Zero Waste Europe calls for EU ‘bridge strategy’ for residual waste

Environmental NGO Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has called for the introduction of a Material Recovery and Biological Treatment (MRBT) system in the EU as a ‘bridge strategy’ for managing residual waste in a circular economy.

In a policy briefing released today (3 June), ZWE is concerned that there is currently an ‘over-reliance’ on incineration as a residual waste pre-treatment process in the EU, which it says ‘locks in’ this form of treatment and ‘prevents proper recycling’ due to the need to continually feed incinerators with residual waste, which often contains a significant level of recyclable material.

Zero Waste Europe calls for EU ‘bridge strategy’ for residual wasteThe policy briefing states that there is a need to define suitable ‘pre-treatment’ of residual waste in a way that retains flexibility in waste management systems to advance progress towards the aims of the EU’s Circular Economy Package, which sets a minimum recycling rate of 65 per cent by 2035, separate collections of bio-waste by the end of 2023 and reducing the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill to less than 10 per cent of all municipal waste generated.

The EU Landfill Directive of 1999, which requires that EU member states reduce the total amount of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) sent to landfill to no more than 35 per cent of their 1995 baseline by 2020 and obligates the pre-treatment of waste prior to landfilling, defines pre-treatment as ‘the physical, thermal [incineration], chemical or biological processes, including sorting, that change the characteristics of the waste, in order to reduce its volume or hazardous nature, facilitate its handling or enhance recovery’.

ZWE asserts that the reduction of waste to landfill should primarily ‘be ensured through the reduction of waste and increasing diversion towards reuse, recycling and composting’, rather than incineration for energy recovery, while ‘the minimisation of negative impacts should primarily consider the reduction of biodegradability’, which is the primary cause of methane release, odours, release of leachates and attraction of pests.

ZWE therefore proposes a MRBT system that combines biological treatment to stabilise fermentable materials still included in residual waste with sorting equipment to recover materials not captured or targeted by separate collections.

It is hoped that this would reduce the negative impacts of residual waste when landfilled, such as the generation of methane by bio-waste in landfill, and retain flexibility to ‘continuously improve the performance of waste management systems’.

The MRBT system would remove the preparation of refuse derived fuel (RDF) for energy recovery in traditional mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) sites with more advanced equipment to sort recyclable fractions of residual waste.

Though the MRBT system would operate a composting-like process to stabilize organic material and reduce fermentability prior to landfilling, compost would not be produced from this due to contamination from other waste, and the system should be accompanied by widespread separate collection of biowaste to reduce the organic fraction.

Commenting on the policy briefing, Janek Vähk, ZWE Climate, Energy and Air Pollution Coordinator, said: “The current system for dealing with residuals is outdated and broken. Waste incineration destroys vast amounts of resources, requiring the extraction of new primary raw materials, perpetuating a linear economic model and releasing greenhouse gases from fossil based materials such as plastic. This practice contravenes the strategic goals of the Circular Economy Package and the EU goal to become climate neutral by 2050.”

Enzo Favoino, ZWE Scientific Coordinator, added: “We need MRBT as a “bridge strategy” for residuals while we work on maximising separate collection and reducing waste: the strategy must consider options for managing residual waste aligned with requirements of the EU Landfill Directive, and should minimise the climate impacts; at the same time, it must keep the system adaptable to decreasing amounts of residual waste, and increasing tonnages of clean materials from separate collection, which is and must be kept as, the strategic priority.”

As such, ZWE is calling for a dedicated EU strategy for the management of residual waste to bring treatment in line with the principles and strategic goals of the EU circular economy agenda, including:

  • A European Commission Communication on the (marginal) role of landfilling in a circular Europe;
  • A definition for a common EU-wide approach for managing residual waste that should include the codification of “pre-treatment” and the goals of biological treatment;
  • Compiling an EU-wide survey on technologies that may be used to recover materials from residual waste, and related applications of recovered materials, current initiatives, best practices and biological treatment sites that are already turned into compost sites; and
  • Support for the transformation of existing Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) sites into MRBT sites, and further revamping of both into compost sites and clean Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) for clean organics and dry recyclables with dedicated funding programmes.

You can read ZWE’s policy briefing in full on the organisation’s website.