28 Aug 2013

Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash

Increasingly common in Europe, municipal “waste-to-energy” incinerators are being touted as a green trash-disposal alternative. But critics contend that these large-scale incinerators tend to discourage recycling and lead to greater waste.
By nate seltenrich

For communities short on landfill space, “waste-to-energy” incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.

But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many “zero
Waste incinerator in Germany
Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons
A waste-to-energy incinerator in Hesse, Germany.
wasters” — including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA — have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting. In Europe, where incineration capacity continues to grow despite already exceeding the trash supply in some countries, the showdown goes beyond semantics to the heart of the meaning of sustainability.

While the world certainly has no shortage of it, trash is not renewable — not in the way that sunlight, wind, and geothermal heat are. Producing goods from virgin, finite resources requires energy — lots of it. Once the goods become trash, zero-waste advocates say, burning them in an incinerator destroys those resources for good.

Incinerators can provide heat for municipal heating systems or steam for electricity, recovering some of the energy used to produce their fuel. But even given the environmental costs of recycling, which include
Waste-to-energy advocates say the recycle vs. incinerate comparison is a false choice – that the two can coexist.
transporting and processing the material, zero wasters contend that it makes far more sense to recycle than to incinerate.

The precise energy savings for any given waste stream depends on its composition, according to Jeffrey Morris, an economist and environmental consultant with Sound Resource Management Group Inc. in Olympia, Washington. "But it would be a surprising situation to find a waste stream that it would be more beneficial to burn rather than to source-separate and recycle," says Morris, who did a study in 1995 — still widely cited by recycling advocates — which found that recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves on average three to five times more energy than does burning them for electricity.

These days, the waste-to-energy debate is particularly active in Europe, where government incentives and subsidies have encouraged the construction of incinerators. Waste-to-energy supporters contend that the recycle-versus-incinerate comparison represents a false choice — that the two can coexist. "We see waste-to-energy continuing to have a role to play in an integrated approach to waste management, providing hygienic treatment of the remaining waste that is not suitable for sustainable recycling, and at the same time generating energy from it, rather than it being sent to a landfill,” Ella Stengler, managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, wrote in an email. “Recycling and waste-to-energy are complementary to achieve lower landfill rates.”

As it turns out, countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for example, all incinerate at least 50 percent of their waste — also tend to have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste. But zero-wasters argue that were it not for large-scale incineration, these environmentally
Zero-waste advocates say a major problem is the long-term contracts that waste-to-energy plants are locked into.
conscious countries would have even higher rates of recycling. Germany, for example, incinerates 37 percent of its waste and recycles 45 percent — a considerably better recycling rate than the 30-plus percent of Scandinavian countries.

There’s no doubt that dumping untreated municipal solid waste in the landfills common in eastern and southern Europe, where incineration rates lag far behind those of northern Europe, poses significant environmental problems. These include the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater, an increasingly urgent shortage of space, and the release of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. (In the United States, more than half of all waste is dumped in landfills, and about 12 percent burned, of which only a portion is used to produce energy.) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the United States, behind industry and agriculture. Such environmental impacts are the reason why many European countries have instituted landfill bans in recent decades, contributing to the rapid expansion of incineration and waste-to-energy technology.

Zero-wasters say that a major problem with incineration is the long-term contracts that waste-to-energy plants sign with the cities that supply them with trash. Incinerators are extremely expensive to build — large, modern facilities in Europe cost $150 million to $230 million — and to make a profit and repay investors, incinerator operators need a guaranteed stream of waste. The operators sign contracts with municipalities to provide a certain volume of waste over a long period of time, often 20 or 30 years, effectively committing municipalities to generating a certain amount of waste. Zero-waste advocates say this reduces the incentive to recycle more and waste less, which exists with landfills, where tipping fees can be high.

With incineration, said Dominic Hogg, chairman of UK-based waste-management consulting firm Eunomia, “the financial logic for engaging in further recycling is lost.”

Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, a senior adviser in Norway’s Waste Recovery and Hazardous Waste department and a proponent of waste-to-energy, acknowledges that the economics of incineration can impair recycling efforts.

“It is in many cases more expensive to collect and sort out waste for material recycling than just to collect it as residual waste and send it to energy recovery,” she wrote in an email. “Some municipalities introduce
In many European countries, public subsidies support the expansion of incineration capacity.
only cost-effective waste solutions, while other municipalities have strong political will to introduce environmental measures and collect more waste for recycling.”

German zero-waste advocate Hartmut Hoffmann, head of Friends of the Earth Germany's waste working group, said he’s seen such an effect in Bavaria. In and around the towns of Schwandorf, Coburg, and Burgkirchen, each of which contains an incinerator, some waste authorities have openly refused to separate organic waste for composting, he said, instead incinerating the material at a lower cost. "For us, this refusal is good proof that the existence of incineration plants can hinder recycling,” Hoffmann said.

In Flanders, Belgium, an effort to keep a lid on incinerator contracts has led nearer to zero waste, said Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe and European regional coordinator for GAIA. Since the early 1990s, when recycling rates were relatively low, the local waste authority in Flanders has decided not to increase incineration beyond roughly 25 percent, Simon said. As a result, combined recycling and composting rates now exceed 75 percent, GAIA says. "They stabilized and even reduced waste generation when they capped incineration," Simon said.

Without incineration, he believes, most European countries could improve current recycling rates of 20 or 30 percent to 80 percent within six months. Hogg agreed, saying that rates of 70 percent should be “easy” to attain. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which calculates recycling and composting together, puts the current U.S. rate at 35 percent, compared to a combined European Union figure of 40 percent. Many of the newer
Russian incinerator protesters
Russian youths protest plans for building a Moscow incinerator in 2009.
members of the EU, mainly from Eastern Europe, have few if any waste-to-energy incinerators, recycle very little, and landfill 75 percent or more of their trash.

Except for pockets like Flanders, Simon believes that the major mistake Europe's leading incinerator countries have made is committing too much trash to incineration too soon by instituting landfill bans. "Back then nobody knew or expected it would be possible to achieve the current recycling rates," he said. "As they rolled out recycling they also planned incineration capacity. This trend hit the wall when recycling started competing with incineration for the available waste. In this situation some countries decided to give way to incineration and either import waste to burn or burn recyclables."

Plastics are particularly attractive for burning, as they're made with petroleum and generate more energy when incinerated than almost any other material. "Plastic is a good fuel, " said Pål Mårtensson, a zero-waste advocate in Gothenburg, Sweden. “So they don't bother that much to sort it out [for recycling]."

Burning plastic is also known to release harmful dioxins into the air. Waste-to-energy proponents say state-of-the-art plants filter out such toxic air pollution, but opponents say even the best plants do not filter out all toxics. This week, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency revoked
Incineration remains profitable for facilities accepting waste shipped from eastern and southern Europe.
the operating license of a waste-to-energy incinerator in Dumfries after a large fire, saying the operator had failed to recover energy efficiently and had not met the requirements of its operating permit.

Despite EU directives calling for member states to both end the burning of all recyclable materials and achieve recycling rates of 50 percent (the current average is 25 percent) by 2020, public subsidies support the expansion of incineration capacity in many European countries.

Waste importers Sweden (with 31 plants as of 2011), Germany (72 plants), the Netherlands (12), and Denmark (29) continue to approve, finance, and build new waste-to-energy plants even though capacity exceeds domestic waste volumes. The United Kingdom (24 plants) is expected to reach capacity by 2018, according to a June report by Eunomia. Still, incineration remains profitable for facilities accepting waste that is shipped hundreds of miles from eastern and southern Europe.

