In the rush to get waste out of landfill, the EU risks losing sight of its recycling targets

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The Belvedere incinerator in Bexley (south-east London) is one of Europe's biggest energy recovery plants. [Petras Gagilas/Flickr]

Since 2010, billions of euros have been committed for energy from waste (EfW) infrastructure in Northern Europe. This would be sensible if recycling levels remained unchanged, writes Adam Baddeley.

Adam Baddeley is Head of Energy at Eunomia Research and Consulting.

When they finally disappear from Europe’s landscapes, few will mourn the loss of landfill sites. Although that time is not yet upon us, a major shift has begun in the way Europe deals with its residual (i.e. non-recycled) waste over the last five years. Thanks to fixed EU Landfill Directive targets and determined policy efforts in many member states, the majority of our waste is now burned rather than buried, and the energy produced through incineration is harnessed and sold.

In response, the waste market too has changed. Where landfill was largely a national concern, the energy from waste (EfW) market is truly European in nature, as residual waste is increasingly traded internationally as ‘refuse derived fuel’ (RDF).

At first glance, this is good news. If our aim is sustainable consumption, our first priority in waste management should be to find reusable value in what we throw away. Although prevention, reuse or recycling should be the first port of call, where none of these are currently happening, then recovering energy from waste is a step up from simply disposing of it in the ground.

But in the eagerness to embrace EfW, member states have seemingly taken their eyes off EU recycling targets. Since 2010, billions of euros have been committed for EfW infrastructure in Northern Europe, some of which is already built, some which is under development. If recycling levels were to remain at a standstill in coming years, this amount of EfW infrastructure would be sensible. But if recycling is to increase, as it is bound to do by EU regulation and simple environmental necessity, then residual waste arisings will fall, and by 2030 Europe will find itself in a position of significant overcapacity for residual waste treatment.

Last month, Eunomia Research and Consulting published a report that examined the balance between residual waste and treatment capacity across a ‘northern cluster’ of eleven countries, including many of those most active in RDF import and export. It found that, although current treatment infrastructure differs widely across the cluster, when looked at as a whole, Northern Europe is on track to build over 14 million tonnes per annum of excess EfW capacity. Put another way, for these investments to keep running, Europe would have to scale back its hard won recycling commitments by 14 million tonnes a year.

EfW treatment facilities that are currently operational, being built or have reached financial close will soon supply a total of 104.2 million tpa treatment capacity for residual waste. Fully utilised, this will exceed the 90.4 million tonnes of residual waste these nations are expected to produce in 2030. But even this may be an understatement; the analysis excludes any ‘non-committed’ treatment capacity (i.e. that which has not reached financial close or not yet been announced). In reality, therefore, a situation of overcapacity may occur earlier and extend even further.

Already, five countries have more EfW capacity than home grown residual waste to fill it with. Germany is currently furthest in excess, with over 2.7m tonnes of capacity surplus to its own annual needs. Sweden and the Netherlands are not far behind. At the moment, these countries fill their excess capacity by importing residual waste from other member states, some of which have been driven by the need to meet EU Landfill Directive diversion targets, whilst others are simply seeking the most economical way to deal with residual waste. But for some ‘exporters’ this is just a stop-gap; with their eyes still on the Landfill Directive, all are currently investing in EfW infrastructure at home in an attempt to bring waste treatment back within their borders.

In making these investments, member states are failing to look far enough into the future. Both an appreciation of the recycling-led future, and the increasingly pan-European residual waste market, are key to building an efficient and increasingly sustainable waste market. Yet the urge to build new EfW facilities continues; Eunomia’s calculations show that by 2030, all but three of the eleven countries in this northern cluster of waste trading partners will have more EfW treatment capacity than residual waste arisings.

More than anything, this seems like a missed opportunity. There is significant disparity in recycling progress between different member states: Eurostat data indicates that Belgium has achieved a 55% municipal recycling rate, while France is only at 39% and Poland at just 32%. The European market for residual waste provides the opportunity for those countries which still rely heavily on landfill to increase their landfill diversion rates quickly by utilising their neighbours’ surplus infrastructure. Meanwhile, they can focus their resources on efforts to boost recycling.

But unless member states start considering waste as a European market, and calculating waste arising and treatment capacity at the European, rather than national, level, this is likely to remain a pipe dream.

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