For decades, Europe has poured millions of tons of its trash into incinerators each year, often under the green-sounding label waste to energy.
Now, concerns about incineration’s outsized carbon footprint and fears it may undermine recycling are prompting European Union officials to ease their long-standing embrace of a technology that once seemed like an appealing way to make waste disappear.
The EU is in the process of cutting off funding for new incinerators, but there’s little sign most existing ones —currently consuming 27% of the bloc’s municipal waste — will close any time soon.
And, even without EU financial support, new plants are in the works, many in southern and eastern European countries that have historically incinerated less than long-standing waste-to-energy proponents such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian nations.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, post-Brexit Britain is charging ahead with proposals for dozens of new garbage-burning projects.
Without a more decisive change of course, critics argue, that adds up to an existential threat both to Europe’s promise to slash carbon emissions to net-zero by mid-century and its dreams of a circular economy in which reuse and recycling largely take the place of waste disposal.
Burning plastic in a climate emergency, that’s insane, said Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental engineer and Extinction Rebellion activist who is suing the British government over its decision to exclude incinerators from its new emissions trading system.
Plastic, hard to recycle and ubiquitous in garbage, is made from fossil fuel derivatives and emits carbon dioxide when burned, accounting for a substantial chunk of incineration’s climate damage.
Sinking billions of pounds into new incinerators now could lock Britain into decades of garbage-burning and make it harder for cash-strapped local authorities to boost recycling and composting rates.
The country already burns nearly 45% of its waste — more than it recycles, the Channel 4 show Dispatches recently reported.
The way incineration works, it skews the economics of waste by its very existence. Once you build the beast, you’ve got to keep feeding it.
Worries that incinerators sicken those who live near them — disproportionately poor, and people of color — have long dogged the industry.
Wealthy nations such as Sweden and Denmark, which rely heavily on waste-to-energy plants, say their sophisticated emissions treatment systems mean such concerns are misplaced.
But critics note many nations lack the resources for the best pollution-control systems. Dangerous emissions such as dioxin and particulate matter sometimes go unreported, and enforcement is often porous, environmentalists say.
The climate concerns are newer, crystallized in a report the consulting firm Eunomia produced for ClientEarth, an advocacy group.
It found that British incinerators’ power generation was more carbon-intensive than electricity from natural gas, and second only to coal.
Overall, European incinerators pumped out an estimated 95 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, about 2% of total emissions.
Without incineration, she said, landfill costs tend to rise, increasing the danger of European trash leaving the continent, and ultimately being burned in uncontrolled settings or littering beaches and waterways.
And landfills have their own climate impact — any organic waste in them generates the potent greenhouse gas methane as it decays. What’s more, incinerator operators salvage metals from the ash left over after burning, allowing their reuse.
The neighborhood — where men’s life expectancy is 8.8 years shorter, and women’s 5.7 years shorter, than in wealthier parts of its borough — is like a nonstop conveyor belt of trucks going to and from the incinerator.
A report from Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm, found British incinerators are three times more likely to be sited in the poorest and most racially mixed areas as in the wealthiest, whitest ones.
Whatever countries decide on incineration, cutting waste will also require addressing its source, by pushing producers to make less throwaway packaging, and longer-lasting goods, said Jakobsen, the Danish waste association official.
Better design, better production, more recyclable material. That’s a huge task that has not been fully addressed.
Yale Environment 360 / ABC Flash Point News 2023.
Apart from the Pharmaceutical businesses, the garbage waste industry is the most profitable source of income?