Waste-to-energy is not part of the European green taxonomy and therefore does not qualify for sustainable financing. This is the result of a series of European decisions taken between 2018 and 2022 by the European Commission.
But one year later, isn’t it time to revisit the issue, especially since the European Parliament, during its debate around the taxonomy, clearly stated that it was not closing the door to this technology for future discussions.
The Taxonomy Regulation sets six environmental objectives
WtE does not fit into the original six criteria of the taxonomy due to incineration, to the resulting CO2 emissions and to the easiness of incinerating being antinomic to the objective of waste reduction and transition to a circular economy.
For those who see the glass as half full, the inclusion of anaerobic digestion in the first delegated act of the taxonomy is good news. The Sustainable Finance Platform rightly recognised the role of this waste-to-energy technology in reducing landfill and associated methane emissions.
However, for those who see the glass as half empty, the delegated act does not reflect a comprehensive approach to waste management. While waste prevention, reuse and recycling must remain the priority of any policy, technologies such as waste-to-energy should be supported for the service they provide in safely managing non-recyclable waste. The shortcoming of the taxonomy is that it still neglects the environmental impact of non-recyclable waste, while many EU Member States landfill more than 40% of their waste and waste generation in Europe has increased for the third consecutive year in 2021 (Get data).
Directly targeted by the taxonomy, landfills must disappear from the European landscape (or be reduced to 10% of their current capacity). Waste-to-energy is an effective way to reduce landfills. Indeed, landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Landfills occupy valuable land with high risks of water and soil pollution, and contribute to marine litter as the wind blows microplastics from (insufficiently controlled) landfills into water bodies.
Since the moratorium on the construction of new (energy recovery) incinerators in several countries, landfill reduction is no longer taking place. The latest case in point is Scotland, where the tonnage of waste going to landfill has risen by 22.4% since a moratorium was put in place in the country. (Get data).
WtE provides a profitable business case that is very close to the PPP format and therefore more easily financed than anaerobic digestion, which is still looking for a viable business model in many cases. Indeed, the WtE plant operator is paid by the communities to handle the waste and receives the price per KW/h that it delivers to the heat or electricity network. The only variable remains the actual production time, which the plant builder must be able to guarantee over a defined period of time.
As Europeans produce more and more domestic and industrial waste, the fuel required will not decrease. Moreover, even though the quantity of energy produced is negligeable compared to a nuclear or gas power plant, the current energy situation makes it possible to restore WtE’s image by the fact that it supports our needs and also makes it possible to solve the problem of waste production, which is currently unmanageable.
MSW (municipal solid waste) contains materials of both biogenic (plant-derived) and non-biogenic (fossil fuel) origin. The non-biogenic component of MSW has increased over time as more paper is recycled (diverted from MSW) and more plastics are disposed of in MSW streams. This increases the heat content of MSW, but also the net CO2 emissions from MSW incineration.
If a capture project captures more than the non-biogenic fraction of its CO2 emissions, it can allow a facility to become a net negative CO2 emitter. WtE plants avoid the formation of landfill gas by incinerating methane-producing organic compounds in MSW and can therefore improve the net emission savings available.
Incineration is now massively used to treat our waste (more than 50% of household and similar waste is incinerated in Scandinavian countries and even 75% in Japan). On the grounds of energy recovery, incineration benefits from numerous supports that vary from country to country, from tax advantages to regulations and is presented as a link in the circular economy. This treatment method for waste that cannot be recovered from materials is therefore important, but this practice is still being questioned: fear of air pollution, visual pollution (sometimes perceived as worse than wind turbines), etc. Moreover, for local authorities, this creates a paradox in taking into account the long term: investing in facilities that require a constant flow of waste to operate, while promoting waste reduction and recycling.
However, believing in waste reduction while the population and its standard of living are increasing is still wishful thinking. There is a need to incinerate waste and to clean the air that comes out of waste treatment plants. Furthermore, the energy produced by WtE plants is no longer limited to electricity and hot water but indirectly also hydrogen.
Including WtE for municipal and industrial solid waste in the European taxonomy will make it easier to finance this type of plant and will add a building block to Europe’s environmental and energy independence.
Picture: tmdb (feat. Copper Oak)