Lithuania plans to burn more waste – but does it have enough?

Kaunas, Lithuania. Waste management factory , January 2016. [Shutterstock]

Lithuania plans to build more waste incineration plants, which the government says would cut energy bills but MPs and NGOs fear it would jeopardise recycling targets.

Waste-wise, Lithuania has been doing well: according to Eurostat data on mixed municipal waste, in 2015 it reduced  the amount of waste it sends to landfill by 6%.

The Baltic country also increased its recycling and composting rates by more than 10% while simultaneously increasing the rate at which it burnt waste (32%).

Now the government is planning to build one more incineration plant in the capital Vilnius (for municipal waste only) and another in Kaunas (which will also burn biofuels, sewage and industrial waste) to provide cheaper energy and heat, while lowering waste management costs.

But MPs are worried that the government’s plans do not take into account waste projections, which they fear will be insufficient to have all three plants running at full capacity.

On 25 October, MPs asked the Environment Ministry to redo its calculations and provide figures on waste projections.

“Our fear is that in case the government should invest in this extra incineration capacity, there would be no incentives to implement the circular economy package,” Virgilijus Poderys, an energy expert in the Lithuanian parliament, told EURACTIV.com.

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Future waste

Lithuania produces 1.3 billion tonnes of mixed municipal waste every year. The EU’s waste framework directive, currently being negotiated in trilateral talks between the three main institutions, seeks to up recycling targets to 65% of municipal waste by 2030.

This means there will be 455,000 tonnes left after sorting – but under the government’s plan incineration capacity for mixed municipal waste will be around 540,000 tonnes.

Lithuania is missing 85,000 tonnes of mixed municipal waste – and the population is declining, leading to lower levels of future waste.

Lietuvos energija, a state-owned energy provider who is investing in the new plants together with Finnish company Fortum, said it could make up this shortage by burning commercial waste.

A Fortum spokesperson estimated commercial waste suitable for burning between 150,000 and 200,000 tonnes per year.

But MEPs and environmental NGOs say there is not enough commercial waste with good calorific value lying around.

Wood treatment factories have their own burners and use residues to power their own plants, in a closed loop, and sewage sludge is being used by farmers as fertilisers.

Domantas Tracevicius of the Lithuanian NGO Circular Economy told EURACTIV.com: “By building three incinerators Lithuania would endanger recycling targets.”

He pointed to Estonia and Sweden, two countries which have increased the waste they send to waste-to-energy and over the same period decreased their recycling and composting rates.

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The growing trend of burning waste for energy undermines Europe’s recycling efforts by diverting waste to incinerators instead of having it reused or recycled, thereby defeating the purpose of the Commission’s well-meant directive on minimising waste.

Other options

In case of a waste shortage, Fortum says it could always burn biofuels or wood pellets, something it already did in the plant it currently runs in Klapeida. But this scenario is unlikely, according to them:

“If we had a very efficient system of waste management, with only 400 or 500 tonnes per year [of sorted municipal waste left for incineration] – it would be a miracle.”

Another option would be to import waste, like many EU countries do – but Lithuanian law prohibits waste imports.

In 2015, Fortum – who is running the existing plant in Klaipėda – burnt 3,000 tonnes of unsorted waste from Ireland. Once an investigation was launched, the company terminated the contract with the importer, and the matter is currently in the courts.

“The law in Lithuania is a bit strange. It allows import but it does not allow to take this waste to landfill, nor to burn it or to recycle it,” a Fortnum spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Waste imports also go against the “proximity principle” of the EU’s waste management framework, whereby waste should be treated as close as possible to where it is produced.

But in 2013 Fortum advised the Lithuanian environment ministry that importing waste “would be feasible” under current laws and that it is sometimes necessary to deal with waste in a cost-efficient way.

“We always say that we have no problems with free movement of RDF [fuel made from municipal waste] among the states. Sometimes it is much more efficient to burn it.”

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Timeline

The Renewable Energy Directive is currently being renegotiated. MEPs in the ENVI committee included an amendment to exclude mixed municipal waste from subsidies to renewable energy, and introduced safeguards to ensure that nothing that can be reused or recycled should be burnt for generating heat or energy.

The next vote is in the ITRE Committee on 28 November, but the parties have not reached a compromise on this amendment yet.