Overlooking waste incineration will not make waste disappear

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Source: Unsplash. Author: Etienne Girardet

Author: Aurelien Ballagny, Head of Policy of ESWET, European Suppliers of Waste-to-Energy Technology.

The amount of waste generated and the sustainability of its treatment are critical challenges the EU has to face to keep up with its ambitious climate goals.

On one side, the efforts to reduce waste and improve reuse and recycling are steps in the right direction. They deserve further investment and political support, and they are showing promising results. However, it is also important to keep in mind that only half of the municipal waste generated today in Europe is recycled or recyclable, and that waste generation is not declining as it should.

Municipal waste generation is rising

With almost 225 million tonnes of municipal solid waste generated in Europe in 2019 (Eurostat data), waste generation is on the rise for the fifth year in a row. There is worse: for the first year in two decades, landfills are growing again.

Despite these alarming numbers, discussions on the most efficient ways to treat non-recyclable waste seem to be overlooked by recent policy measures and public awareness. Yet, it would be the case, as there are many reasons why non-recyclable waste deserves to be fully part of the debate on waste policies.

First of all, European countries face all different waste management challenges. While some accomplish close to zero-landfill policies by sending the non-recyclable waste to Waste-to-Energy plants, several others – often the poorer – still rely heavily on landfills, with serious long-term risks for the environment and human health.

Several reports point out how, in recent years, failures to properly treat non-recyclable waste result in illegal dumping and waste shipments to countries with lower standards.

Waste-to-Energy or landfills?

Regarding non-recyclable waste, the figures are high (around 113 million tonnes in the EU in 2019), and the treatment options are two: Waste-to-Energy or landfills. In this regard, the waste hierarchy is clear: Waste-to-Energy is the preferred option, as it treats safely non-recyclable waste while recovering energy (electricity, heating, steam and hydrogen) and materials (aluminium, copper, iron, and even silver and gold).

Waste-to-Energy is not a silver bullet. The plants emit GHG emissions from the combustion of waste (a challenge that could be overcome through CCS implementation, as pointed out by the promising results of the Oslo project). Still, the impact is way minor if compared with the greenhouse gas emissions from landfills (methane emissions, in particular, which are up to 84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years).

Can we keep ignoring non-recyclable waste?

Yet, the issue of non-recyclable waste seems to be widely overlooked in EU discussions. The latest example is the European Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance, a classification system first designed for financial markets but which de facto is becoming a tool used to determine the sustainability level of any activities.

In 2020, the first Taxonomy expert group (the “Technical Expert Group on sustainable finance”) advised its successor to consider Waste-to-Energy for discussion. This need was further stressed by a PwC legal analysis on the topic. More than one year later, we have witnessed no open debate on Waste-to-Energy in the Taxonomy yet.

Today, the coverage of activities linked to non-recyclable waste treatment in the Taxonomy is minimal. And how sustainable the Taxonomy can be if it does not fully address non-recyclable waste treatment?

We thus need an open discussion involving all relevant stakeholders to define under what conditions Waste-to-Energy contributes to the environmental objectives.

In this context, the European association of Waste-to-Energy suppliers (ESWET) is promoting “The Beauty in the Beast” campaign to showcase the hidden resources of Waste-to-Energy, and will organise an online event on October 25th to foster a discussion on non-recyclable waste at the EU level.

We cannot keep ignoring what happens to our non-recyclable waste, not if we truly want to live up to the ambitions of the European Green Deal.

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