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Circular Economy

If Europe minimised landfilling and maximised the use of waste as a resource, the future would look great for recycling and Waste-to-Energy (WtE). At the same time this would be beneficial for environment, jobs and growth in Europe.

In order to achieve this, the right steps have to be undertaken by EU policy makers. An important step will be the future ‘Circular Economy’ package. The European Commission should come up soon with ‘a broader and more ambitious’ proposal, as announced in the European Parliament on 16th December 2014 when the Commission Work Programme for 2015 was presented, withdrawing the current Circular Economy proposal.

In a recent communication entitled "Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe” [1], accompanied by a legislative proposal for the review of the waste targets, the European Commission further proposes a framework for reaching a resource efficient economy through addressing waste management activities.

Apart from input to the energy system, WtE plays an important role in diverting waste from landfills. In doing so it goes hand in hand with recycling. It also ensures a high quality recycling by treating all residual waste that is not suitable to be recycled. „Recycling of many waste materials certainly provides valuable products but also – and inevitably if the aim is ‘clean cycles’ – it produces recycling residues that are unsuitable for further use and that have to be disposed of in sinks. Thus, "landfilling and incineration are as essential as prevention and recycling, and they depend upon each other to get the job done” [2].

New recycled materials depend on the quality of the sorted waste. It is worth noting that there are some materials which are too dirty or too contaminated containing, for example, flame retardants or heavy metals and mixed materials that are too difficult or too expensive to sort. In addition, materials degrade after repeated recycling (in particular, plastic and paper fibers lose their properties) and the sorting activity produces residues that need to be treated. „Recycling does have limits and is a means to higher level targets – not a goal in itself” [3].

If high quality recycling is not possible, the waste should be turned into energy, rather than being landfilled. Even countries with the highest recycling rates in Europe, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria and Denmark that landfill less than 10% and recycle above 50% of their municipal waste depend on WtE to treat the remaining waste that is not suitable for recycling. All these countries have introduced landfill bans in order to recycle as much as possible and to turn into energy the waste which is not suitable for recycling.

WtE diverts waste from landfilling, reduces volume and sanitises waste, provides final sink for pollutants and keeps them out of the recycling loop.

Boosting quality recycling

Quality recycling is a vital issue. Rather than just focusing on quantity, quality should receive greater attention in the on-going revision. For this we need clear definitions, accurate measurement, better data and transparency about what goes in and what goes out of sorting and recycling facilities. These mass balances exist for WtE. Information is widely available as WtE plant operators strictly document what goes into the plant and what goes out, i.e. energy and residues. From the latter precious metals are recycled.

Providing affordable local energy
Indeed, a holistic approach that not only looks at raw material supply, but also considers affordable and secure energy delivery must be taken. Supplying citizens and industry with cost-effective and reliable local energy is an important aspect with regard to Europe’s growth, security of energy supply as well as energy and climate goals, which are in the focus of the European Energy Union. This kind of energy is generated by WtE plants from waste that is not good enough for recycling.

WtE capacity
The amount of waste sent to WtE plants is determined by quality recycling, and the acceptance of recycled materials on the market. WtE plants take the rejects from sorting and recycling facilities, as normally not 100% of the waste collected for recycling becomes recycled products in the end, e.g. due to poor quality. They have to be treated in WtE plants to ensure that pollutants do not enter the circular economy.

If Europe is serious in minimizing landfilling and maximising the use of waste as a resource, we need investment in treatment capacity, i.e. sorting, recycling and other recovery options. WtE capacity in EU28 varies a lot. Some Member States have practically no WtE capacity, but landfill most of their municipal waste. At the same time there is a great discussion about so-called overcapacities for WtE in some regions, mostly where the use of waste for heating purposes or combined heat and power is highly appreciated.

It must be considered that the Member States which have some spare WtE capacity are also the ones to achieve high recycling rates. They have progressive source separation systems and work to ensure that only waste that has gone through these systems enters WtE plants.

It is worth mentioning that sometimes WtE "overcapacity” might be overestimated as often only the amount of municipal waste generated in the region is taken into account. However, apart from municipal waste, WtE plants also treat considerable amounts of commercial and industrial waste. Although data for the latter is not as easily available as for municipal waste, it has to be considered for the assessment of the total European waste incineration market.

Nevertheless, Waste-to-Energy overcapacities should be avoided. Careful capacity planning is necessary and cooperation between the regions should be stimulated.

  • 1. European Commission, Communication COM (2014) 398 final of 2.7.214 “Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe”
  • 2. Brunner P.H., Cycles, spirals and linear flows, Waste Management and Research 2013 31:1, (16.12.2014).
  • 3. Velis C.A., Brunner P.H., Recycling and resource efficiency: it is time for a change from quantity to quality, Waste Management & Research 2013 31: 539, (16.12.2014).

Created by Dr. Ella Stengler (CEWEP Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants), (), last modified by ()


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