Waste-to-Energy: Beauty or the Beast?

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

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ESWET launches “The Beauty in the Beast”: a campaign to showcase Waste-to-Energy’s positive impact in Europe. 

Waste is not exactly a fashion product. It’s the unwanted residue of what we consume, and we often produce it despite our will. As we face the challenges posed by climate change, we realise how waste management practices are paramount to keeping our environment clean and healthy. Today, with 70% of the global waste landfilled or dumped illegally, we are dangerously lagging in our efforts.

Waste-to-Energy, the procedure of recovering energy (and materials) from the combustion of non-recyclable waste, has been heavily criticised for many years, not always fairly. While it is incorrect to believe that burning waste means only creating ashes, focusing on waste reduction and recycling cannot solve the waste issue alone. On the opposite, it would be an environmental disaster to decree the end of Waste-to-Energy plants.

That’s why ESWET – the EU association representing the suppliers of Waste-to-Energy plants – is launching the campaign “The Beauty in the Beast.” To debunk some old myths about Waste-to-Energy in Europe, and with the ambition to launch a public debate on the sustainable options for the integrated European waste treatment.

The impact of non-recyclable waste

People’s commitment to waste reduction and better waste management is increasing everywhere. As people pay more attention to waste generation, explore new ways of reuse, and demand more sustainable packaging of products, waste is better separated in households, and recycling rates increase.

But we still generate a considerable amount of non-recyclable waste. In 2018, out of 220 million tonnes of municipal waste, around 116 million tonnes were considered not fit for recycling. This waste had two options: to be stocked in landfills, with the generation of methane emissions (up to 84 times more potent of CO2 over 20-year), or used as a resource by Waste-to-Energy plants.

The waste hierarchy indicates Waste-to-Energy as the best technology to treat non-recyclable waste, with huge potential to further contribute to the waste and energy sectors’ decarbonisation. The “The Beauty in the Beast” campaign aims to spread awareness about this potential, with a collection of stories, videos, and infographics highlighting the topics where investments and research can bring Waste-to-Energy to a new level of performances:

Recovering Secondary Raw Materials

  • The implementation of a secondary raw material market will increase internal resources in Europe, in the spirit of the EU Green Deal. The recovery of metals from Waste-to-Energy saves many secondary raw materials, reducing the need to import raw materials in Europe (with consistent environmental gains). And from an economic point of view, the total value of the secondary raw materials recovered could go beyond 550 million €.

Becoming Carbon Neutral

  • Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) plants’ deployment will minimise the CO2 emissions produced by Waste-to-Energy plants and generate net carbon removals. As the first sparks of this process are already visible in a handful of projects around Europe, CCUS will play a significant role in achieving a climate-neutral Europe by 2050.

Generating Low-carbon fuels

  • The ongoing research on the generation of hydrogen and other clean fuels from waste will contribute to developing a new chain of public and private transports. A first example is the public hydrogen-bus network fuelled by the Waste-to-Energy plant in the German town of Wuppertal.

Delivering Community Services

  • New, state-of-the-art Waste-to-Energy plants like the CopenHill plant in Copenhagen work on the concept of community engagement, as they merge environmental services, leisure, and new sports facilities for the citizens (it is now possible to ski in Copenhagen), and architectural excellence.

Residual waste will stay with us as long as we consume things, globally and in Europe. That’s why only a pragmatic and global approach can minimise the impact of waste in today’s society. On the contrary, the practice of many countries – European Members States included – to export loads of trash to countries far away is not acceptable. Poor management of waste pollutes lands, air, rivers, and oceans, contributing to climate change and environmental disasters.

The support for sustainable ways of treating non-recyclable waste cannot be overlooked, together with more significant waste prevention and recycling efforts. Waste-to-Energy is here to help society and the environment to treat its non-recyclable waste sustainably. “The Beauty in the Beast” campaign is there to share this story.

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