Green campaigner: Incineration causes more problems than it solves

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Touted by some as a two-fold solution to the EU's energy and waste problems, incineration is not the answer the EU looking for as it debates changes to its waste and landfill rules, argues Ariadna Rodrigo.

Ariadna Rodrigo is a resource use campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental pressure group.

There have been reports that incineration, the practice of burning waste, is inhibiting the development of recycling. Is this the case in the EU? Yes, unfortunately this is the case. Incinerators come with a 20 or 30 year contract – a period in which municipalities are locked in to provide waste. This means municipalities have very little incentive to reduce, reuse or recycle waste.  Europe already has too many incinerators and plans to build more will further hinder our chances of improving our waste management.

The price of materials has risen by 150% over the past ten years and it is estimated that we are throwing away over 5 billion euros annually. Our waste is wealth.

However, our policies allow these valuable materials to escape the economic cycle by being burned or buried. According to the latest Eurostat figures, we still landfill and incinerate 60% of our waste. We need to reverse this trend and ensure that we keep the materials in the economic cycle, through reuse and recycling, for as long as possible.

Are their economic benefits to recycling versus incineration? For example, I know that Gipuzkoa municipality in the Basque country has created many jobs through creating a somewhat zero-waste, ‘circular’ economy… We know that sustainable waste management creates jobs. If the whole of the EU recycled as much as 70%, which is already the case in some EU regions, 500,000 jobs could be created. European Environment Agency research shows that the recycling sector creates more, and better paid, jobs than landfill and incineration.

Considering the current economic and environmental crises, creating the right infrastructure in the EU, for recycling and reusing valuable waste, would bring social and environmental benefits at a crucial time.

Do you think that waste is a viable short to medium term fuel source? No, in short, waste incineration is worse than burning coal. According to research, incinerators emit more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity (2988 lbs/MWh) than coal-fired power plants (2249 lbs/MWh).

Around 90% of materials burned in incinerators could be reused, recycled and composted. We’re burning valuable resources, and creating large amounts of greenhouse gases, instead of keeping them in the economic cycle. In addition, incineration of resources, rather than prevention, reuse and recycling, encourages energy-intensive material extraction and processing.

There are better waste management options out there, for both resource efficiency and climate change. We should minimise our waste, and reuse and recycle as much as possible – it’s better for the environment, creates jobs and have a positive economic impact.

As for energy itself, we need to be developing community-owned renewable energy resources, and promoting low energy buildings and energy savings.

What are the other environmental impacts? Incinerators, even the most technologically advanced, release thousands of toxic pollutants.

Incinerators produce organic substances like dioxins, heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, dust particles and acid gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrochloric acid – in the form of smoke, ash, slag and sludge. An incinerator will release up to 14 times more mercury than coal-fired power plant per unit of energy.

One of the main arguments put forward for incineration is that it saves on landfill space. But a significant amount of ash is produced which still has to be landfilled. Incinerator ash contains toxic heavy metals and dioxins which are more prone to leach into the natural environment than unburned waste.

This combination of pollutants poses a significant environmental and health threat to communities, often low-income, living near incinerators, and is a significant contributor to climate change.

What are you calling for as the European Commission reviews the Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging Directive and the Landfill Directive? Friends of the Earth Europe believes that the review of the legislation needs to shift European policy to focus on the top half of the waste hierarchy, in other words, waste prevention, reuse and recycling.

This means waste prevention targets to ensure member states put in place the right incentives to reduce waste. At the moment member states need to have a national waste prevention plan in place by the end of 2013. However, these plans won’t force member states to take any action to reduce the waste levels in their countries.

Repair and reuse leads to significant environmental benefits, as well as much needed job opportunities in the EU. There are many social enterprises active in this sector which provides employment and training opportunities to vulnerable groups in society. We need to support this work by creating a culture of reuse and repair, in addition to designing products for easier disassembly, repair and upgrade.

Third, we need significantly higher recycling targets for paper, plastics, metals, glass and other materials that are common in municipal waste, such as textiles. To achieve these targets we need waste collection at source, so that the materials recycled are high quality and can be kept in the economy for as long as possible.

We welcome the current political appetite to ban landfill, but phasing out or banning landfill needs to go hand in hand with a ban on incineration. We can’t burn or bury ourselves out of this waste problem – waste is a valuable resource, and reusing and recycling it needs to be an EU priority. 

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