It’s the world’s most photographed burner – sorry, I mean a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant – in Copenhagen. Designed by Bjarke Ingels, with a ski hill on top and the highest climbing wall on the side, Amager Bakke is said to be the cleanest WTE factory in the world. But it was an expensive buildable factory, and Denmark has 22 others that supply district heat, as well as electricity, to communities. According to Politics, Denmark imported one million tonnes of waste in 2018 from the UK and Germany, essentially transferring emissions from one country to another, in order for everything to work.
However, there is one type of emission that cannot be purified, and that is carbon dioxide. There’s also a lot more than people thought: A recent study by Zero Waste Europe notes that CO2 emissions from WTE almost double what is reported.
Treehugger previously noted that, according to the EPA, burning municipal waste emits more CO2 per tonne than burning coal. However, about half of the CO2 is not counted, as it comes from biogenic sources – food waste, paper and old IKEA furniture boards.
This does not “count” because, as the International Energy Agency explains, “burning fossil fuels releases carbon trapped in the earth for millions of years while burning biomass emits carbon, which is part of the biogenic carbon cycle.” Plastics, on the other hand, are treated as fossil fuels that have made a short side trip through your water bottle.
The Zero Waste Europe report suggests that the rise of WTE is making European countries look as if they are cleaning up their stocks and reducing their carbon emissions when in fact they are just playing the count. The report says: “Many EU countries did not report data on WTE emissions (Austria, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia) or reported only the fossil share of the emissions (Portugal and the United Kingdom).”
So while methane emissions from landfills are declining, overall emissions are not.
Another report, Effects of Combustion Gases and Air Quality of Combustion and Landfill, reached almost the same conclusions, noting that both landfill and incineration are inconsistent with climate change goals.
“Combustion cannot be considered a“ green ”or low-carbon source of electricity because the emissions per kWh of energy produced are higher than CCGT [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine], renewable energies, and the aggregate marginal source of electricity in the UK. The carbon intensity deficit of residual burners will increase as the British grid decarbonises. The use of incineration is therefore also inconsistent with the achievement of local net zero-zero climate change targets in relation to energy generation emissions unless coupled with carbon sequestration and storage. This technology is not yet commercially viable and its use will considerably increase the cost of waste treatment. ”
According to Beth Gardiner, reporting on Yale 360, the European Union no longer supports WTE. Janek Vähk, one of the authors of the Zero Waste Europe report, tells Gardiner that “things seem to be really changing in Brussels”, and the EU is now realizing that burning is a major source of greenhouse gases.
Even Denmark, home of Amager Bakke, is cutting back. The Copenhagen Post quotes Dan Jørgensen, the climate minister:
“We are launching a very green transition from the waste sector. For 15 years we have failed to solve the dilemma of waste incineration. It is time to stop importing plastic waste from abroad to fill empty incinerators and burn them to the detriment of the climate. With this agreement, we increase recycling. and decreases combustion, making a significant difference to the climate. ”
To reduce the amount of fuel or landfills, Danes will have to do more sorting and sorting of 10 types of waste, and increase the amount of recycling to 60%. There will be more circular initiatives where “citizens will have better opportunities to deliver waste directly to companies that can use it to produce new products.”
And there will be less burning:
“The capacity of Danish incineration plants needs to be reduced to supplement Danish waste amounts, which are expected to decrease when recycling increases. That capacity will be set at about 30 percent less than the amount of waste the Danes produce today.”
Meanwhile, a new report predicts that the WTE market will continue to expand, particularly in the United States and China: “In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the global Waste Energy (WTE) market is estimated at $ 32.3 Billion by 2020 projected to reach a revised size of US $ 48.5 billion by 2027, growing at CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 6% over the period 2020-2027. ”
Waste-to-energy is still being launched in the United States, sometimes under fancy names such as heat processing or thermal conversion. We’ve seen the U.S. Chemical Council’s campaigns before, and we’ll see more in the future.
The unfortunate truth is that recycling breaks down, landfills release methane, and even the cleanest waste-to-energy plant pumps CO2. Aiming for zero waste is really the only option, now knowing that beautiful burners over ski hills won’t save us.