Converting waste into a resource, whether by reuse, recycling or repurposing – as in the case of waste-to-energy programmes, whereby garbage is converted to fuel – is a key aspect of the circular economy.
The EU’s sustainability goals prioritise prevention, reuse and recycling of waste, followed by recovery and disposal: waste-to-energy is categorised as recovery, the preferred option for materials which cannot be reused or recycled.
Waste-to-energy plants burn household and household-adjacent waste that cannot be recycled, turning rubbish into energy in the form of electricity or heat. The volume of waste is thereby reduced by 90 per cent, in keeping with both the EU Industrial Emissions Directive – which limits the emissions of energy plants – and the EU Landfill Directive, which mandates no more than 10 per cent of a Member State’s waste can end up in landfills by 2030.
Landfilling, the burial of primarily non-recyclable waste on designated tracts of land, is considered less than ideal from a sustainability perspective. Using an area as a landfill results in potential groundwater pollution, high methane discharge and explosion hazards from trapped gas emissions, among other risks; and as much of the material deposited in landfills is not biodegradable it can take decades to break down. Where waste can be safely used as fuel, therefore, it is recommended to do so rather than depositing it in landfills.
Waste-to-energy provides the dual service of disposing of non-recyclable rubbish and replacing fossil fuels in energy production – in reducing fossil fuel use, the process decreases the impact of energy production plants on climate change and maintains security of energy supply. Efficient waste-to-energy plants thermally treat waste materials to minimise carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced by burning them. The ash produced by burning treated waste is collected, stored and used in road construction or covering landfill sites.
The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants records 507 waste-to-energy plants operating across Europe, treating a total of 90.8 million tonnes of waste – accounting for 27 per cent of total municipal waste – annually.