EU waste and energy policies need greater alignment

EU waste and energy policies need greater alignmentBetter alignment of EU waste and energy policies is needed to allow energy from waste (EfW) to have a ‘complementary role’ in the circular economy, according to FEAD, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services.

Following European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella’s promise that the European Commission is to develop a plan to address how EfW can be optimised without compromising higher reuse and recycling rates, FEAD yesterday (15 June) released a position paper saying it should assess the role of EfW within the waste hierarchy without putting it into question.

The organisation, which represents the private waste management industry in Europe – including the companies that run 260 energy-from-waste facilities in Europe, believes the primary aim should always be the ‘environmentally sound treatment of waste’ and that materials that can’t be reused or recycled should be ‘treated in the most sustainable way’. It says that energy recovery or incineration may be the most sustainable option for certain waste streams, such as hazardous substances that can’t be recycled, and specifically highlights the potential of biodegradable waste to produce energy.

While it does not offer explicit information on what, if any, changes it would like to see made the waste hierarchy, FEAD says that energy and waste policies could be better aligned through assessment of the role of EfW ‘without putting into question this hierarchy’.

In addition, it says the role of EfW should be better defined and assessment of different processes should be ‘technology neutral’, meaning they are treated equally in terms of potential regardless of the recovery technology used. It adds that the use of ‘economic instruments’ to promote EfW, such as tariff systems, support measures and access to the grid, is also important to avoid ‘inefficient results’ in the form of market failures.

The document specifically emphasises the role biodegradable waste has played in energy generation, calling for support for the sector to continue. The document reads: ‘In particular, the recognition of biodegradable waste as a source of renewable energy in the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC has been very important for our sector. A significant percentage of the energy production of waste to energy plants comes from the biodegradable fraction of municipal waste, for which operators can claim incentives. FEAD calls on the Commission to maintain this recognition when the Renewable Energy Directive is revised.’

FEAD also notes that a ‘truly circular economy’ will not be created unless commercial and industrial (C&I) waste is also included in commission plans, both inside and outside the EfW sphere. ‘To achieve a circular economy, the EU needs to know more about flows of C&I waste so as to ensure that these can be efficiently re-injected into the European economy’, it states. ‘As a first step, the commission should require member states to put in place better data gathering on C&I waste’.

Eco-design needed to minimise non-recyclable waste

Circular economy action plan progressing says VellaAccording to the FEAD position paper: ‘In a circular economy, the ultimate goal should be a step by step reduction of residual waste. However, as long as there continues to be residual waste, energy recovery will play an important role, also supported by an element of sustainable landfill.

‘The achievement of a true circular economy will need to cover a full circle starting with eco-design thereby ensuring that the amount of waste which cannot be recycled is reduced to a minimum.

‘Supply side measures alone such as recycling or landfill diversion targets will not deliver a more circular economy. Regulatory changes and economic instruments are also needed on the demand side to create more sustainable and resilient markets for secondary raw materials.’

Issue of overcapacity

Following the latest Eunomia review of residual waste treatment infrastructure, which covered Northern Europe for the first time and concluded that the region will have an overcapacity for residual waste treatment from 2026, FEAD said: ‘We do not consider that there is waste to energy overcapacity at EU level at the moment, even if some EU countries/regions may have abundant capacity or do not manage to fully exploit the available capacity. Many member states currently do not have any capacity at all.

‘We believe that it is necessary that the Commission identifies and maps the real waste to energy capacities in each member state as well as the amount of waste shipped for energy recovery purposes. This would clearly show where there are imbalances and will allow member states to take this into account when drawing up their waste management plans.’

Commission roadmap

In ‘Roadmap on Waste to Energy’, published by the European Commission in February, the commission outlined the issues that will be addressed in an upcoming communication on EfW.

According to the roadmap, many EU member states are still sending ‘important amounts’ of non-recyclable waste streams ‘whose energy content could otherwise be fed back into the economy’ to landfill or are incinerating them without energy recovery, meaning they are ‘being leaked from a circular economy model’.

The main issues raised in the roadmap included the ‘lack of synergies’ between EfW and EU policies, the need to make existing EfW processes more energy efficient, the uneven spread of EfW capacities, untapped potential from waste-derived fuels and the lack of clarity with respect to the waste hierarchy.

The roadmap says: ‘The communication should highlight, in line with the waste hierarchy, the relevance and the best ways to optimise the performance of EfW processes and the sustainability of waste derived fuels so as to fully harness their potential in the economy while observing environmental protection standards.’

The FEAD position paper can be downloaded from the FEAD website.