Malcolm Williams, a director of the UK Zero Waste Alliance, is concerned that increased incineration capacity may lead Europe to miss what he deems are already modest waste-reduction targets for 2020. Even 90 percent recycling should be attainable, he contends. "It's just a myth that recycling is a difficult thing to do,” said Williams. “So why on earth is anybody planning anything that is going to burn or bury more than 10 percent of the waste we're producing?"


Nate Seltenrich is an award-winning freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work covers science, energy, and the environment, and has been published in High Country News, Sierra, Environmental Health Perspectives, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other print and online publications.

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This well-written article is basically misleading. The comparison of a 100+ year old incineration technology to recycling, which is an equally old process, doesn't tell us what is new and out of the box and solving pollution problems. GAIA is correct about incineration, but unfortunately the ideologues confuse incineration with any kind of high temperature process, which shows GAIA's lack of technical expertise. The point of all this is that incineration poisons the ecosystem and those living in it. Recycling helps, but is not a total solution since what is not recycled goes to a landfill.

What really works is plasma gasification of waste, which creates no pollution, no toxic ash, little or no SOx or particulate matter, low NOx, and very low greenhouse gases, especially if biomass waste is the feedstock. If this is the feedstock, then the CO2 produced is carbon neutral. Thus, waste biomass gasification helps slow down climate change, protects the environment, restricts waste sent to landfills, which means landfills will not produce as much harmful methane. Eventually biomass gasification eliminates the need for landfilling.

A plasma gasifier produces 2MW of renewable power for each ton of biomass waste. An incinerator on a good day can only hope to achieve half a megawatt of power, and because of low operating temperatures, will produce a full range of pollutants, e.g., dioxins, furans, metals, and have a large volume of toxic ash. Nate should read about gasification of waste biomass and not worry about incineration, which is on the way out all over the world.
Posted by Dennis Miller on 29 Aug 2013

High temperature processes such as plasma arc systems are extremely inefficient at producing energy since they are forced to maintain such high temperatures 24/7.

As for byproducts, because these systems are highly untested one cannot say they produce zero harmful emissions or sludge. Given the enormous cost of these facilities designed for the sole purpose of, yes, burning mixed garbage and destroying material, it is better to use the precautionary principle. As they say, garbage in, garbage out.

The companies that build and peddle this "new technology" are the same companies that sold those 20-year-old air polluters (incinerators) under the very same promises of zero pollution and good for the environment. Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice...
Posted by Jamie Kaminski on 29 Aug 2013

I would like to add my two pence to the comment section from the perspective of an Italian citizen.

Italy is one of those southern European states mentioned in the article, having a low incineration capacity and high waste-to-landfill rate. With most of historic landfill sites either being closed (such as in Naples and Palermo) or having their life extended by emergency decree (e.g., Turin and Rome), the preferred solution to the problem has been to build new incinerators, coupled with "temporary" waste storage and dumping sites.

The result has been that by creating emergency structures and procedures (dispensed thus from current waste legislation), the Acerra incinerator (and its soon to be three smaller brothers) took almost 20 years to build, it uses an obsolete technology outlawed in most EU countries, and this investment has literally monopolized any funds for recycling and sorted solid waste collection. In the Naples province, recycling rates are lagging behind national figures to a mere 30 percent, while its neighboring province, Caserta, reaches over 50 percent (ISPRA 2012), with peaks of 70 to 80 percent in single municipalities promoting door-to-door collection and "hardcore" waste sorting at the source (Comuni Riciloni 2013).

The moral of this comment: Incineration requires huge investments that divert resources from other strategies, and waste-to-energy plants are not flexible in their required inputs thus discouraging both increases in recycling rates and decreases in waste production.
Promoting waste-to-energy plants other than AD plants is only a big waste of money and a lucrative business for those who build and operate them.

