A report by the World Bank published in 2012 found that, on average, each city dweller generates over a kilogram of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day – this is the rubbish collected by local authorities that we produce, as do offices, schools and shops. Across the globe, it equates to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Over the next decade the volume is predicted to double as the population continues to grow.

According to Dr Craig Edgar, head of renewable energy in Atkins’ power business, it’s time to think beyond our traditional responses: “Rapid urbanisation, particularly in the developing world is taking place against the backdrop of an increasing awareness of our finite resources as well as a requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the environment we live in,” he says. “And this extends to the way we manage our waste. Meeting the demands of more and more people, with cleaner, greener technology will require innovation.”

What’s being proposed demonstrates that one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. It’s building on our existing approach to waste management to address another challenge associated with rapid urbanisation. That is, energy supply and security.

For many years, developed nations around the world have used MSW and commercial and industrial (C&I) waste to generate electricity, and sometimes heat. For example, the energy that is recovered through incineration is sold back to the grid or passed on to local consumers. But to limited effect. In the UK, for example, only 2.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity was generated in this way in 2012, compared with total supply of 376 TWh.

There are many reasons for not exploiting this potential energy source. The facilities needed to support this approach are usually large-scale and rely on mass burn technology, which is rarely popular with local residents. And overall, it requires a significant investment in infrastructure and the resources needed to maintain the operation. It’s the sort of thing many of us take for granted – our bins are emptied by local authorities each week, and we put our recycling out for kerbside collection. But in developing nations where waste management strategies are less developed, this is not always straightforward.

New technology is emerging that may increase the benefits of producing energy from waste and make it more accessible. Advanced thermal treatment (ATT), uses pyrolysis and/or gasification to process raw waste, chemically altering it in low or no oxygen environments to convert it to gaseous fuel that can then be combusted for energy or used as a chemical feedstock. These technologies themselves are not new (we were making town gas from coal this way nearly 100 years ago), but building and operating these facilities to produce energy from waste is only just starting to take off.