ZWE: Incinerator residues largely destined for landfill

New research published by non-profit Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), conducted by consultancy Equanimator, suggests that a significant quantity of hazardous and non-hazardous residue is generated by waste incineration – much of which is then landfilled.

smoke pollution chimney carbon emissionsEquanimator’s study found that municipal waste incineration generates over 12 million tonnes of bottom ash and around two million tons of air pollution control residues. The consultancy also highlights that incineration and combustion of all wastes generate between 28.4-31.8 million tonnes of residues annually – the equivalent to between 12.6 per cent and 14.1 per cent of the quantity of municipal solid waste generated.

Despite claims that incineration can eliminate landfill and recover ‘related residues’, ZWE’s report found that between 11.3 and 16 million tonnes of incineration residues are landfilled annually. Around 6.4 million of these are from incinerating municipal waste.

Additional residues are oriented, the organisation says. For instance, bottom ash is directed toward road buildings or other construction-related activities and air pollution control residues are intended to fill up salt mines.

The report considers whether this orientation should be classified as a recovery activity, as it currently and frequently is. Moreover, it questions whether this activity may lead to the movement of waste across boundaries ‘masked as a recovery option’.

ZWE finds that significant issues are given rise through countries’ reporting of what happens to incineration residues. While most bottom ash is reported as non-hazardous, it was found that the accuracy of this reporting ‘may require closer scrutiny’. ZWE adds that this confirms recent findings that incinerator bottom ash is ‘insidiously hazardous’, as well as insufficiently regulated.

The non-profit cautions that if all non-recycled wastes were being incinerated – meeting a 65 per cent municipal waste recycling target – the number of residues created through incineration would ‘be of the order of eight per cent of a municipal waste generation’.

As a result, and in line with the principles of the EU policy and circular economy agenda, the aim should be to minimise residual waste so as to reduce landfills. For example, through reduction, reuse, separate collection, composting, recycling and continued redesigning of goods and packaging – not through incineration.

According to ZWE, incineration not only produces large volumes of materials for landfill but may also cause an ‘operational lock-in’ – hindering any efforts to minimise residual waste.

The study concludes by questioning the reasons for treating waste incineration residues from R1 incineration (energy recovery) differently from mechanical biological treatment by, excluding only the former from the calculations of the quantity of landfilled municipal waste.

An unbalanced provision in the Landfill Directive is apparent, ZWE says. This allows the complete deduction of all residues from the amount of landfilled waste from waste incinerators classed as R1 (recovery operation) – including ashes and slags sent to landfills.

Due to this, the potential effect of using R1 incineration is ‘overly’ rewarded as a ‘landfill minimisation option’. ZWE, therefore, calls for equal treatment – requiring that all residues resulting from the recovery operations of municipal waste are treated fairly.

ZWE finds that this ‘equal treatment’ could be done by:

  1. Amending the target to exclude the residues from Mechanical Biological Treatment.
  2. Amending the target to include all residues from incineration – both R1 and D10 (disposal incineration) – which are landfilled.
  3. Re-specifying the landfill target (first and foremost, having it replaced by a target to cap residual waste generation) so as to ensure that the management of residual wastes delivers the most beneficial outcome. ZWE highlights this route ‘should be pivotal’ in the ongoing revision of the waste directives, in order to minimise all ‘leakages of resources from circular management, instead of simply redirecting such leakages from landfills to incinerators’.

Janek Vahk, ZWE’s Climate, Energy and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator, said: “Contrary to the industry narrative, waste incineration generates large quantities of hazardous and non-hazardous residues that often are landfilled, or used in “backfilling” operations that in any case fill some landfill space, and incur substantial costs of handling.

“This paradox is even stretched to further unbalanced mechanisms, given that rejects from sorting operations and from operations prior to reuse (which will have to be at the core of EU strategies for the management of waste), will be reported as “landfilled” while this is not the case for landfilled ashes from incineration”.