When it comes to waste, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan focuses on improving recyclability and re-use of products to reduce the overall amount of waste. In addition, the Commission will review the EU rules on waste shipment in 2021 to facilitate transfers of waste between EU countries and avoiding waste exports outside of the EU – this could offer significant opportunities for co-processing.
The focus is primarily on the best possible utilisation of waste streams that are non-preventable, non-reusable, non-recyclable, in line with the waste hierarchy. On 26 January 2017, the Commission published a communication in which it provides Member States with guidance when evaluating and revising their waste management plans. This document illustrated how it is possible to generate energy from waste which is neither recyclable nor reusable. This guidance document recognises co-processing in the cement industry as a waste-to-energy solution. Member States with low or non-existent dedicated incineration capacity and high reliance on landfill should take a long-term perspective and carefully assess the available capacity for co-incineration in combustion plants and in cement and lime kilns or in other suitable industrial processes.
The European cement industry provides a waste-to-energy solution thanks to co-processing, which refers to the use of waste as a source of energy or a raw material (or both) to replace fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and gas (energy recovery) and natural mineral resources (material recycling) in industrial processes. In 2020, conventional fossil fuels accounted for 48% of the European cement industry’s fuel mix, whilst alternative fuels from waste made up 52%. Based on the study “Status and prospects of co-processing of waste in EU cement plants”, it has been estimated that the sector has the potential to replace in the medium term up to 60% of its traditional fuels with pre-treated waste. In future, this figure could even rise to 95%! Making the most of this waste-to-energy capacity has the advantage of reducing the need for additional investment in new waste-to-energy capacity. Furthermore, Member States could save between €12.2 billion by utilising existing capacity in the EU cement industry, an amount that corresponds to investment required for the construction of new waste-to-energy incinerators. In the study Ecofys assess the barriers and opportunities for further uptake of AF in 14 EU member states. Ecofys found that local factors constrain the market potential to a much larger extent than the technical and economic feasibility of the cement industry itself. In this summary they present the overall findings. The detailed assessments are available in separate cases studies.
The clinker process is highly energy efficient. For example, an extensive share of waste heat is recovered by drying the raw materials and fuels in the integrated grinding mills. The high energy efficiency, the use of alternative fuels and using renewable energy sources has made the cement industry a success story in reducing both costs and carbon footprint.
According to the technical report “Evaluation of the energy performance of cement kilns in the context of co-processing” by the European Cement Research Academy the energy efficiency in the cement kilns varies between 70% to 80% depending on the raw materials moisture content.