What’s more, Vähk warned, the EU’s aim for countries to landfill no more than 10 percent of municipal waste by 2035 will unintentionally bolster incinerators’ appeal. “There’s a lot of pressure on minimizing landfill,” he said. That’s worrying, “because we don’t want to move from landfilling to incineration.”
It all comes as the EU is pushing to reduce waste, particularly plastic, by ratcheting up targets for composting and recycling, mandating that plastic bottles contain 30 percent recycled content by 2030, and banning—as of this July—single-use items such as cutlery, cups, and stirrers. The EU has also adopted a new “circular economy” plan that aims in the longer term to encourage better product design so reuse and recycling are easier.
Continued incineration, critics argue, could threaten those goals. Once built, they say, incinerators cannibalize recycling, because municipal governments are often locked in by contracts that make it cheaper to get their rubbish burned than to sort it for recyclers.
One nation now grappling with the legacy of its long embrace of incineration is Denmark. The country, one of Europe’s biggest waste producers, built so many incinerators that by 2018 it was importing a million tons of trash. The plants generate 5 percent of the country’s electricity and nearly a quarter of the heat in the local networks, known as district heating systems, said Mads Jakobsen, chairman of the Danish Waste Association, which represents municipal authorities and waste companies.
Pushing to meet ambitious carbon-cutting goals, Danish lawmakers agreed last year to shrink incineration capacity by 30 percent in a decade, with the closure of seven incinerators, while dramatically expanding recycling. “It’s time to stop importing plastic waste from abroad to fill empty incinerators and burn it to the detriment of the climate,” said Dan Jørgensen, the country’s climate minister.
But in focusing only on Denmark’s own carbon footprint, Jakobsen said, the country’s politicians had failed to consider what would happen to the waste Denmark turns away. And with loan repayments still due on many plants, he said, “I’m also concerned about the stranded costs. Who’s going to answer for those costs? Will it be the citizens in my municipality?”
Two regions of Belgium are also seeking to reduce incineration capacity. But few other parts of Europe are following suit. Indeed, some countries are planning new plants. Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania landfill most of their waste, and will probably need more incineration capacity, said Razgaitytė. Italy and Spain are among the others that may also build new plants, she said.
In central and eastern Europe, “there is very strong pressure and a lucrative market for new incinerators,” said Paweł Głuszyński, of the Society for Earth, a Polish advocacy group. Poland has about nine incinerators now, plus a similar number of cement plants that use processed waste as fuel, he said. Around 70 new projects are seeking approval, he said, including proposals to convert old coal plants to burn garbage instead. Poor enforcement in Poland means emissions of toxins such as dioxins and furans often reach hazardous levels, Głuszyński said, but tightening EU rules may help,
Britain, too, seems intent on pushing ahead with an expansion of burning, with dozens of new projects under consideration. Collectively, they would double current incineration capacity.
There are hints, though, that some of what’s on the drawing board may not materialize. Wales said last month it would put a moratorium on large new waste-to-energy plants, and consider an incineration tax. In February, Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain’s secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, refused an application for a new incinerator in Kent, east of London, although he allowed expansion of an existing plant. In his decision, he said the project could hamper local recycling, reasoning that encouraged incinerator opponents.