An overview of waste to energy incineration in the EU

by Peter Kay on December 23, 2011

Waste to energy incineration is a method of producing heat and/or electricity by directly combusting garbage or as their official term is Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). MSW is waste collected by the various local authorities from apartment buildings, offices, households, schools.

As mentioned above the method of incineration uses direct combustion and as a result is considered controversial because of environmental concerns that it raises since municipal solid waste contains a mixture of waste materials both organic and non-organic origin. Hence, some non organic materials used as fuel can be very toxic (i.e. heavy metals, furans and dioxins.)  These concerns can be addressed to a great extend by pre-sorting of MSW at plants sites to exclude any toxic materials from being used as fuel. Opponents though argue that such measures are not enough.

EU has taken these concerns on the next level by imposing restrictions to prevent toxic emissions from waste to energy plants through directives that it has issued in order to ensure accurate implementation. Therefore, in its incineration directive 2000/76/EC it requires that to “guarantee complete waste combustion, all plants have to keep the incineration or co-incineration gases at a temperature of at least 850°C for at least two seconds. If hazardous waste with a content of more than 1% of halogenated organic substances, expressed as chlorine, is incinerated, the temperature has to be raised to 1100 °C for at least two seconds.”  Furthermore, through filtering, emissions to the environment are further reduced. It should be noted that according to the study of the German Environment Ministry study Waste Incineration – A Potential Danger?, September 2005  “in 1990 one third of all dioxin emissions in Germany came from waste incineration plants, for the year 2000 the figure was less than 1%. While the amount of waste thermally treated has more than double.”

According to the EU directive regarding 1999/31/EC the amount of MSW should be reduced based on the amount landfilled waste produced in 1995 to 75% by 2006, to 50% by 2009 and to 35% by 2016. In addition “Member stated that in 1995 or the latest year before 1995 for which standardized Eurostat data is available put more than 80% of their collected municipal waste to landfill may postpone the attainment of targets by a period not exceeding four years” i.e. 2010, 2013 and 2020. Given the fact that through incineration the volume of MSW can be reduced up to 95% it makes it an attractive way to achieve these targets. It should be noted that landfilling in addition to carbon dioxide emissions it produces methane which is contributes 20 to 25 times more to global warming.

Finally to put some figures to energy produced with incineration according to the Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants (CEWEP) “about 69 million tonnes of household and similar waste that remains after waste prevention, reuse and recycling, was treated in Waste-to-Energy Plants across Europe in 2008.  Waste-to-Energy Plants can supply annually about 13 million inhabitants with electricity and 12 million inhabitants with heat. This is equivalent to the entire population of Denmark, Finland and Slovenia that can be supplied with electricity and the entire population of Estonia, Finland and Slovakia that can be supplied with heat from Waste-to-Energy Plants throughout the year.”  Given the fact that currently EU on average recycles 40% incinerates 20% and landfills 40% of its MSW this numbers can increase significantly.

Opponents of waste to energy incineration claim that it reduces the incentives of reducing, reusing and recycling an issue that we will be discussing on our next article for waste to energy by closely examining the latest available EU data.


About the Author

Peter Kay

Peter is a data analyst with over a decade of experience in environmental data analysis. He is a renewable energy sources supporter with his main areas of interest being biomass and energy recovery methods such as waste to energy. Peter is an editor in and most of his article can be found under the biomass/biofuels category. He is also a contributing editor in where you can find useful information and tips on how you can help the environment and save money at the same time. You can connect with Peter @ Google+

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