Even Europe Is Questioning Waste-to-Energy

Many nations are finding it's hard to go carbon neutral when you are burning garbage.

Amager Bakke from a distance
Amager Bakke from Copenhagen Harbor.

Lloyd Alter

It is the world's most photographed incinerator — sorry, I mean waste-to-energy (WTE) plant — in Copenhagen. Designed by Bjarke Ingels, with a ski hill on top and the world's tallest climbing wall on its side, Amager Bakke is purported to be the cleanest WTE plant in the world. But it was an expensive plant to build, and Denmark has 22 others that provide district heat, as well as electricity, to communities. According to Politico, Denmark imported a million tonnes of waste in 2018 from the United Kingdom and Germany, essentially transferring emissions from one country to the other, to keep everything running.

However, there is one kind of emission that cannot be scrubbed out, and that's carbon dioxide. There is also much more of it than people thought: A recent study by Zero Waste Europe notes CO2 emissions from WTE are almost double what is being reported.

Treehugger has noted before that, according to the EPA, burning municipal waste puts out more CO2 per tonne than burning coal. However, about half of the CO2 isn't counted, because it comes from biogenic sources — food waste, paper, and old particle board IKEA furniture.

This doesn't "count" because, as the International Energy Agency explains, "burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been locked up in the ground for millions of years while burning biomass emits carbon that is part of the biogenic carbon cycle." Plastics, on the other hand, are treated as fossil fuels that took a short side trip through your water bottle.

The Zero Waste Europe report suggests the increase in WTE is making European countries look like they are cleaning up their acts and reducing their carbon emissions when, in fact, they are just fiddling with the accounting. The report states: "​Numerous EU countries did not report any data on WTE emissions (Austria, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia) ​or reported only the fossil part of the emissions​ (Portugal and the United Kingdom)."

So while methane emissions from landfills are dropping, overall emissions are not.

Amager Bakke garbage side
The working side of Amager Bakke.

Lloyd Alter

Another report, Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill, came to pretty much the same conclusions, noting that both landfill and incineration are incompatible with climate change targets.

"Incineration cannot be considered a ‘green’ or low carbon source of electricity, as the emissions per kWh of energy produced are higher than CCGT [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine], renewables, and the aggregated marginal source of electricity in the UK. The carbon intensity deficit of residual waste incinerators will increase as the UK grid decarbonizes. The use of incineration is therefore also incompatible with the achievement of local net-zero climate change targets in respect of emissions from energy generation unless coupled with carbon capture and storage. This technology is not yet commercially viable and its use will considerably increase the cost of waste treatment."

According to Beth Gardiner, reporting for Yale 360, the European Union is no longer supporting WTE. Janek Vähk, one of the authors of the Zero Waste Europe report, tells Gardiner that “it looks like things are really changing in Brussels,” and the EU now realizes that incineration is a big source of greenhouse gases.

Even Denmark, home to Amager Bakke, is cutting back. The Copenhagen Post quotes Dan Jørgensen, the climate minister:

“We are launching a very green transition of the waste sector. For 15 years we have failed to solve the waste incineration dilemma. It’s time to stop importing plastic waste from abroad to fill empty incinerators and burn it to the detriment of the climate. With this agreement, we are increasing recycling and reducing burning, making a significant difference to the climate.”
Amager Bakke
Amager Bakke. credit: Lloyd Alter

To reduce the amount of waste that is burned or landfilled, Danes are going to have to do more sorting and separating of 10 types of waste, and increase the amount of recycling to 60%. There will be more circular initiatives, where "citizens will have better opportunities to deliver waste directly to companies that can use it to make new products."

And, there will be less burning:

"The capacity of Danish incineration plants must be reduced to complement Danish waste amounts that are expected to decline when recycling increases. That capacity will be fixed at about 30 percent less than the amount of waste the Danes produce today."

Meanwhile, a new report predicts the WTE market will continue to expand, particularly in the U.S. and China: "Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the global market for Waste To Energy (WTE) estimated at US$32.3 Billion in the year 2020, is projected to reach a revised size of US$48.5 Billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 6% over the period 2020-2027."

the power of waste

American Chemistry Council

Waste-to-energy is still being pitched in the United States, sometimes under fancy names like high-heat processing or thermal conversion. We have seen the campaigns by the American Chemistry Council before, and we will see more in the future.

The unfortunate truth is that recycling is broken, landfills release methane, and even the cleanest waste-to-energy plant pumps out CO2. Aiming for zero waste is really the only option we have, now that we know that pretty incinerators topped with ski hills won't save us.