European Commission warns incineration could hamper circular economy

European Commission warns incineration could hamper circular economyThe European Commission (EC) has called on member states to consider more carefully the waste hierarchy when looking at increasing incineration capacity and has suggested the phasing out of support for mixed waste incineration.

The EC today (26 January) released a communication on ‘The role of waste-to-energy in the circular economy’, providing guidance for EU member states on how to ensure properly-balanced energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity, avoiding stranded assets and damage to the development of a circular economy.

The guidance states that the World Bank estimates that over the next 10 years €6 trillion (£5 trillion) will be invested in clean technologies in developing countries, with some €1.6 trillion (£1.3 trillion) accessible to SMEs.

Subsequently, it suggests that EfW processes can play a role in the transition to a circular economy, as long as the EU waste hierarchy is used as a guiding principle and that choices made do not prevent higher levels of prevention, reuse and recycling. This, it says, is essential to ensure the full potential of a circular economy, both environmentally and economically, and to reinforce the European leadership in green technology.

It adds that more consideration should be given to processes like anaerobic digestion of biodegradable waste, where material recycling is combined with energy recovery, and states that waste incineration – the most common EfW process – must be redefined to ensure that increases in recycling and reuse are not hampered, and that overcapacities for residual waste treatment are not created.

Long-term circular economy perspective

The EC’s communication reads: ‘In order to promote innovation and avoid potential economic losses due to stranded assets, investment in new waste treatment capacity needs to be framed in a long-term circular economy perspective and to be consistent with the EU waste hierarchy…

‘Public funding should also avoid creating overcapacity for non-recyclable waste treatment such as incinerators. In this respect it should be borne in mind that mixed waste as a feedstock for waste-to-energy processes is expected to fall as a result of separate collection obligations and more ambitious EU recycling targets.

‘For these reasons, member states are advised to gradually phase-out public support for the recovery of energy from mixed waste.’

Countries with high capacity should raise incineration taxes and phase out support

A recent European Environment Agency study mapping existing incineration capacity for municipal waste and the flow of waste between countries showed that between 2010 and 2014 incineration capacity across the 28 EU member states, along with Switzerland and Norway, increased by six per cent.

It also found that incineration capacity for municipal waste is unevenly spread in the EU, showing that Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and the UK account for three quarters of the EU’s incineration capacity, while the southern and eastern parts of the EU are practically devoid of dedicated incineration capacity and are highly reliant on landfill.

This reflects a review of residual infrastructure carried out by Eunomia Research & Consulting last year that found that in the ‘Northern Cluster’ of European countries, there will be a treatment overcapacity by 2030.

The EC suggests that member states with low incineration capacity and high reliance on landfill should give priority to developing separate collection schemes and recycling infrastructure. In cases like these, it says, the development of combined energy recovery and material recycling capacity in the form of anaerobic digestion could represent an attractive management option.

These countries could also, when justified, export their waste to make use of EfW capacity in other member states, though the guidance cautions: ‘before opting for such approach… member states should carry out a life-cycle analysis to ensure that the overall environmental impacts, including those related to the transport of waste, do not offset the sought benefits’.

The guidance suggests that those member states with high incineration capacity, meanwhile, should consider increasing incineration taxes, ‘especially for processes with low energy recovery while ensuring they are paired with higher landfill taxes’, phasing out support schemes for waste incineration and introducing a moratorium on new facilities and decommissioning less efficient ones.

Divestment needed to create circular incentives

The communication on EfW has been long-awaited since Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella announced it in April and despite the recommendations for countries with high capacity to phase out support for incineration, European campaigning network Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) regrets that the EC did not include a binding call to phase out subsidies for waste-to-energy in the recent Renewable Energy Directive proposal.

ZWE says energy savings via prevention and recycling are currently undermined by subsidies going to lower levels of the waste hierarchy such as waste incineration and is calling on MEPs and the national governments to fix this during the legislative process.

Ferran Rosa, ZWE’s Policy Officer said: “We cannot keep wasting our money and resources in subsidising waste-to-energy. Divestment from waste-to-energy is needed if we want to create the right incentives for a circular economy.”

The communication on energy from waste can be read and downloaded from the European Commission’s website.

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