This waste-to-energy incinerator burns sewage to produce electricity—and to power its indoor spa

October 26, 2022, 9:43 AM UTC
Hong Kong sludge incinerator, managed by French company Veolia, T-Park opened in 2016.
Isaac Lawrence—AFP/Getty Images

On a recent hot and humid autumnal day, I ticked a peculiar item off of my bucket list of sites to see in Hong Kong: the city’s first, and purportedly one of the world’s largest, sewage sludge incineration plants.

Sludge is the solid(ish) organic matter left over from sewage treatment. Ordinarily, sludge is disposed of in landfills but at T-Park, which opened in 2016 and is operated by French waste management Veolia, sludge is incinerated to generate electricity.

For most people, a sludge incineration site doesn’t sound like the ideal day out, but T-Park was designed to entice visitors. Situated in Hong Kong’s remote west coast, where the mountains meet the sea, T-Park houses a bird sanctuary, landscaped gardens, and a spa—featuring thermal pools heated by the energy produced from incinerating sludge. T-Park also offers guided educational tours of its facilities.

According to the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, the purpose of pitching T-Park as a tourist destination is to “[educate] the public on the benefits of using modern [waste to energy] facilities.”

Sadly, Hong Kong’s ongoing COVID restrictions mean the spa was closed when I visited and, while the gardens are pretty, they don’t exactly smell like roses. The guided educational tour was the only thing left, and here it is.

T-Park says it burns 1,300 tonnes of sewage sludge per day, generating enough electricity to power the facility itself as well as producing a surplus, which T-Park sells to the grid. The park claims it generates enough extra energy to power 4,000 homes a day while reducing the volume of sludge, which would otherwise go to landfill, by roughly 90%.

Of course, combusting sludge produces carbon too but, those emissions are net-zero because the waste is organic matter.

However the government is leveraging the good optics of T-Park to push forward with plans for the city’s first trash incinerator, dubbed I-Park, due to come online in 2025. Location scouts are already searching for a place to develop a second.

The government says the incinerator is necessary to meet the city’s “Zero Landfill” ambitions as well as its goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. For that to work, the new incinerators will have to be fitted with still-unproven carbon capture tech, and Hong Kong is pushing on with its plan at the same time the EU is scaling back its own incinerator ambitions.

According to the International Energy Agency, waste-to-energy incinerators (most of which burn trash, not sludge) generate approximately 2.4% of the EU’s total energy supply, powering roughly 18 million homes. But news site Clean Energy Wire calculates WtE plants emit almost double the average volume of greenhouse gas per unit of energy produced, compared to the continent’s overall grid network.

“Once we phase out coal, incineration becomes the most polluting source of energy,” Brussels-based NGO Zero Waste Europe tells Clean Energy Wire. 

While advocates of industrial trash burning argue that the process eliminates methane emissions that would be produced if the garbage was simply sent to landfill, critics of WtE argue that building incinerators distracts from the more important task of reducing and recycling waste. Case in point: the U.K. burns 45% of its waste—including 11% of waste earmarked for recycling.

Despite setting a target to reduce landfill waste 90% by 2035, the EU is now moving to eliminate funding for new WtE incinerators, deciding it is better to promote recycling. Like oil refineries, today’s waste incinerators should prepare for a future of dwindling supply.

Eamon Barrett


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