Moreover, Vähk warned, the EU target of countries not dumping more than 10% of municipal waste to landfill by 2035 will unintentionally increase the attractiveness of incinerators. “There is a lot of pressure to reduce landfill,” he says. It’s worrying, “because we don’t want to go from landfill to incineration.”
Everything comes as the EU is pushing reduce waste, especially plastic, by increasing composting and recycling targets, requiring plastic bottles to contain 30% recycled content by 2030 and banning – from July – single-use items such as cutlery, cups and stirrers. The EU has also adopted a new “circular economy” plan which aims in the longer term to encourage better product design in order to facilitate reuse and recycling.
Critics say continued incineration could threaten these targets. Once built, they say, incinerators cannibalize recycling, because city governments are often locked into contracts that make it cheaper to burn their waste than to sort it for recyclers.
Denmark is today a country grappling with the legacy of its long membership in cremation. The country, one of the largest waste producers in Europe, built so many incinerators that in 2018 it was import a million tonnes of waste. Plants produce 5% of the country’s electricity and almost a quarter of the heat from local grids, known as district heating systems, said Mads Jakobsen, president of the Danish Waste Association, which represents municipal authorities and waste management companies.
Pushing to meet ambitious carbon emission reduction targets, Danish lawmakers agreed last year to cut incineration capacity by 30% in a decade, with the closure of seven incinerators, while dramatically increasing recycling. “It is time to stop importing plastic waste from abroad to fill empty incinerators and burn them to the detriment of the climate”, said Dan Jørgensen, the country’s climate minister.
But focusing only on Denmark’s carbon footprint, Jakobsen said, politicians in the country had not considered what would happen to the waste Denmark diverts. And since loan repayments are still owed on many factories, he said, “I am also concerned about stranded costs. Who will answer for these costs? Will it be the citizens of my municipality? “
Two regions in Belgium are also seeking to reduce incineration capacity. But few other regions of Europe are following suit. Indeed, some countries are planning new factories. Greece, Bulgaria and Romania landfill most of their waste and will likely need more incineration capacity, Razgaitytė said. Italy and Spain are among the other countries that may also build new factories, 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 currently has around nine incinerators, as well as a similar number of cement plants that use treated waste as fuel, he said. About 70 new projects are pending 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 dangerous levels, Głuszyński said, but contraction EU rules can help,
Britain, too, appears determined to move forward with an expansion of the burn, with dozens of new projects under consideration. Collectively they double current incineration capacity.
There are hints, however, that some of the elements on the drawing board might not materialize. Wales said last month it would impose a moratorium on new large waste-to-energy plants and consider an incineration tax. In February, Kwasi Kwarteng, UK secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, turned down a request for a new incinerator in Kent, east London, while allowing a factory expansion existing. In his decision, he said the project could hamper local recycling, a reasoning that encouraged opponents of incinerators.