It is a fact that a large amount of waste still goes to landfill in today's Europe, a final treatment that results in significant emissions to both soil and the atmosphere. Despite much talk and action to adapt Europe for a more circular and sustainable future, we are still some way from being able to manage the majority of our waste responsibly and efficiently - as a resource.
The role of energy recovery in the green transition has suddenly come to the fore in the wake of an energy crisis in Europe - the likes of which we have not seen in 50 years. As energy becomes scarce and prices skyrocket, more people are recognizing the importance of efficient EfW facilities whose benefits will last for years to come.
Another key reason why energy recovery remains important is that we are not yet able to utilize the majority of waste for mechanical or chemical recycling. The volumes of residual waste are still large and need proper final treatment. So while energy recovery is still considered the 'unpopular cousin' of recycling, it makes a significant contribution by generating energy in the form of electricity, industrial steam and district heating for a large number of businesses and households across Europe. Solid-recovered fuel (SRF) is also increasingly used as an alternative fuel in the production of cement, a sustainable development for one of the world's most CO2-polluting industries. In the transition from a linear to a circular economy, energy recovery is thus proving more central than ever.
Energy recovery is growing in Europe and more plants are under construction. In Germany, the EU's largest energy recycler, 26 million tons of waste are converted into energy per year. In the next three years, this is set to increase by a further 1 million tons as new furnace lines are ready for use. Waste demand is cyclical, but it is clear that Germany will need to increase its imports of RDF and SRF in the coming years.
In the UK, EfW capacity is also expected to grow in the coming years. In its annual report, the company Tolvik estimates an increase of UK EfW combustion by over four million tons per year, to 19.4 million tons, by 2026.
Logistics and capacity
Factors such as incineration efficiency, taxation and logistics are central to the efforts required to improve the conditions for efficient energy recovery in the future. Many of the challenges of the capital-intensive recycling industry are primarily due to an imbalance in the waste market in Europe. The largest capacity for energy recovery is currently located in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, while Southern Europe generally lacks the capacity to incinerate its own waste - and the willingness to pay to do so. To prevent waste from ending up in landfills, it is therefore necessary to better facilitate the export and transportation of waste to facilities that need it, such as in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Today, Italy, among others, is emerging as an important export country for these markets.
But the existing logistics challenges are not only about increased transportation costs, but also about the lack of infrastructure - not least with regard to green rail transport across Europe. A more efficient flow of waste between countries is also about the bureaucracy surrounding the transportation of waste, which should be facilitated for easier exports between markets.
More efficient plants
One effect of today's 'south to north' electricity is also to burn more sustainably by using the most efficient EfW plants in the world. In Northern Europe, waste is better utilized with greater production of industrial steam and district heating - which is significantly more efficient than electricity production alone. In the long term, the sustainable development of energy recovery will depend on the development of more facilities in Europe to provide it. Until combustion efficiency is as good in the south as in the north, optimal arrangements for the transportation of waste fuels must be made.
Opinions differ on the effectiveness of taxation - and who should be taxed - in reducing waste emissions in Europe. However, price-sensitive tools such as emissions trading under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) could help push energy recovery towards the use of more sustainable, biogenic fuels. The more expensive it becomes to emit CO2 into the atmosphere, the more momentum will also be given to carbon capture and storage (CCS) at EfW plants - as this too will reduce the need for allowances.
There is now political movement on the tax issue, with the EU discussing the possibility of introducing an ETS for all member states by 2026. In Germany, work is even underway to introduce a targeted CO2 tax from January next year.
Rising inflation and galloping prices are currently creating challenges in an industry that requires a lot of capital and predictability. A less bureaucratic, open and fair market for energy recovery could help move the EU in a greener direction.