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The EU is gradually turning away from Waste-To-Energy (WTE) incineration

The European Union is gradually abandoning waste-to-energy (WTE), which is excluded from financial support by major European financial institutions. Ambitious goals have been set, such as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 [1] and halving the total residual waste volume by 2030 [2]. It is clear that rapid and forceful change is required. Waste incineration is a carbon-intensive process that undermines efforts to reduce carbon emissions and therefore achieve carbon neutrality on time. In addition, it harms rather than supports the transition to a circular economy. Since both non-recyclable and recyclable garbage can be used as raw materials for garbage incinerators, garbage prevention and recycling are discouraged, and the generation of garbage is often locked over time.

As a result, European financial institutions are now choosing to support alternatives that are less carbon-intensive and have higher waste levels, and exclude waste incineration power generation from their sustainability agenda. The following is a review of the latest developments in this policy.

Recovery and resilience facilities

The Recovery and Rehabilitation Fund went into effect in February 2021 and aims to mitigate the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It provides 672.5 billion euros in loans and grants, which will support EU member states in building a more resilient and sustainable economy and help them achieve green and digital transformation.

Each member state must prepare its recovery and recovery plan in accordance with the guidelines put forward by the European Commission. According to these guidelines, any measures “should not cause significant damage to environmental objectives within the meaning of Article 17 of the Classification Law Regulations”. On this basis, a list of measures that "do not cause significant harm" (DNSH) has been developed.

The construction of a new waste incinerator is an example of non-compliance with DNSH principles. The report specifically mentions that it threatens the transition to a circular economy because it may “cause a significant increase in the generation, incineration or disposal of waste, with the exception of the incineration of non-recyclable hazardous waste”, in violation of Article 17(1)d of the Classification Law. (ii) Article ("Major damage to environmental objectives"). In addition, it hinders alternatives with higher environmental performance, such as reuse and recycling, and undermines the realization of recycling goals, because large amounts of recyclable and non-recyclable waste are often used as raw materials.

European Regional Development Fund and Cohesion Fund

These two funds aim to strengthen the economic, social and territorial cohesion of the European Union by reducing the gap between the European regions and promoting sustainable development. To achieve these goals, they provided 234 billion euros in grants.

Starting in December 2020, activities eligible for financial support need to comply with EU climate and environmental standards and priorities, and do not cause significant damage to environmental goals.

More specifically, under the specific goal of "promoting the transition to a circular and resource-efficient economy", the fund supports investments in the following areas:

On the contrary, they do not support investments aimed at improving the facility’s capacity to handle residual waste, including waste incineration, except for the outermost areas and material recovery technologies. The desired result (indicator) of this specific goal is to strengthen:

Just transition fund

The 40 billion Euro Just Transition Fund is one of the pillars of the Just Transition Mechanism, which has formulated a road map for achieving climate neutrality by 2050 in an effective and fair manner. The fund aims to promote a balanced socio-economic climate transition by supporting the most affected regions and people.

According to its regulations, eligible investment activities should be long-term sustainable and in line with the goals of the European Green Agreement. They "should contribute to the transition to a sustainable, climate-neutral and circular economy, including measures aimed at improving resource efficiency." Therefore, it is clearly stipulated that waste incineration does not belong to financial support and “belongs to the lower level of the waste recycling economy level”.

EU Classification Regulation

The Taxonomy Regulations, issued in 2020, is a classification system that stipulates which economic activities can be considered environmentally sustainable. It established six environmental goals. They are: mitigation and adaptation to climate change, sustainable use and protection of marine resources, transition to a circular economy, pollution prevention, and finally protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems. Sustainable activities can contribute to one or more environmental goals, but must not cause "significant damage" to other goals.

Economic activities that cause significant damage to environmental objectives are listed in Article 17 of the Classification Law. It is clearly pointed out that activities that "result in a significant increase in waste generation, incineration or disposal, with the exception of the incineration of non-recyclable hazardous waste" do harm the goal of circular economy transformation.

European Investment Bank

The European Investment Bank Group (EIB) has developed a climate bank roadmap to meet EU climate and environmental commitments. The roadmap provides guidelines for climate and sustainable development financing, while supporting the EU Green Agreement.

The EIB stated that the climate action and environmental sustainability financing frameworks are designed to be consistent with the principle of “no major harm” defined in the EU classification regulations. Therefore, waste incineration is excluded from its financial support.

The following legislation allows and encourages changes in the above financial mechanism:

Renewable Energy Directive

Renewable Energy Directive

The Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) supports the EU's renewable energy production and promotion policies. In 2018, the revised Renewable Energy Directive took effect after a joint decision made by EU institutions.

The directive mentions that when promoting renewable energy actions, member states should consider waste levels and the principles of circular economy, and give priority to waste prevention and recycling. It was later made clear that unless the separate collection obligations under the Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC) are first complied with, renewable energy from waste incineration should not be supported. Therefore, when implementing this provision, member states need to determine whether they have complied with the separate collection obligations outlined in the Waste Framework Directive.

Circular Economy Action Plan

Circular Economy Action PlanAs mentioned earlier, the Commission aims to pass the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) in 2020 and on the basis of the Circular Economy Action, to halve the EU’s residual waste by 2030.

The European Parliament’s own report on CEAP's initiative emphasizes that “Member States must strengthen prevention and reuse preparations, increase high-quality recycling, stay away from landfills, and minimize incineration to meet waste levels.” Optimize the treatment of non-recyclable waste, and warn that overcapacity of waste incineration may hinder the development of circular economy.

The way forward

The EU has decided to exclude WTE incineration from financial support because it now recognizes that it opposes the transition to a carbon neutral and circular economy. Instead, now encourage and fund higher environmental performance waste management solutions that include zero waste goals, such as waste prevention, reuse, and recycling.

Considering that the European Union has always been leading the debate and policy making on the circular economy, this recent approach should now serve as an example for other non-European regions and countries to reconsider and redesign their sustainable development paths.

refer to

[1] European Commission, "European Green Agreement", 2019. [Online]. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/european-green-deal-communication_en.pdf.

[2] European Commission, "New Circular Economy Action Plan", 2020. [Online]. Available: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:9903b325-6388-11ea-b735-01aa75ed71a1.0017.02/DOC_1&format=PDF.

Kassandra Makavou is a volunteer blogger for Zero Waste Europe.

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