CCS is not the right solution to reduce emissions from waste incineration as it undermines strategies to reduce the generation of residual waste in contradiction with the principles of a circular economy.
For years, the burning industry has been claiming that burning waste helps to reduce emissions from landfills. However, a recent report by the European Environment Agency and data reported to the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) shows that emissions from European municipal waste incinerators grew by nearly 300% between 1990 and 2017. According to the latest available data, European waste incinerators emitted 52,102kt fossil CO2 in 2018 alone. However, these emissions largely went unnoticed due to complexities in the accounting: these greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from waste incineration plants with energy recovery, also known as Waste-to-Energy (WTE), are not reported under the waste sector but rather the energy sector.
Now that the emissions from the sector have been revealed, the industry has found yet another red herring to keep their business as usual and distract critics on waste incineration, while trying to “hide CO2 emissions under the carpet” - Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
But what is exactly CCS? Could this be the panacea (i.e. a solution for a very difficult situation) for incineration?
CCS is the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by incinerators burning waste, transporting it to a storage site, and depositing it where it will not enter the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, CCS is more of a distraction than a solution to the incinerators' carbon problem. It may help to deal with our guilty feelings (as we increasingly burn our waste in Europe), but CCS really undermines the real cause of climate change: the current linear system of “take-make-dispose”.
Let’s look into some of the reasons:
First of all, residual waste - the waste ending up in incinerators - is not just a bunch of "useless stuff”. Most of the so-called residual waste (up to 90% in some cases) is reusable, recyclable or compostable. This implies that a significant quantity of materials - such as paper, cardboard, or non-packaging plastics - are not captured through separate collection. When waste is burned, these materials are turned into ash and lost forever, and fossil CO2 is released into the atmosphere making the climate change worse.
Another reason is the ‘lock-in’ effect. Incinerators are the most expensive waste treatment option. In order to make profit and repay the investment costs, they need a guaranteed stream of waste. Therefore, “Waste-To-Energy” plants require municipalities to sign long-term contracts known as “deliver or pay”, compelling them to deliver a minimum quantity of waste for 10-15 years or pay fees to compensate the incinerator company for lost profits. With such contracts in place, municipalities commit to generating a certain amount of waste, instead of decreasing that amount while increasing their reuse and recycling rates.
Last but not least, the recovery of materials which still end up in residual waste would have much bigger climate benefits then trying to capture the CO2 emitted from burning waste. For example, a new global report by Eunomia found that sorting of mixed waste to recover those materials could save 0.73 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, globally.
In short, the real climate benefits in terms of greenhouse gas savings lay in the reuse and recycling of materials. A climate-friendly strategy will be one in which materials are continually cycling through the economy; and where the leakage of materials such as waste incineration is phasing out, regardless of whether they come with or without CCS. This is essential while defining a fair transition to a circular economy - one of the key objectives of the European Green Deal.
Countries should not stray away from the real climate strategy, which is minimising the generation of residual waste as well as other types of unsustainable activities, such as incineration of waste. The European Commission gave a clear message by listing incineration of waste in the category of non-sustainable activities under the Taxonomy Regulation as well as by including it amongst the activities that causes significant harm to the environment under the Commission guidelines on the interpretation of the “do not significant harm” principle, de facto not allowing EU Member States to use the EU Recovery and Resilience Fund for building new waste incineration capacities.
The objective to reach climate neutrality can be successful only if we focus on drastically reducing emissions, instead of finding accounting escapes and rely on techno- fixes such as CCS.
Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Janek Vahk is the climate, energy and air pollution programme coordinator at Zero Waste Europe, focusing on end of life treatment of waste. He has MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy and PGDip in Charity Marketing. Previously he worked for Friends of the Earth Europe and Justice and Environment.