By recycling what can be recycled and burning for energy what cannot, there is a place for incineration in the circular economy, says Ella Stengler.
Ella Stengler is the Managing Director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants. She sent responses to the same questions that were put to a green campaigner in the interview 'Green campaigner: Incineration causes more problems than it solves'.
There have been reports that incineration, the practice of burning waste, is inhibiting the development of recycling. Is this the case in the EU? On the contrary! According to Eurostat figures, the most successful Member States (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden) in EU 28 have reduced landfilling to 1% and at the same time achieve high recycling rates (about 50% and more). They achieved this with the help of Waste-to-Energy (incineration with energy recovery) and with the introduction of landfill bans.
There is no competition between sustainable recycling and Waste-to-Energy (WtE) as the latter only treats the waste that is not good enough for quality recycling as well as the residues from recycling.
The amount of waste sent to WtE depends on the amount of materials that are not suitable for recycling (contaminated, too expensive etc.).
Certain waste types contain pollutants or other toxic substances that are not safe for human consumption. It is better to transform this waste into local, low-carbon energy, using advanced flue gas cleaning technologies and guaranteeing highest environmental standards, rather than entering the circular economy.
Also, you cannot continually recycle all materials. For example, plastics waste degrades after it has been through the recycling process a number of times and therefore quality recycling is not possible anymore. 100% recycling is not possible and not sustainable in some cases. This is where WtE comes into play as a reliable partner for the recycling industry treating the waste that they cannot deal with in a sustainable way.
Are there economic benefits to recycling versus incineration? It is not recycling versus incineration. Waste that is suitable for recycling must be recycled! The decisive question is what to do with the waste that is not suitable for sustainable recycling. This remaining waste should be turned into energy rather than being landfilled, so WtE is a back up for a modern recycling society.
Waste-to-Energy plants create well paid, highly-skilled jobs in good, clean working conditions. We estimate that the average number of jobs created by a Waste-to-Energy plant in Europe is 62 direct jobs and at least as many indirect jobs. That means some 28,000 direct and a further 28,000 indirect jobs, a total of 56,000 good jobs, are created by Waste-to-Energy plants across Europe.
Do you think that waste is a viable short to medium term fuel source?Certainly! If the waste is not pure enough to produce a new quality product via recycling, it should be used to generate local energy, supplying households and industry with affordable heat and electricity. The Brescia Waste-to-Energy plant in Italy, for instance, provides 75% of the city’s heat demand and the Waste-to-Energy plant in Malmö (Sweden) supplies 60% of the local heat demand. Considering that Europe is highly dependent on (expensive) imports of (limited) fossil fuels, this makes a positive contribution to Europe’s security of energy supply.
What are the environmental impacts? The incineration of waste is the most stringently regulated and controlled industrial activity. Waste-to-Energy plants are equipped with sophisticated filtering devices to deal with the pollutants that are in the waste and minimise emissions into the atmosphere. The WtE industry has made huge strides over the last decades to reduce emissions. This progress has been further driven by the introduction of the European Waste Incineration Directive in 2000 which is now a part of the Industrial Emissions Directive, setting the stringent emission limit values that all WtE plants in the EU must achieve.
By thermally treating waste that remains after waste prevention and recycling in an efficient WtE plant, it reduces both methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more significant in mass to global warming than carbon dioxide CO2) from landfilling and CO2 emissions from purely fossil origin that would have been produced if the amount of energy was generated in conventional power plants.
Considering the benefits of the avoided Greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and conventional power plants, and taking into account the credits for metal recycling from bottom ash, from a Life Cycle perspective WtE performs well with regard to Greenhouse gas emissions.
What are you calling for as the European Commission reviews the Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging Directive and the Landfill Directive? First, phasing out landfilling: this will unleash the full potential of waste as a resource as well as act as a powerful trigger for recycling and efficient Waste-to-Energy.
Second, quality recycling: develop quality criteria (as the energy efficiency (R1) formula for WtE), supply must meet demand, consumers’ confidence in recycled products, i.e. trust that they do not contain hazardous substances, sometimes reimported from Asia after treatment that is questionable from an environmental and social point of view;
Transparency: what goes in, what comes out from recycling facilities and where does it end up? Waste-to-Energy plays a significant role in achieving sustainable material recycling as it thermally treats remaining waste (sterilising it by destroying the bio pollutants, e.g. viruses and bacteria) and, by extracting the chemical pollutants from the waste, prevents dirty/contaminated waste from entering the recycling chain and adversely impacting quality. At the same time energy recovery contributes to security of energy supply and mitigation of climate change. Both should therefore be central to the EU’s energy and resource efficiency strategies and waste law.
While material recycling enables the EU to become more self-sufficient in raw materials for its production facilities, energy recovery is a complementary option, in line with the waste hierarchy, in order to realise the full potential of the diverted waste.