Does waste to energy incineration reduces recycling? The EU paradigm

by Peter Kay on December 30, 2011

According to the EU directive 1999/31/EC the amount of Municipal Solid Waste should be reduced based on the waste landfilled amount that was produced in 1995. The targets were set to 75% by 2006, to 50% by 2009 and to 35% by 2016 (using as a reference year 1995.) 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.

The countries that opted for this extension are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.  Given the fact that through incineration the volume of MSW can be reduced to up to 95% makes it an attractive way to achieve these targets. The MSW picture for the 27 EU countries is shown in the chart below.

Chart 1

*Source Eurostat.

From the chart above we observe that there is a group of six countries (Germany , Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium) which have achieved a Landfilling level in the single digit area. Using as a reference point the Eurostat data of 1995 we observe that actually these are the same 6 countries that have achieved the final target for 2016 (2020) already for 35% Landfilling based on 1995 data (see chart 2)

Chart 2

 *Source Eurostat

Moreover these are countries that have a high level of recycling as well as incineration. The simple average for the 6 countries is 59% recycling, 39% incineration with just a 2% being Landfilled. It is clear that without the high levels of incineration complementing recycling the targets set by the directive would have never been achieved. Opponents of waste to energy incineration claim that it reduces the incentives to recycle on the other hand, according to chart 1 the 6 top performing countries have the highest level of recycling with the lowest one being Denmark with 48%. The highest level of recycling for a country outside the top 6 performers is Luxemburg which has a 47% rate and is the number 7 country on low Landfilling level with 17% and a 36% incineration level. It should be noted that the ranking of the first country that only recycles and does not incinerates at all is Greece and it is ranked 19th in landfilling. Moreover, looking at the chart 3

 Chart 3

*Source Eurostat

we observe that incineration had a relative increase of one third since 1995 whereas recycling has grown by almost two and a half times in that same period. Furthermore, a way to ensure that recycling level remains high is by implementing pay as you throw system for MSW in which recycled MSW do not carry a fee.  Such systems are in place for example in Austria,Germany, and, Belgium.

Lastly, according to the final target of 2016 (2020) landfilling should be reduced by an additional 55 thousand tones in the countries that have not yet reached. If we use the average of the top 6 performers for incineration (39%) an additional 21 thousand tonnes should be incinerated. According to the Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants (CEWEP) around 69 million tonnes were incinerated in 2008 that produced electricity for 13 million people and heat for 12 million people. Thus the additional 21 thousand tones that need to be incinerated would translate to electricity for 4 million people and heat for and another 3.75 million which is about 1% of the EU’s total population.

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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