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“Deliver or pay”, or how waste incineration causes recycling to slow down

"Deliver or pay", or how waste incineration slows down recycling

Is incineration compatible with recycling?

A common argument in the past was that we can recycle as much waste as possible and burn the rest. However, in reality, incineration hinders recycling. why is that.

Recycling vs incineration

In Europe, the burning of waste in so-called "waste-to-energy" plants is becoming more common. Approximately a quarter of municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators in most member states of Central, Northern and Western Europe. This approach is often seen as a sustainable option for managing municipal waste. But garbage is not a renewable resource. The production of resources that ultimately become waste requires a lot of energy, and energy can be saved by recycling materials instead of extracting original materials. Recycling is also more profitable than incineration, creating more jobs. From an environmental and social point of view, there is no doubt that recycling is the best way to dispose of waste.

How incineration slows down recycling

Incinerators are expensive to build, so in order to be profitable and repay investment costs, they need a guaranteed waste stream. Therefore, “waste-to-energy” plants require municipalities to sign long-term contracts, forcing them to deliver a minimum amount of waste within 20 to 30 years, or to pay fees to compensate for the loss of profits of incineration companies. With such a contract, the municipality promises to generate a certain amount of waste, rather than reducing this amount while increasing the recycling rate.

A remarkable case in Italy illustrates this problem in practice. In 2002, a medium-sized incinerator was built in Pietrasanta on the order of the Tuscany regional government, without the approval of the surrounding municipalities. The incinerator was managed by the private company Veolia for 7.5 years until it was closed in July 2010. The main reason for closing the factory was violation of environmental standards, mainly due to improper wastewater treatment.

However, during the operation, due to the "delivery or pay" contract imposed by the local government, conflicts occurred between the six municipalities and the factory management.

The municipality implemented a door-to-door separation collection program in accordance with the European Waste Framework Directive to achieve the national recycling target of 65%. Therefore, the city's separate collection reduces the amount of dry waste to the lowest level of 10,000 tons per year-the minimum amount specified in the contract. In response, the factory management asked the municipality to pay a total of 13 million euros, which led to a legal battle between 2010 and 2015. The municipalities that fell into a lose-lose situation eventually paid 5 million euros and were fined for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations, simply because they successfully implemented garbage collection.

This situation is becoming more and more common in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom.

In Nottinghamshire, the county council refused to collect food waste separately to avoid being fined for failing to meet the incineration waste delivery target. Another city council in Stoke-on-Trent was fined because the waste tonnage of the local incinerator was below the minimum level. In Derby, the recycling rate dropped from 42% to 31% within one year. This is due to the specific regulations on the composition of the waste in the contract with the waste incineration plant, which encourages the incineration of recyclable and compostable materials.

The situation in the EU and what the European Parliament can do

Due to misunderstandings and sometimes opaque decision-making processes, it is a pity that incineration is still a common practice in Europe. Less than 40% of waste is recycled or reused every year, and a recovery rate of up to 90% should be achievable. The "deliver or pay" contract is not to sell recyclables for reuse, which is economical and environmentally friendly, but requires municipalities to burn precious resources. This approach runs counter to the European waste reduction goal of 2020, which is no longer significant. Not to mention that recycling can save a lot of carbon dioxide emissions and can play an important role in achieving the climate change targets set in the Paris Agreement. Currently, we burn 81 million tons of waste in the EU every year. If we implement the proposed zero waste and circular economy plan, it is possible to reduce the amount of waste to 25 million tons per year, which many cities have already done. By 2030, if all European cities can repair, reuse or recycle at least 85% of materials like Treviso today, the EU’s incineration capacity may be reduced by 75%. If we want to increase the recycling rate, we need to stop funding incineration now.

The European Parliament is currently discussing the European Renewable Energy Directive. RED II will be implemented in the next ten years, affecting the choices of local policymakers and financial investors. Importantly, the financial support for renewable energy is in line with the committee’s waste-to-energy communication recommendations to phase out the waste incineration support plan. The Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE) of the European Parliament will vote on a renewable energy support program for mixed waste energy on November 28.

Claiming that recycling and incineration are compatible is misleading because incineration kills recycling. The "delivery or pay" contract creates a lock-in effect that hinders efforts to reduce and separate collection, and therefore conflict with European environmental goals.

"Incinerators are costly to build, so in order to be profitable and repay the investment costs, they need a guaranteed waste stream."

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