"If the EU were truly ambitious in waste policy, i.e. diverting waste from landfills to recycling and WtE plants, and improving the infrastructure for district heating, it could be four times more" notes Ella Stengler, based on another study showing that heat production has the potential to increase from the current 50 TWh to 200 TWh by 2050.
"It would give us more and cleaner heat production and security of energy supply" says CEWEP's Managing Director, who goes on to explain that the energy content in WtE production currently corresponds to 19 % of the energy content of many billions of cubic metres of Russian gas. With the help of WtE, in other words, the EU will largely be able to wean itself from its energy dependence on Russia.
Recycling and recovery together
"If we lived in a perfect world, with no waste production, we would be obsolete. But we are far from that today", she says, referring to the many millions of tonnes of waste that continue to end up in European landfills, and where they emit powerful greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.
"People will always produce waste. Prevention of waste is very important and will along with e.g. ecodesign mean less waste and better recyclability in the long run. But for the remaining waste, that is not good enough for quality recycling, WtE is a good solution", she comments, as she emphasises that quality recycling and resource recovery in the form of combustion serve to complement one another. In other words, they are not opposing activities that steal waste resources from each other.
Quality over quantity
"Quality recycling should receive more attention than just looking at quantitative targets for recycling", Ella Stengler points out, as she goes on to explain that recycling makes the most sense with clean materials. For example, PET bottles are easier to recycle than complex plastic compositions. Also very thin plastics can be difficult to recycle and can therefore sometimes be better used in WtE plants.
Similarly, a number of materials are limited in the number of times they can be recycled. The fibre contained in newspaper, for example, degrades after about five rounds of recycling. In this case it can still be used as a source of energy. Other materials are directly unfit for use in a circular economy, if they are for instance too polluted or contain chemicals that need to be destroyed. WtE plants serve as pollutant sinks in these cases and, at the same time, produce energy.
Waste, energy and CO2 reduction, WtE plants in Europe, 2010
With a total of 79 million tonnes of remaining waste processed annually at WtE plants in the EU (after waste prevention, reuse and recycling), 8-44 million tonnes of fossil fuels can be replaced, and 22-43 million tonnes of CO2 can be saved each year. These figures represent a minimum scenario, as CO2 reductions resulting from reduced methane emissions at landfills have not been included. Source: CEWEP
Facts about CEWEP - Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants
CEWEP is the umbrella association of the owners and operators of Waste-to-Energy plants across Europe. Waste-to-Energy plants thermally treat household and similar waste that remains after waste prevention, reuse and recycling by generating energy from it.
The association represents around 400 European Waste-to-Energy plants that produced approx. 100 TWh of electricity and heat in 2012.