Posted by Olmo Forni on 30 Aug 2013

Hi Dennis,

Thank you for your comment. From the perspective of the zero-waste movement, all incineration and waste-to-energy technologies are equal and are thus grouped in this analysis. I used the terms "incineration" and "waste-to-energy" broadly, to include gasification, plasma arc, and pyrolysis, though I am aware that some proponents of the newer technologies prefer they not be lumped in with older-style incinerators.

As far as waste-management principles, recycling incentives, and competition for materials are concerned, which are the issues addressed within my article, there is no meaningful difference.

In addition, your statement about the reduced environmental impacts of the newer technologies is not yet proven. In fact, the Dumfries plant that was shut down by the Scottish government this week following a fire and repeated breaches of emissions limits uses a newer gasification technology.
Posted by Nate Seltenrich on 30 Aug 2013

Dear Nate,

I enjoyed this article — I read it first in The Guardian (online). I have just one comment to make regarding the statement, 'Burning plastic is also known to release harmful dioxins into the air.' I think this is a bit misleading (albeit probably unintentionally) as it's not applicable to ALL plastics — just chlorinated plastics such as PVC. This is because dioxins (and furans) are chlorinated compounds themselves and so rely on chlorine as a basic building block. There are lots of plastics (PET, for example) that don't contain chlorine, and so the comment made in the article wouldn't be applicable.

Anyway, like I said, enjoyed the article.

Posted by Richard Williams on 02 Sep 2013

For developing countries, advanced recycling, composting and diversion are achievable. We have reached this level of sustainability over decades of economic development which have funded social development.

What about countries just developing, like Africa and even China, who are major polluters and will be over the next several decades? As we get greener they are polluting at a faster rate and even worse than during developed countries' industrial revolutions.

Is it not wise to help these countries with WtE technology, and use our waste as renewable fuel to help them avoid just open dumping, burning, and using coal- or oil-fired generators like China, which has so much pollution they have had to shut cities down?

While environmentalists block all technology, developing countries are polluting the living hell out of the earth — and will continue to do so over the next several decades.
Posted by Ken Brennen on 22 Oct 2013

Firstly, it is wrong to lump all thermal technologies under incineration. Combustion and pyrolisis are chemically and thermodynamically different. In the incineration, or combustion, process all energy is lost and only H2O +CO2 are produced. In pyrolysis, gasification or liquefaction, other energetic products are produced that are used as feedstock in energy and/or industrial processes, thus recycling materials that would otherwise be lost. Sure, reduce the amount of residues, continue to be the most ecological alternatives, but materials are necessary and all material utilization will generate residues. The energy and feedstocks recovery from waste material is an important and ecological component of any sustainable policy.
Posted by Flavio Ortigao on 19 Dec 2013

What do you do with the ash, and how is it disposed of safely?
Posted by Elaine bieman on 04 Jan 2014

I tried to find an operating gasifying plant in Europe that uses MSW as the only feedstock. Despite above mentioned in Dumfries, Scotland, one shut down in Rome, the other new under development gasification plant in Albano, Italy that is on stand-by, I have not found any. I am not sure if the two in Italy will use only MSW or combination with biomass. I would appreciate any link or information. Townhall in my hometown of Mohelnice, Czech Republic is planning to build one with technology from the Japanese company JFE.

Thank you, I liked the article.
Posted by Vladimir Kolar on 12 Feb 2014

I think this site is very helpful.
Posted by on 25 Feb 2014

I am not aware of the costs associated with recycling plastics, paper, metal, wood, glass, or other recyclables from the waste stream in Europe. But in US it can be done only at prohibitively high costs.
Posted by Anil Mehrotra on 18 Mar 2014

A friend of mine in Germany said the exhaust from an
incineration plant is cleaner than the air of a large
city. Can anyone confirm/counter this?

Also, why are incinerators so expensive? Is it the
scrubbing technology?
Posted by Robert on 25 May 2016

my dear i am interest employ gasification-syngas technology for treating general waste in iran atleast for 3000000 kg/day please give me more information
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