Posted by Esa Hyvärinen
European Union Member States have a significant opportunity to increase the high-quality and economic recycling of waste from many waste streams. At the same time, it is possible to increase the production of electricity and heat from the non-recyclable waste that currently ends up in landfills as wasted energy. Doing so contributes to a solution to the climate issue and supports waste management targets as part of a safe and sustainable circular economy.
Every year a huge amount of waste is landfilled – waste that could be used to produce as much as 13 per cent of the energy consumed by households in the EU. At the same time, the EU member states import about 52 per cent of their energy at a cost of more than one billion euros per day.
Landfilling waste is a waste of resources and generates significant greenhouse gases. In fact, it should be minimised through legislation and financial instruments. As a result of effective steering mechanisms, hardly any waste is landfilled in Germany and Sweden, for example. And in Finland, too, the amount of waste ending up in landfills is consistently declining.
The municipal waste and the commercial and industrial wastes that are no longer suitable for recycling can be used for energy production. The EU’s focus at the moment is on municipal and packaging waste, even though it is estimated that municipal waste accounts for a mere 10 per cent of all waste. Expanding the focus is currently being discussed, but it is difficult in the absence of standardised waste statistics.
Some EU countries still landfill more than half of their waste
Accelerating the current development requires forward-looking changes in attitudes and in political steering, especially in countries where more than half of the waste is landfilled. In these countries, it would be important to revamp waste management systems that take care of the separate collection and high-quality recycling of waste and waste-to-energy processes. This would lead to only a fraction of the waste being landfilled.
Still today, 13 of the EU-28 countries landfill more than 50% of their municipal waste and a significant part of their commercial and industrial wastes, and some of the landfills don’t even meet the EU’s environmental requirements. Additionally, an estimated six EU countries pile more than 20% of their waste and nine EU countries pile less than 20% of their waste at landfills. Moreover, a significant amount of the waste that is currently reported as recycled actually ends up further processed into landfills. Fortunately, the needed changes in the compiling of statistics and in the monitoring of waste in the European Union are coming.
A challenge in solving the issue is usually the lack of waste-policy ambition and the interests that allow the piling of waste at landfills. Additionally, there are shortcomings in the technical know-how of waste management and in consumer awareness. Many times, it is these same countries that have the biggest opportunities to replace imported energy with waste incineration because they typically import a lot of natural gas for use in energy production.
Using non-recyclable waste-to-energy would replace virgin fuels
Non-recyclable waste replaces virgin fuels, whether biofuel or fossil fuel. The replacement of fossil fuel is especially useful because it directly supports climate change mitigation.
Today about 10 per cent of the EU’s district heating is produced from waste. And there is potential for more: We could replace another 10% of the currently coal-based energy by processing mixed municipal waste and the corresponding commercial and industrial wastes in waste-to-energy plants instead of landfills. We would simultaneously achieve climate benefits and reduce the adverse environmental and health impacts caused by landfills. Additionally – despite claims to the contrary – we create opportunities for recycling solutions when the cheapest and easiest destination for waste is removed.
Additionally, the EU should enhance the efficiency of the EU’s waste markets and transportation so that waste suitable for energy recovery, including municipal waste, could be transported in a controlled manner from one country to another. This is particularly important when the only local alternative is the landfilling of waste. This way, the available capacity of waste-to-energy plants in Europe could be efficiently harnessed because there is no oversupply of waste-to-energy capacity at the overall EU level. The related EU Waste Shipment Regulation will come under review next year.
Energy recovery of waste increases energy self-sufficiency and supports the economy
The wasting of resources can be put to an end relatively quickly. A prerequisite is that the EU’s political steering and goals to minimise landfilling are agreed upon as part of the circular economy package, and waste begins to be utilised more efficiently for energy recovery as part of the stricter recycling targets. This is applicable particularly in eastern and southern Europe, where new waste incineration capacity could be built to replace the importing of fossil fuels for electricity and heat production while simultaneously upgrading the aging capacity.
The energy recovery of waste destined for landfills would increase energy self-sufficiency particularly in eastern Europe and would thus decrease the need for imported energy.
The energy recovery of waste supports employment in the EU area and locally, because turning non-recyclable waste into a raw material for energy production is done on the EU home markets. The significant research that is also under way to develop the sector can potentially create not only jobs, but also innovative products and know-how for export outside the EU, and particularly to Asia. This can be promoted also in such a way that the EU’s structural funds continue to support countries where the processing of waste is still lagging behind, e.g., by funding the processing, recycling and energy recovery of waste during the transition towards the circular economy.
Energy recovery is an essential part of a well-functioning circular economy
There is a need for the energy recovery of waste also in the circular economy. This is partly because when the share of the separate collection of waste and the rate of recycling increases, the quality of the waste collected is poorer. When product quality requirements grow, so too does the amount of non-recyclable waste and the process losses. It is better to designate those waste fractions to energy recovery than to landfills.
Internal markets are the core of the EU. Their efficient utilisation also must be a part of the energy recovery of waste. This is important both economically and for the environment.
Esa Hyvärinen, VP, Public Affairs, Fortum