Ministers call for concrete measures on waste prevention

The Environment Council has emphasised the importance of keeping a clear waste hierarchy that puts the priority on prevention, thereby soothing green NGO fears that it wanted to prioritise incineration for generating energy.

The Environment Council on 27 June has re-emphasised the key importance it attaches to the waste hierarchy and called on the Commission to come forward with concrete measures on prevention under the Finnish Presidency.

The Commission was asked come up with guidelines on how waste could be prevented in fields such as product policy, chemicals policy and eco-design of electrical appliances to minimise the generation of waste and the presence of hazardous substances.

The waste hierarchy ranks waste management options in a pre-defined order, the very best solution being to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place (waste prevention). After that, reuse is preferred to recycling which, in turn, is preferred to incineration. Disposal in a landfill is the least favourable solution.

However, in a proposal to streamline the EU’s waste strategy in December last year, the Commission said some flexibility should be introduced in the hierarchy to allow waste to be treated in a cheaper and more energy-efficient way. The flexibility would allow member states to “deviate” from the strict five-step hierarchy if they can prove that other ways of treating waste would save more energy or are more environmentally-friendly. 

A new benchmark on energy-efficiency would “determine whether an incinerator can be identified as a recovery facility instead of a disposal facility,” the Commission said.

“We are trying to combine two approaches which we believe are complementary,” says the Commission’s environment spokesperson Barbara Helfferich who says she has full support from member states on the issue.

This new approach is strongly opposed by the EEB, a federation of European environmental organisations, which says the Council did not directly address the Commission's proposal to reclassify incinerators as recovery facilities for energy generation. It says such a move would need to be properly assessed.

An impact assessment, the EEB argues, would answer "calls from Parliament [...] on the Commission's proposal to reclassify municipal waste incinerators as 'recovery facilities'. We believe that it is time for the Commission to properly assess the consequences of this proposal," said the EEB Waste policy officer Melissa Shinn. Nevertheless, she feels that the Council has "in the spirit" clarified that the waste hierarchy should not be interfered with.

At a meeting in May this year, environment ministers of the Czech RepublicHungaryPoland and the Slovak Republic - the so-called Visegard group of countries - expressed reservations regarding the re-classification of incinerators as potential recovery facilities for energy generation. The ministers agreed on the need of increasing the energy efficiency of waste incineration by other instruments based on detailed technical characteristics.

In 2005, the Commission presented a new Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling and proposed an updated version of the waste framework directive. The strategy reviews and streamlines existing legislation within a single, comprehensive framework (EURACTIV 21 Dec. 2005).

  • 23 October 2006: Environment Council to examine Commission proposals on prevention and possibly address the issue of incineration for energy generation purposes

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