Fortum's reflections on the waste-to-energy communication of the European Commission's CE action plan

30 January 2017, 12:08 EET

The European Commission released on 26th January a progress report on its Circular Economy (CE) Action Plan which was initially published on December 2015 and which is progressing in the European Council and the European Parliament. Together with the progress report, the Commission also:

  • Issued guidance to Member States on converting waste to energy (Waste-to-energy Communication);
  • Took further measures to establish a Circular Economy Finance Support Platform together with the European Investment Bank (EIB);
  • Proposed a targeted improvement of legislation on certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.

We welcome the recognition of the role of waste-to-energy as an essential contributor to circular economy and quality recycling. Thermal treatment is needed and preferred to take care of the non-recyclable waste (both municipal, commercial and industrial) that is too polluted for recycling, while at the same time producing secure and reliable energy and contributing to the aims of the Energy Union. Reaching more ambitious recycling targets goes hand in hand with thermal treatment while banning landfilling of all waste should be a primary goal.

However, the communication falls short in expectations by not covering all wastes. Instead, it raises some concerns on stranded assets because of driving counterfactual suggestions related to waste-to-energy by limiting them to municipal waste (MW) which is only app. 10% of all waste and by using examples of few member states instead of sticking to a comprehensive EU level approach. Key issue however is that those countries who have the highest recycling rates, have practically no landfilling of MW and have a substantial role in waste-to-energy for all non-recyclable wastes. Separately from that, there is no waste-to-energy capacity in many Member States which landfill and dispose of most of their wastes. Looking from the EU perspective, there is no foreseeable stranded capacity even if new recycling targets were reached by 2030.

The communication imitates the waste hierarchy but is only partially relying on its own surveys because it does not underline the full potential related to heat and electricity recovery from waste. The Circular Economy Action Plan should take other EU policy targets e.g. climate and security of energy supply, into account. The substantial synergies between waste-to-energy and district heating and cooling (DHC) systems are the low hanging fruits in several Member States towards low carbon energy systems and the security of energy supply.

According to the progress report, the Commission will also put forward a detailed analysis of the legal, technical or practical problems at the interface of chemical, product and waste legislation that may hinder the transition of recycled materials into the productive economy. In particular the Commission will consider options to improve information about hazardous substances of concern in products and waste, and options to facilitate the management of  these hazardous substances found in recycled materials. The objective is not only to promote non-toxic material cycles, but also to enhance the uptake of secondary raw materials. To better secure an environmentally safe circular economy, those hazardous substances have to be identified and hazardous wastes have to be separated more effectively.

Fortum’s proposals for the policy issues that need to be better enhanced in the forthcom-ing circular economy developments:

  • ​As a starting point towards circular economy in the EU, improvements in waste related EU and national statistics covering all waste have to be accomplished prior to finalizing the proposed ambitious targets and their monitoring. This is not included in the progress report;
  • National approaches are not sufficient to address the role of energy recovery from non-recyclable waste. It makes sense to exploit the internal waste market of the EU to the full;
  • Policy focus should not be limited to MW only. Commercial & industrial waste (C&IW) also play a key role for better quality recycling and for thermal recovery;
  • Key policy enabler for driving circular economy is effectively reducing landfilling of all waste to the minimum;
  • High-efficiency energy recovery of non-recyclable waste should always be a preferred option in full accordance with the  waste hierarchy. Criteria for the non-recyclability of waste should be based on technical, environmental and economic assessments;
  • When assessed on the EU level, WtE capacity is not excessive today. In the light of forward-looking waste amounts and new recycling targets, WtE overcapacity cannot be foreseen when all non-recyclable waste streams are being considered.

More information:
Harri-Pekka Korhonen +358 50 452 9321
Auli Westerholm +358 50 530 0264

More information from attached links:
Waste-to-Energy Communication
Full Package
CEWEP release