Thermal waste treatment, which is one of the mainstays of waste disposal in Germany, is carried out via various types of installations, depending on the type of waste involved. At nearly all such facilities, incineration energy is recovered to generate electricity, heat and/or process steam.
All of Germany’s thermal waste treatment facilities comply with Directive 2010/75/EC. The European state of the art is set forth in the Best Available Techniques (BAT) reference document, which aims to promote implementation of the regulations concerning integrated pollution prevention and control.
EU waste incineration regulations were transposed into German law via 17. Verordnung zur Durchführung des Bundes-Immissionsschutzgesetzes (Verordnung über die Verbrennung und die Mitverbrennung von Abfällen – 17. BImSchV), which applies to all waste incineration and co-incineration facilities.
Thermal treatment of municipal waste
The incineration of household and other municipal waste has a long tradition in Germany, which currently has 68 municipal waste incineration facilities with an aggregate annual capacity of around 19.6 million tons. (See below for a list of such facilities, along with their addresses and respective thermal treatment capacities; most of these facilities incinerate municipal waste.)
All of Germany’s waste incineration facilities use the heat generated by the incineration process for heat, process steam and/or district heating. The total energy efficiency of such facilities averages around 50 percent. If these facilities were more efficiently integrated into the relevant grids, they could provide a considerably greater amount of steam energy for district heating and other purposes.
Most facilities with wet waste gas scrubbing systems run without the use of additional water. Virtually all of the bottom ash generated by these facilities is recycled for road construction purposes, while iron and non-ferrous metals are recovered from slag and recycled.
A list of these facilities can be found on the Interessengemeinschaft der thermischen Abfallbehandlungsanlagen in Deutschland e.V. website, which also has interactive maps and a list of the applicable laws.
Thermal treatment of refuse-derived waste
Apart from co-incineration capacity in existing industrial firing plants, Germany also has around 30 refuse-derived fuel (RDF) power plants with annual capacity of around 4.7 million tons. These plants are specifically designed for RDF use, i.e. medium to high calorifically treated wastes.
RDF power plants are located at the same sites as factories and are connected to them. They provide factories with electricity and process heat, thus reducing the amount of conventionally generated (e.g. from coal, oil and gas) heat and electricity used by the plant.
Medical waste disposal
A relatively minor amount of healthcare waste needs to be handled separately using specific methods. A maximum of five percent (around 5,000 kilograms annually) of Germany’s healthcare waste comprises infectious healthcare waste, which, owing to the risk of infection, is classified as hazardous waste under the Abfallverzeichnisverordnung (AVV, waste directory regulation).
In accordance with the document titled Vollzugshilfe zur Entsorgung von Abfällen aus Einrichtungen des Gesundheitsdienstes (LAGA M18), infectious healthcare waste is to be collected separately and thermally treated using the mandated Robert Koch-Institut procedures such as sterilization, steam disinfection, or incineration.
Most healthcare waste can be disposed of or recycled at thermal waste treatment facilities together with municipal waste, provided that the requisite care is exercised during the collection, storage and transport processes. Germany has a dedicated healthcare waste incineration plant in Kiel/Wellsee, while two other municipal waste incineration plants (in Augsburg and Bielefeld) incinerate infectious healthcare waste in separate incineration installations. In the interest of emissions abatement, the waste gas generated by these processes is shunted to the gas scrubbing system at the neighboring municipal waste incineration plant.
Some infectious healthcare waste is thermally disposed of separately in purpose-built hazardous waste incineration facilities, after being transported in UN class 6.2-compliant containers.
The LAGA Mitteilung 18 document titled Vollzugshilfe zur Entsorgung von Abfällen aus Einrichtungen des Gesundheitsdienstes is available from the Länderarbeitsgemeinschaft Abfall (LAGA) website.
Thermal treatment of hazardous waste
Germany has around 30 hazardous waste incineration facilities, most of which are located at chemical plants and mainly handle waste from neighboring industrial facilities. However, many such facilities have been outsourced from their chemical plants and run their own waste acquisition operations.
The annual usable incineration capacity of Germany’s hazardous waste incineration plants amounts to around 1.5 million tons. While far less than that is actually incinerated, the capacity use of the various facilities often varies greatly. Following is a list of public hazardous waste incineration plants and their incineration capacities.
Thermal treatment of sewage sludge
According to Federal Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt) figures, each year Germany’s municipal sewage treatment plants generate some two million tons of dry sewage sludge, around 3.5 percent of which was still being deposited at landfill sites in 2004. However, this practice has been banned since mid 2005. The time series for the various disposal techniques is illustrated in the “Sewage sludge disposal” graphic.
Likewise as of 2004, some 52 percent of Germany’s sewage sludge was being used for agricultural purposes. This figure has drastically decreased in recent years, owing to steadily increasing quality requirements for recyclable sewage sludge, in terms of pollutant content. In 2007, 50.4 percent of Germany’s sewage sludge was being used for agriculture, composting, or horticulture. This figure declined to 46.8 percent by 2010.
The proportion of recovered sewage sludge that was incinerated or co-incinerated rose from 31.5 percent in 2004 to 54.7 percent in 2011. Over the past three years, incineration at incineration and co-incineration plants has become a mainstay of sewage sludge disposal in Germany. For detailed information concerning sewage sludge disposal in Germany, see the pamphlet titled “Sewage sludge management in Germany” (2012).
Like mono-incineration, co-incineration in Germany is governed by the 17. BImSchV regulation. Co-incineration is carried out at coal fired power plants, cement plants and other industrial firing installations. The waste destined for such plants needs to be converted into refuse-derived fuel (RDF) prior to incineration. RDF is derived from general waste that is produced by upstream processing facilities such as mechanical-biological waste treatment installations, where the waste is sorted and admixed, in accordance with the process related requirements of the co-incineration facilities in question.
The impact of climate change will be felt more strongly in the future – and in Germany too. This is the conclusion reached in what is called the vulnerability analysis, a comprehensive study on Germany's vulnerability to climate change.