ZWE highlights ‘unnecessary alliance’ between export ban and incineration

Yesterday (2 February), Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) issued a report highlighting an ‘unnecessary alliance’ between waste exports and incineration.

EfW plantThe report, titled ‘Waste trade and incineration – debunking an unnecessary alliance’, states that expanding the current incineration capacity within the EU in response to waste export bans ‘neither necessary nor justified.’

The report considers two potential waste export bans, with twelve subsequent scenarios that could manifest from their application. The first considers a waste export ban to countries outside the OECD, allowing for exports to countries like Turkey and the UK, which currently take 52 per cent of all European exports.

The second scenario outlines a ban on waste exports to countries outside the EU and EFTA, including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, where ten per cent of EU waste is exported presently.

From these twelve scenarios, the body states, three would lead to a waste incineration requirement above the current levels of municipal waste incineration. All three of these scenarios consider a ban on waste exports to countries outside of the EU and EFTA, in which recycling levels of repatriated waste would be ‘relatively low’, thus requiring the expansion of waste incineration facilities.

The maximum predicted increase in waste incineration is 13 per cent. If this were to occur, ZWE asserts, the increase in requirement could be absorbed by current incineration capabilities, or surplus waste could be exported to permitted countries. Thus, ZWE states, using waste incineration as an alternative to restricted waste exports is ‘unnecessary’.

Pierre Condamine, Waste Policy Officer for ZWE, commented: "We often hear that if we cannot ship anymore, we'll have to incinerate. However, with this study we show that if the EU stays faithful to its circular objectives regarding prevention and recycling, no increase in the incineration capacity should be justified".

A source of debate

In 2020, UK think tank Policy Connect issued a report stating EfW plants are the ‘most environmentally responsible solution to the UK’s residual waste problem’, calling for their implementation as the UK aims to adopt a more circular and sustainable waste policy. 

Research by Greenpeace, however, later found that waste incinerators were three times more likely to be built in poor areas than rich areas, highlighting that, in 2020, nearly half of the facilities built or under construction could be found in the UK’s top 25 per cent of deprived areas. A report by Zero Waste Scotland released in the same year found that pollution from Scottish EfW plants was twice as high as the UK national grid average.

Earlier this month, research by ZWE pointed to environmental and safety concerns over the reuse of incinerator bottom ash, with the body stating that the material is ‘insidiously hazardous and unregulated’. A later report further warned of the serious harm incinerators place on human health and the surrounding environment.

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