EU warned against renewables law ‘subverting’ the circular economy

The MVA waste incineration plant in Bremerhaven, Germany. [Ingo Wagner / EPA]

Lawmakers in the European Parliament will next month examine a draft renewable energy bill that recycling industries warn would allow EU countries to count the burning of biowaste towards their green energy obligations, undermining separate efforts to boost recycling.

For years, environmental campaigners have lobbied against waste incineration, drawing attention to the public health consequences of burning waste in terms of air pollution.

So when they discovered that European lawmakers were considering whether to recognise incineration as a form of renewable energy – a green fetish – they almost fell off their chair.

A European Commission proposal to revise the Renewable Energy Directive will be voted on by the European Parliament’s environment committee on October 11-12.

It is controversial because “it exempts the use of municipal and industrial waste from any sustainability criteria,” said Roberta Arbinolo from Zero Waste Europe, an environmental NGO.

“This means that all waste-to-energy processes, including the incineration of mixed waste, will be eligible for renewable energy subsidies and count towards member states’ renewable energy targets,” she told EURACTIV.com.

Mixed or residual waste can include any type of junk that didn’t make it into people’s recycling bins – mostly food and kitchen waste, plastics, and paper.

If those were burnt instead of recycled, it would “subvert the EU waste hierarchy” and undermine separate EU efforts to collect and recycle things like metal and plastics, which MEPs supported earlier this year, Arbinolo said.

MEPs vote to boost recycling rates and limit food waste

After 51 organisations and 64,000 people in the EU backed a campaign to reduce food waste, MEPs voted today (14 March) in support of a 50% reduction by 2030.

New obligation to incorporate waste-based fossil fuels in transport

The European Commission brushed aside those allegations. A Comission spokesperson said that “only the biodegradable fraction of industrial and municipal waste is considered a source of renewable energy” under current EU rules.

The EU executive’s proposed revision of the Renewable Energy Directive does, however, include “a new obligation” on transport fuel suppliers to incorporate “waste-based fossil fuels” and “waste gases from industrial processes” that have lower carbon emissions than petrol – but not plastics, the spokesperson told EURACTIV in an e-mailed statement.

And because these fuels are not renewable, they will not count towards the EU renewable energy target of at least 27%, the spokesperson underlined.

“The Commission has included waste-based fossil fuels in the suppliers’ obligation because they can also contribute towards the policy objectives of energy diversification and transport decarbonisation and do not raise ILUC concerns,” the official explained, referring to displacement of agricultural land known as indirect land use change.

Waste-to-energy plants not interested in biogenic waste

ESWET, a European association representing suppliers of waste-to-energy technology such as US conglomerate GE and France’s Vinci Environment, also says there is little to worry about.

Natalia Walczak, a Brussels representative for ESWET, said only the energy produced from the incineration of biogenic waste will fall under the definition of biomass and be eligible as renewable energy under the revised directive.

And in any case, she said, operators of waste-to-energy plants were not interested to get more biogenic waste in their feedstock “because it is a more ‘difficult’ fuel – it is wet and therefore has lower calorific value”.

Still, she told EURACTIV that in case biogenic waste reaches incineration stage, it should be treated on a level playing field with other renewable sources of energy.

“It is in nobody’s intention to build a waste-to-energy plant for burning biomass. The first function is to treat waste. But if there is biomass that can be treated as renewable, why not?” Walczak said.

Recycling or burning

This is precisely what environmentalists and recycling industries are worried about. According to them, the EU’s renewable energy directive will increase competition for biowaste and channel growing amounts of biomass away from recycling loops into incineration plants.

“We have just approved new recycling targets with Parliament, which are now being discussed in the Council,” said Janek Vahk from Zero Waste Europe, referring to negotiations on the circular economy package currently taking place between EU legislators.

His worry, shared by recycling industry associations, is that new requirements under the renewable energy directive will discourage the separate treatment and collection of biowaste.

“There is huge potential to collect biowaste separately,” Vahk said, pointing to figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA) that show a stagnation in organics recycling over the last years.

According to the European Compost Network, more than 60 million tonnes of biowaste could be recycled, composted or digested, which could produce energy equivalent to 12 large coal fire plants of a capacity of 500MW each. This, it says, represents as much as the entire annual electric consumption of Austria.

“Instead of promoting dirty waste-to-energy processes that not only go against the circular economy principles, but also contribute to climate change, the EU should rather support the extraction of energy from separately collected biowaste,” said Arbinolo from Zero Waste Europe.

MEPs bolster EU recycling and landfill targets

Members of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee yesterday (24 January) moved to increase draft EU recycling and landfill targets that had been lowered by the European Commission in its re-tabled Circular Economy Package.

Joint letter with recyclers

Zero Waste Europe is not alone in raising concerns about the EU’s renewable directive.

Earlier this month, it was joined by a group of trade associations involved in the recycling business – the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation, the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) and Plastics Recyclers Europe. The action was also supported by the Bureau of International Recycling and European Furniture Industries Confederation.

Together, they signed a joint letter to EU lawmakers, urging them to:

  • Introduce new sustainability criteria for renewable energy from waste, to ensure any extraction of energy from waste is done in line with the EU waste hierarchy.
  • Remove the subsidies for energy from mixed municipal and industrial waste, to support separate collection and recycling targets.
  • Exclude waste-based fossil fuels from the scope of the legislative proposal, arguing “the use of renewable energy funding for these is a massive step backward for the deployment of renewable energy sources, and should therefore be explicitly excluded from the Directive.”