholm, Sweden. As part of the program, field trips were organized for participants, with interviews of key individuals there.

While in Stockholm, the media participants were brought to Vartaverket, Stockholm Exergi's largest combined biofuel heat and power (CHP) plant, which burns residuals from the forest product industry such as chips, branches and tops to generate energy, located at Vartahamnen harbor.

(Stockholm Exergi is the city's energy company which provides heating, cooling, electricity and waste management service).

Speaking to the visiting journalists, Stockholm Exergi Research and Development Manager, Erik Dahlen said the CHP plant has the capacity to produce 1,700 GWh of heat and 750 GWh of electricity a year, which is enough to heat around 190,000 average-size apartments and charge 150,000 electric cars. 

Erik Dahlen, Head of Research and Design at Vartaverket pointing at the facility
Stockholm Exergi Research and Development Manager, Erik Dahlen/Credit: Li Wei Soon 

"The RE produced at Vartaverket helps reduce the need for fossil power production in the Nordic countries and Europe. 

"In fact, Vartaverket is also a centre for the innovation and testing of new solutions to further reduce emissions and climate impact, one of it is bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) which helps reduce GHGs in the atmosphere and contributes to negative carbon dioxide (CO2)  emissions.

"The BECCS has the potential of capturing 800,000 tons of CO2 from flue gases per year, compressing it into liquid form and then injected into porous rock under high pressure, typically under the seabed," he said. 

As a result of its waste management policies, Sweden generates more energy from waste than any other country in Europe, with a total of 34 WTE power plants currently operating in the country which together treat over 2MM tons of household waste each year. 

To ensure waste from its huge forestry and pulp and paper sector as well as MSW are incinerated and generating energy, the government imposed a landfill ban that prohibits materials or items from being disposed of in a landfill since 2002,  said Stockholm Exergi’s head of Research and Development Dr Fabian Levihn.

"The fuel produced from waste and residues from the forestry industry are being transported to Vartaverket mainly by ships and trains.

Stockholm Exergi’s Head of Research and Development, Dr Fabian Levihn
Stockholm Exergi’s head of Research and Development, Dr Fabian Levihn/Credit: Li Wei Soon.

"For the other solid waste from households or other industry, it will be separated into few categories such as food waste, plastics, and sent to other WTE power plants to be incinerated and turned into power," he told the media representatives.

He said there is a dedicated biogas plant for food waste located in Skelleftea at the Tuvan Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant, which supplies biogas to run public buses and heat residential buildings. 

No space left by 2050

In Malaysia, several agencies and environmental activists including Alam Flora and Malaysian Green Technology and Climate Change Corporation have earlier warned that no space will be available by 2050 if nothing is done to reduce waste. 

About 38,000 metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are disposed of daily, which amounts to 1.17kg of waste daily per capita. Food waste contributed the most significant component of MSW, followed by plastic, paper, mixed organic, wood, and others. 

According to the National Solid Waste Department, there are currently 165 landfills, eight sanitary landfills, and three inert landfills for materials such as sand and concrete as the hub for the waste as of 2022.

Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said in Parliament on March 20, Malaysia’s current RE capacity level is at 25%, noting that the country is on the right track to source 31% of its power capacity from renewables by 2025 and 40% by 2035.

While authorities and operators are now actively seeking solutions for a sustainable waste disposal system, experts interviewed by Bernama saw the potential to include WTE as part of the RE generation.

Include WTE in national RE budget

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Malaysian-Japan International Institute of Technology (MJIIT) Head of Air Resources Research Laboratory, Prof Dr Mohd Rashid Mohd Yusof said the time has come for Malaysia to change its solid waste disposal approach to WTE technology as it is also part of the renewable energy.

"Compared with solar energy which requires lots of open spaces while production of hydrogen fuel is expensive and not economically feasible, WTE is the best option to be included as part of the national RE target," he told Bernama in an email interview. 

He said WTE serves to complement the existing fossil fuel power generation plant. 

"Waste generation is increasing on a yearly basis, thus WTE will be the best solution for the disposal of waste along with the generation of energy.

He said among the advantages of WTE are its footprint is small compared to solar energy, safe and reliable, can operate in any weather conditions, reduce waste volume more than 90%, reduce load on landfill and produce stable and odor-free residue. 

Eco-Ideal Consulting Sdn Bhd Chief Executive Officer Soon Hun Yang said recycling practice and WTE can co-exist as proven in many developed countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Japan, Taiwan, etc.

"Basically if we can recycle our food waste separately, we will be able to reduce the moisture issue and make the WTE more viable and attractive due to higher burning potential. 

Soon Hun Yang
Soon Hun Yang/Credit: Eco-Ideal Consulting Sdn Bhd. 

"Successful strategies also include charging higher fees for burning, prohibiting (trash from going to) landfills and free recycling—this will make recycling the first preferable option. 

"On the other hand, if all the recyclables are removed from MSW—the calorific value of MSW might also be affected and this shall be considered carefully during the design stage," he told Bernama via email. 

Soon, who is also a certified International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) waste manager, said WTE is definitely an alternative technological option for Malaysia to consider for residual waste, after all efforts in waste minimisation and recycling are undertaken, especially in densely populated areas.

"However, the initial cost would need to be budgeted for. The government will also need to convince the anti-WTE group to accept WTE as a modern and safe waste treatment facility which does no harm the environment. Like any major infrastructural investment, a detailed design and engineering study shall be conducted to assess the best configuration of such plant to achieve cost effectiveness of WTE," he said. 

According to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), WTE facilities can substantially contribute toward Malaysia becoming a zero-waste nation due to its hygienisation process of waste.

The Housing and Local Government ministry plans to build six WTE plants across the nation by 2025.

At present, a WTE plant is located in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, which started operation in June 2019. Others in the pipeline are in Sungai Udang, Melaka; Bukit Payung, Terengganu; Seelong, Johor; Samling, Selangor; and Jabor, Pahang.

These initiatives have been highlighted in the 12th Malaysia Plan 2021-2025 (12MP) as part of the country’s commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in BERNAMA on the 20 June 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: A landfill located in Penang, Malaysia / Credit: Malaysian National News Agency (BERNAMA).

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