Mechanical biological treatment

Mechanical biological treatment

A mechanical biological treatment system is a form of waste processing facility that combines a sorting facility with a form of biological treatment such as composting or anaerobic digestion. MBT plants are designed to process mixed household waste as well as commercial and industrial wastes.


The terms 'mechanical biological treatment' or 'mechanical biological pre-treatment' relate to a group of solid waste treatment systems. These systems enable the recovery of materials contained within and the stabilisation of the biodegradable component of the material.

The sorting component of the plants resemble a materials recovery facility. This component is either configured to recover the individual elements of the waste or produce a refuse-derived fuel that can be used for the generation of power.

The components of the mixed waste stream that can be recovered include:


MBT is also sometimes termed BMT – biological mechanical treatment – however this simply refers to the order of processing, i.e. the biological phase of the system precedes the mechanical sorting. MBT should not be confused with MHT – mechanical heat treatment - which does not include any form of biological degradation or stabilisation.

Mechanical sorting

The "mechanical" element is usually an automated mechanical sorting stage. This either removes recyclable elements from a mixed waste stream (such as metals, plastics, glass and paper) or processes them. It typically involves factory style conveyors, industrial magnets, eddy current separators, trommels, shredders and other tailor made systems, or the sorting is made by hand. The mechanical element has a number of similarities to a materials recovery facility (MRF).

Some systems integrate a wet MRF to recover & wash the recyclable elements of the waste in a form that can be sent for recycling. MBT can alternatively process the waste to produce a high calorific fuel given the term refuse derived fuel (RDF). RDF can be used in cement kilns or power plants and is generally made up from plastics and biodegradable organic waste. Systems which are configured to produce RDF include the Herhof and Ecodeco Processes. It is a common misconception that all MBT processes produce RDF. This is not the case and depends strictly on system configuration and suitable local markets for MBT outputs.

Biological processing

The "biological" element refers to either:

  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Composting
  • Biodrying

Anaerobic digestion breaks down the biodegradable component of the waste to produce biogas and soil improver. The biogas can be used to generate electricity and heat.

Biological can also refer to a composting stage. Here the organic component is treated with aerobic microorganisms. They break down the waste into carbon dioxide and compost. There is no green energy produced by systems employing only composting treatment for the biodegradable waste.

In the case of biodrying, the waste material undergoes a period of rapid heating through the action of aerobic microbes. During this partial composting stage the heat generated by the microbes result in rapid drying of the waste. These systems are often configured to produce a refuse-derived fuel where a dry, light material is advantageous for later transport combustion.

Some systems incorporate both anaerobic digestion and composting. This may either take the form of a full anaerobic digestion phase, followed by the maturation (composting) of the digestate. Alternatively a partial anaerobic digestion phase can be induced on water that is percolated through the raw waste, dissolving the readily available sugars, with the remaining material being sent to a windrow composting facility.

By processing the biodegradable waste either by anaerobic digestion or by composting MBT technologies help to reduce the contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming.

Usable wastes for this system:

- Municipal solid waste

- Sewage sludge

Products of this system:

- Recycable materials such as metals, paper, plastics, glass etc.

- Organic fertilizer (separate collection of organic waste)

- Unusable materials prepared for their unharmful final deposit (compaction > 1.3 t/m³)

- Carbon credits – additional revenues

- High calorific fraction (refuse derived fuel – RDF) – additional revenues

Further advantages:

- The finally deposited waste is inert

- Reduction of the waste volume to be deposited to at least a half (density > 1.3 t/m³), thus the lifetime of the landfill is at least twice as long as usually

- Utilization of the leachate in the process

- No unbidden guests such as birds, dogs, vermin, rats on site

- No additional facilities for the collection and combustion of biogas as there is no biogas

- Daily covering not necessary

- Aftercare 3 to 5 years

Consideration of applications

MBT systems can form an integral part of a region's waste treatment infrastructure. These systems are typically integrated with curbside collection schemes. In the event that a refuse-derived fuel is produced as a by-product then a combustion facility would be required.

Alternatively MBT solutions can diminish the need for home separation and curbside collection of recyclable elements of waste. This gives the ability of local authorities and councils to reduce the use of waste vehicles on the roads and keep recycling rates high.

Position of Environmental Groups

Friends of the Earth suggests that the best environmental route for residual waste is to firstly maximise removal of remaining recyclable materials from the waste stream (such as metals, plastics and paper). The small amount of waste remaining should be composted or anaerobically digested and disposed of to landfill, unless sufficiently clean to be used as compost.

A report by Eunomia undertook a detailed analysis of the climate impacts of different residual waste technologies. It found that an MBT process that extracts both the metals and plastics prior to landfilling is one of the best options for dealing with our residual waste, and has a lower impact than either MBT processes producing RDF for incineration or incineration of waste without MBT.

Friends of the Earth does not support MBT plants that produce refuse derived fuel (RDF), and believes MBT processes should occur in small, localised treatment plants.

See also


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