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Trash Talk: Incineration vs. the Circular Economy

Garbage Talk: Incineration and Circular Economy

At first glance, turning our trash into energy is a party technique, just like turning water into wine. But in fact, this comparison is only accurate if this wine is the somewhat suspicious one-euro bottle you found in Aldi’s clearance bin. It will still make you drunk, but a hangover for the next 3 days will make you groan in the toilet and ask yourself again "Why do I always do this?".

Trash talk: This has become synonymous with avid drunk sports fans or reality TV stars competing for the attention of single qualified bachelors. In this kind of competition, it is easy to understand why talking about garbage literally is less attractive. However, the garbage may finally be seen in the sun one day (of course, figuratively speaking, because the hot garbage in the open air will be even less noticeable). The EU has recently caused controversy over the role of incineration in the waste management system.

The so-called "waste-to-energy" (WtE) incineration is a waste management technology that very simply generates energy by burning municipal waste materials (MSW), usually heat or electricity. Recently, Sweden has even made headlines due to its "revolutionary recycling" efforts, which have become so effective that they are now importing waste from other countries to meet energy consumption needs.

We don’t need technical fixes, we need real solutions.

At first glance, turning our trash into energy is a party technique, just like turning water into wine. But in fact, this comparison is only accurate if this wine is the somewhat suspicious one-euro bottle you found in Aldi’s clearance bin. It will still make you drunk, but a hangover for the next 3 days will make you groan in the toilet and ask yourself again "Why do I always do this?".

We are always looking for simple answers, but we rarely think about the imminent consequences. In terms of incineration, we want to boast of our sustainable landfill solutions, but we have not really considered what is truly sustainable in the long term. On the surface, turning waste into energy sounds like your classic win-win: get rid of our waste and use it to create energy. But when you start to think about how we define waste, the problem arises.

As early as the turn of the 20th century, there was a demand for waste disposal solutions. As the waste problem develops-our actual waste is also evolving. A century ago, only about 7% of trash came from manufactured products (mainly paper or glass), while today, about 71% of trash consists of products or packaging—most of which are plastic.

Waste is a resource, we need better solutions

In terms of consumption, plastic has changed the rules of the game in the world of convenience and cost. However, we often treat this resource as rubbish-both literally and figuratively.

Not all plastics are treated equally, and certain types of plastics (such as PET (ie soda bottles and plastic water bottles)) have infrastructure that needs to be collected and sometimes even provide financial incentives. In Germany, a bottle can earn up to 25 cents. I can share this from my own personal experience, and even cause some controversial disputes among some roommates about whose plastic bottle is theirs...

However, flexible plastic packaging (ie disposable plastic bags, crisp bags, bread bags, chocolate bar wrappers, most frozen food bags, etc.) are mostly considered non-recyclable, depending on your country.

This begs the question-why are some of our waste considered worthy of recycling (or even quarreling) while others are not? The answer is because we don’t have anywhere to define what is recyclable and what is not-when we leave this definition to the national or local authorities, it makes sense for people who use WtE to have a less forgiving definition, especially considering Most WtE factories have signed long-term contracts with these cities. Cities are also subject to these long-term contracts: Since the cost of implementing WtE infrastructure is quite high, in order to make their money worthwhile, cities need to pay for it over the long term.

Incinerators are an obstacle to high recovery rates

We can see this difference very clearly throughout Europe. In Copenhagen, where WtE is heavily used, 60% of its waste is considered non-recyclable, while in Treviso, a city that separates 85% of its waste for recycling, this figure drops to 15%. From this we can conclude that, in fact, non-recyclable waste accounts for 10-15% of the waste we produce, and its weight is about 50 kilograms per European per year.

The incineration capacity in Europe is as high as 81 million tons per year.

If all Europeans recycle as they do in Copenhagen today, we need to more than double the capacity of incineration (221 metric tons) in Europe-of course, the premise is that we want to burn all the residual waste, which is unrealistic.

But if all Europeans recycle as they do in Treviso today, we will need to reduce the current capacity by a factor of three to 25 metric tons of incineration capacity.

For circular economy, we need to follow waste levels

As of December 2015, the European Commission has proposed a 2030 circular economy package, and the role of WtE is still to be discussed. Although some people think it can be a support system outside of the circular economy, as seen in Sweden and Denmark, it is more likely to be a crutch for countries with stagnant recovery rates​​.

Currently, Central and Eastern Europe has signed a contract to improve the waste management system, using 50% of the EU's 5.4 billion euro funds for incineration and heat treatment. NGOs urge officials to reconsider, because this system is clearly unsustainable and it is also a huge financial burden. If Central and Eastern Europe does not modify these contracts, they will be locked in a transaction that uses huge funds to build incineration infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, after spending so much money on a new system, you will want to get as much energy as your money. These long-term contracts plunge us into a false sense of security, and there is little incentive for innovation and sustainable redesign upstream of the production chain.

In general, there is a lot of room for improvement in waste management, and the goal is now achievable and actionable. We only need to make a conscious decision once to see the long-term consequences of using WtE, rather than revel in the so-called short-term benefits.

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