Communicating WtE's role

Written by: Ella Stengler | Published:

What did the European Commission’s waste-to-energy communication deliver? Ella Stengler, at the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, reports

The European Commission’s Waste-to-Energy communication, The role of waste-to-energy in the circular economy, was first announced in 2015, when it promised to “establish synergies between energy efficiency policies, resource efficiency policies and the circular economy” and to draft the communication “in relation to the goals of security of supply, greenhouse gases”.

It was understood as a promise to define the role of waste-to-energy (WtE) in relation to the Energy Union and Circular Economy, while focusing on key issues of energy efficiency and better waste management of the most relevant waste streams. This is important to local and regional authorities that deal with the day-to-day waste management issues, as well as for operators of waste management facilities and potential investors who need planning and legal security.

The question is: Did the communication meet these expectations?

Whereas the two background studies, the Joint Research Centre’s 2016 Towards a better exploitation of the technical potential of waste-to-energy (referred to as the JRC Report) and the European Environment Agency’s Assessment of waste incineration capacity and waste shipments in Europe, which came out in January, provide some useful facts, the communication itself has been based on political considerations in relation to the Circular Economy Package.

Indeed, the communication, which was supposed to be published together with the review of the Renewable Energy Directive, was delayed and shifted under the umbrella of the update of the Circular Economy Action Plan, published in January 2017.

While the Commission’s announcement of “redefining” the role of WtE incineration caused some confusion among the stakeholders, CEWEP is certain that WtE incineration is and will be needed in the foreseeable future as it is instrumental for sustainable waste management and energy systems in a clean circular economy.

The contribution WtE makes includes:

  • Diverting waste from landfill
  • Treating sorting residues and rejects from recycling facilities
  • Treating polluted waste in an environmentally sound way
  • Producing cost-effective energy for citizens and industry
  • Contributing to security of energy supply as backload energy by replacing fossil fuels.

We still landfill… a lot

Even though Europe is considered the frontrunner in environmental protection globally, 12 of its Member States still landfill more than 50% of their municipal waste (in 2015) and have no or little WtE incineration capacity. EU28 still landfills more than 62 million tonnes of municipal waste every year.

Landfill diversion is the first step towards a well-functioning waste management system. Landfills emit methane – a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2 – they use valuable soil resources and potentially endanger groundwater through leachate. Often, the wind blows the microplastics from landfills to nearby rivers and seas, which contributes to marine litter. Furthermore, the aftercare period of a landfill can last way beyond a century.

WtE incineration capacities

The communication rightly states that there is no WtE incineration overcapacity in the EU as a whole, as the European Environment Agency found in its background report.

However, many recommendations are based on incineration ‘overcapacities’ in a few Member States, although they achieve high recycling rates and have practically eliminated landfilling of municipal waste.

The judgement of capacity cannot be based only on the municipal waste input (as is currently the case); one must consider that a significant part of the input to WtE incineration plants is commercial and industrial waste. In industrialised countries, e.g. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the input ratio is about 50/50.

The Commission’s communication does not seem to take this into account. However, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) predicted in the background report: “Whilst energy recovery from municipal solid waste (MSW) is well established, there is currently an increasing range of commercial and industrial waste streams for which energy recovery is being considered as an alternative to landfill.”

Role for energy recovery

Substantially increasing recycling rates also brings about another aspect – growing amounts of sorting residues, thus the waste that is not suitable for quality recycling. If we do not want this residual waste to end up in landfills, there is a need for treatment capacity higher up the hierarchy, such as energy recovery.

While WtE incineration (like any other treatment) capacity should be evaluated with scrupulous care, it should also be acknowledged that it is the best available treatment option for the residual waste stream left after prevention, reuse and recycling.

It avoids pollutants, e.g. heavy metals, inherent in the waste being spread into the environment.

To get meaningful conclusions on the need for WtE incineration capacities we need to look into the whole waste volumes rather than just at municipal waste. The JRC report points out that in total, “less than 5% of all waste was used for energy recovery across the EU28 in 2012. Landfill still dominates waste management in many EU countries.”

WtE facts and figures

To complement the European Commission’s communication, CEWEP published fact sheets to provide necessary facts and figures on waste-to-energy capacities, bottom ash and energy production.

