Waste incineration: An extreme carbon outlier

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A skier at the Amager Bakke / Copen Hill, artificial ski slope on top of an incinerator plant which opened to the public in Copenhagen, Denmark, 12 February 2019. The ski slope and recreational centre is one of the steps towards Copenhagen's goal of becoming the world's first carbon neutral capital. [EPA-EFE/Mads Claus Rasmussen]

Meeting the EU’s 10% landfill target is possible without climate damage, writes Janek Vähk.

Janek Vähk is climate, energy and air pollution coordinator at Zero Waste Europe, an environmental NGO.

In September 2019, Scotland announced its decision to postpone the implementation of a ban on landfilling of organic waste until 2025. The decision follows a government-commissioned report published earlier this year, which found that achieving the ban by the original 2021 implementation date would require Scotland to export an additional one million tonnes of waste for landfill or incineration abroad, as the country has failed to build the necessary alternative waste treatment infrastructures.

Like other EU countries, Scotland has been trying to meet the EU target of 10% landfilling by 2035 by increasing its incineration capacity. According to waste data from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, incineration of household waste in Scotland almost doubled from 2014 to 2018. In the wider EU, incineration has risen by 38 million tonnes (118%) between 1995 and 2017, accounting for 70 million tonnes in 2017. If this trend continues, 700,0000 tonnes of new incineration and waste-to-fuel capacity would be expected to arise by 2022 in Scotland alone.

Despite this trend, the environmental case for burning waste has long gone up in smoke. This is because the EU, in recent years, significantly cut the average carbon intensity of its electricity grid, which now stands at 296g CO2eq per KWh. This incredible achievement also has implications for waste incineration.

While producing energy by burning waste may have appeared ‘green’ to policy makers decades ago, when the alternative was electricity from coal and oil, in the new EU energy system, waste incineration competes with wind, solar and hydro. That makes incineration an extreme carbon outlier: each tonne of incinerated waste raises the carbon impact of the EU’s energy system and, critically, undermines the EU’s own recently announced net zero-emissions target by 2050.

The EU could see its reputation as a world leader in the circular economy tarnished if it continues to invest in costly waste incinerators that will lock the region into decades-long commitments to feed the furnaces.

The current climate crisis is fuelling the European decarbonisation agenda, with the European Commission committing to carbon neutrality by 2050. Burning waste will thus become a bigger liability in the future.

For example, Portugal, a country which already incinerates 20% of its waste, recently announced that it would stop all future investment in incineration capacity, mentioning the risk to its EU recycling and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Meanwhile, in Belgium (Wallonia), the regional government recently laid out its plan to halve waste incineration in the region by 2027.

Similar decommissioning plans are being discussed across Scandinavia, which previously was the model for waste incineration in Europe, but that now risks missing the recycling targets because of its over-reliance on incineration. Significantly, European lending authorities, such as the European Investment Bank, have also started divesting from waste-to-energy incineration.

This comes in the wake of a tremendous sea change at EU level in 2017, when a communication from the Commission raised concerns about the rate of incineration in Europe.

‘The role of waste incineration – currently, the predominant waste-to-energy option – needs to be redefined to ensure that increases in recycling and reuse are not hampered and that overcapacities for residual waste treatment are averted.’

The Commission concluded by advising countries to carefully consider their waste management strategies, adding ‘it is essential that Member States take into consideration the risk of stranded assets’.

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With the EU and its Member States pulling back from waste incineration on environmental grounds, it is worrying to see some EU countries jeopardising their own circular economy and climate commitments by progressing plans for investment in incinerators to meet the 10% landfill target, particularly when a greener and cheaper option is available.

According to experts, the Material Recovery and Biological Treatment (MRBT) technology, an advanced version of Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT), offers the possibility to meet the EU target at a cheaper cost and with vastly lower emissions, allowing for the transition to a circular economy without locking-in investments in new infrastructure for the coming decades.

MRBT is a process that ‘pre-treats’ mixed waste before landfilling to recover even more dry materials for recycling and to minimise greenhouse gases and other emissions by stabilising the organic fraction through a composting-like process. Similar to the MBT systems used widely in Europe, the goal of MRBT is to capture any remaining recyclables and then create inert residuals that will produce little to no landfill gas when buried. The system can also classify non-recyclable dry items to help identifying industrial design change opportunities, further driving waste reduction.

From an environmental perspective, MRBT plants are far superior to waste incinerators, as they not only increase recycling rates but, ultimately, produce an output that can be landfilled with a far lower carbon impact than burning.

MRBT plants are also quicker and cheaper to build, averaging €250 capex/tonne capacity, compared to €1,000 for incinerators – features that should appeal to any government in need for more residual waste treatment capacity. MRBT plants also have greater flexibility, as they can easily be converted to conventional compost facilities when improved separate collection of organic waste reduces the demand for residual pre-treatment.

By delaying its biodegradable waste-to-landfill ban until 2025, Scotland has not only bought itself time to improve recycling and build more waste treatment capacity, it has also gained valuable time to take a broader look at the role of waste incineration in a circular and sustainable future for Scotland.

Zero Waste Europe invites EU Member States to take advantage of this opportunity to plan their infrastructures so as to facilitate the transition to a zero waste circular economy in the near future.

Waste incineration is waste incineration, no matter the classification

The European Parliament must reject any proposal that provides Cohesion Funds to incineration facilities, no matter their classification, writes Dr. Ingrid Behrsin.

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