Putting EfW into EU ETS pushes waste down the hierarchy - CEWEP

CEWEP managing director and EWB editorial panel member Dr Ella Stengler looks at how plans to add EfW plants to the EU’s carbon market could affect the disposal of non-recyclable waste

CEWEP managing director and EWB editorial panel member Dr Ella Stengler CEWEP managing director and EWB editorial panel member Dr Ella Stengler

Adding EU-based energy-from-waste plants to the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) could lead to more landfilling. 

The EU ETS’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While this works for those sectors that have the potential to reduce their CO2 emissions by producing materials more efficiently or changing their fuel, this is not the case for waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities.

The waste sector should be looked at as a whole to avoid counterproductive impacts 

Waste incineration has the pivotal role of providing a hygienic service to society by treating the waste that cannot be prevented or recycled. Moving just waste incineration into the EU ETS would steer residual waste to cheaper treatment down the waste hierarchy – to landfilling, on which many EU member states still heavily rely, or to export to countries with lower environmental and social standards, leading to ‘waste leakage’. 

Instead, we should look at the entire value chain of virgin plastics (eco-design, manufacturing) and promote eco-design and source separation, which is the prerequisite for achieving high-quality recycling and limiting the fossil CO2 emissions of WtE plants coming from plastic waste. Applying EU ETS carbon pricing to WtE will have no steering effect because it is introduced too far from the source. 

If the objective of including WtE in the EU ETS is just to make this disposal method more expensive, it should be reminded that many EU countries still rely heavily on landfills and that will be their preferred route instead. 

We should not assume that landfilling will be minimised soon: the new EU landfill targets still allow for 10% landfilling of municipal waste by 2035 or, by derogation, by 2040 for countries which are currently landfilling most of their waste. No legally binding EU targets are set at all to limit landfilling of commercial and industrial waste, the volume of which is much higher than municipal waste.

Fact Check: Europe still landfills almost 60 million tonnes of municipal waste annually and considering as well commercial and industrial waste, the total figure amounts to ca. 100 million tonnes of non-inert waste per year.

The WtE sector offsets its CO2 emissions by substituting fossil fuels for energy generation, recycling metals from its bottom ash and diverting waste from landfills which would emit the highly climate potential methane. This makes WtE on average in Europe already climate neutral and the sector is looking into ways to achieve further CO2 savings and to become even carbon negative with carbon capture and use or storage. 

The impact of EU ETS: higher costs without a steering effect

Putting waste incineration under the EU ETS will just produce higher costs for municipalities, businesses and society without resulting in CO2 savings because the input into WtE plants remains the same: the non-recyclable waste.

The case of Sweden

This becomes evident when looking at Sweden where WtE plants had to join the EU ETS in 2013. Since then the amount of waste treated in the country’s WtE plants has risen, rather than fallen. As for plastic waste, which is the main cause of the fossil emissions in WtE plants, according to the latest survey by the Swedish EPA, the plastic market showed a large increase in plastic production and consumption. 

Evidently, applying the EU ETS to WtE plants has had no real effect on plastic production because it was introduced too far from the source. The costs for the WtE sector have increased without concrete steering effects. Because WtE plants treat the residues from sorting and recycling activities, the ETS costs had to be passed on to all other activities upstream in the waste hierarchy, including recycling. Residues from plastic recycling had to be charged more and the costs of plastic recycling rose consequently.

Another tool to make WtE more expensive with the intention of boosting recycling was the introduction of an incineration tax in Sweden. However, in fact, the Swedish Tax Agency has recently concluded that the waste incineration tax “does not steer effectively towards the goals that justify the tax”.

What actually led to an increased rate of recycling and a negligible rate of landfilling in Sweden in the past 30 years was the landfill ban. According to a report by the Swedish EPA: “Emissions of methane from the waste sector have decreased by 78 % in the period 1990 to 2019”. Only 0.8 % of the treated household waste was landfilled in 2019 compared with 43.8 % in 1990. In Sweden WtE has been a complementary tool to boost recycling and divert waste from landfills.

This shows, once more, that the low-hanging fruit for climate mitigation in waste management is avoiding methane from landfills by making a better use of waste that can be recycled or used for energy recovery.

Dr Ella Stengler is managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP)

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