The European Commission has urged member states to gradually phase out public funding for energy recovery from mixed waste in new non-binding guidelines on waste-to-energy.
Mixed waste used as feedstock in waste-to-energy processes is expected to fall due to higher recycling targets, currently being discussed by the EU institutions, as well as separate collection obligations, the document says. This type of waste accounts for just over half of all waste converted into energy in the EU.
The Commission notes that experience in some member states has indicated a real risk of stranded assets, particularly in incineration. Member states with little incineration capacity and high reliance on landfilling should prioritise new recycling capacity and develop anaerobic digestion to treat biodegradable waste, it says.
Countries with high incineration capacity should ban new facilities while decommissioning old, less efficient ones, the document states. They are also advised to introduce higher incineration taxes for inefficient processes and phase out support schemes.
Presenting the guidelines on Thursday, Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said that creating a market for incineration should be avoided “as much as possible”. “It’s unavoidable for a small part, but only at a stage where recycling is no longer possible – and certainly should not be done before that,” he argued.
The document stresses the importance of the priority order set in the waste hierarchy in ensuring that waste-to-energy capacity does not generate stranded assets.
The Commission seeks to clarify how the hierarchy applies to various waste-to-energy processes, noting that they rank differently in terms of their sustainability.
Anaerobic digestion counts as recycling in the waste hierarchy, which is half-way up the ranking just behind prevention and preparing for reuse, according to the guidelines. Just below, they place waste incineration and co-incineration operators with a high level of energy recovery under ‘other recovery’, together with reprocessed waste used as fuel.
Only waste incineration and co-incineration with limited energy recovery are classed as disposal, the bottom category of the hierarchy, along with gas from landfills. Incineration, co-incineration in kilns and anaerobic digestion provide around 1.5% of the EU’s total final energy consumption.
However, the guidance leaves member states the opportunity to depart from the priority order if they can justify why this achieves “the best environmental outcome”. Potential reasons outlined include technical feasibility, economic viability and environmental protection.
Green group Zero Waste Europe said the recommendations provide clarity on how to implement the waste hierarchy. But it regretted that the Commission had not included its call to phase out subsidies for waste-to-energy in its proposal for a revised Renewable Energy Directive from last November, calling on MEPs and member states to do so during the legislative process.
Additional reporting by José Rojo