According to Eurostat 2014 figures published in CEWEP’s Waste-to-Energy Capacity Fact Sheet, in order to achieve the municipal waste targets proposed by the Commission in the Circular Economy Package (10% max. landfilling and 65% recycling, which causes about 10% rejects (or more) that do not comply with recycling quality criteria), almost 80 million tonnes of incineration capacity in EU28
would be needed.

However, according to Eurostat, WtE incineration capacity dedicated to municipal waste in EU28 in 2014 was only 63 million tonnes. The other input into WtE incineration plants is commercial and industrial waste. Therefore the WtE incineration capacity in EU28 is less than what would be needed to treat all the non-recyclable waste even if
the municipal waste recycling rate is as ambitious as 65%.

WtE incineration also contributes to recycling via its bottom ash (see CEWEP’s Bottom Ash Fact Sheet, 2016), which is composed of inert, non-combustible materials that are left over after the combustion process. Bottom ash contains metals that are embedded in the residual waste, e.g. thin aluminium foil, and therefore could not
be separately collected.

Metals, such as steel, aluminium, copper and zinc, can be extracted from the ashes and further used as secondary raw material at a lesser environmental cost than the production of virgin metal.

The amount of iron that can be recycled from European bottom ash equals about 26 cruise ships. In 2014, respectively 20,000 and 17,000 tonnes of aluminium were recovered from bottom ash in the Netherlands and in France. This metal was mainly used in castings for the automotive industry, e.g. engine blocks, according to CEWEP’s Bottom Ash Fact Sheet.

The mineral part of bottom ash that remains after the metal recycling is used as a secondary raw material for construction purposes, replacing gravel and sand, raw materials that are now being extracted worldwide ‘at a rate far greater than their renewal’ (Sand, rarer than one thinks, UNEP 2014).

Secure local energy

WtE incineration, reported CEWEP’s Energy and Climate 2017 Factsheet, also supplies secure and local energy in line with the EU’s Energy and Climate policy goals.

The United Nations Environment Programme (District Energy in Cities, UNEP 2015) identifies modern district energy as the most effective approach for many cities in transition to sustainable heating and cooling, by improving energy efficiency and enabling higher shares of renewables.

Energy from waste is presented as a means of producing low-cost heat and often initiates development of a city’s district heating network, utilising the energy content embedded in the waste.

Already today, 10% of Europe’s energy to district heating comes from WtE incineration, and in some cities WtE incineration covers 50% and more of the local heat demand.

By 2030, WtE plants could produce in total 189TWh of useful energy. This is enough to replace 10% of the energy supplied by the coal sector. Instead, according to the JRC Report, the EU landfills 1,409 petajoules, embedded in the waste annually. This corresponds to 12.8% of the final energy consumption in households in EU28 in 2014.

It is a missed opportunity not to explore further these low-hanging fruits, while the EU imports 53% of its energy every year at a cost of more than €1bn a day.

WtE’s role in the circular economy

The Commission’s communication mentions “… supporting measures to improve energy and/or material efficiency … This includes the development of industrial parks and symbiosis whereby a waste-to-energy plant processes the waste generated by industries located nearby while providing them heat and power in return; or the recovery of materials found in incinerator bottom ash”.

The communication also acknowledges that “district heating installations using waste can make a positive contribution to environmental protection provided it does not circumvent the waste hierarchy”.

Respecting the waste hierarchy is key. Article 4 of the Waste Framework Directive gives priority to the “options that deliver the best overall environmental outcome”. Lifecycle thinking and the scientific basis for it, said the JRC Report, must be taken into account to achieve a clean and sustainable circular economy.

Regarding recycling, this means it is preferable in the case of “real recycling, that is the production of secondary materials with the same level of quality as the virgin ones”, according to Mario Grosso’s article Sound and advanced municipal waste management which argued that lower quality materials are subjected to losses during sorting and recycling stages, down-cycling and contamination. This is where WtE incineration comes in, taking care of the residual waste that is too polluted for quality recycling and to keep substances of high concern out of the cycle. It is an essential hygienic task that WtE incineration fulfils in our society and needs to be considered when ‘redefining’ the role of WtE incineration.

Furthermore, let us not miss the opportunity to divert the tremendous amounts that are still landfilled in Europe towards quality recycling, and recover energy from the remaining waste.

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