A proposal without effective and clear targets to divert recyclable and recoverable waste from landfills would be a missed opportunity for a sustainable circular economy as well as for climate policy. Minimising landfilling is low hanging fruits with regard to the upcoming discussions at the United Nations climate summit in Paris in December, says CEWEP, the European umbrella association of Waste-to-Energy plant operators.
“Diversion from landfill is the main contributor to GHG1 mitigation in the waste management sector”, a recent study suggests2. They calculated that for municipal waste alone diverting from landfills would save 92 million tonnes of CO2 in the EU-28 by 2030. As municipal waste is only 10% of all waste that is produced in EU28, the total savings of GHG would be much higher.
The study concludes that an integrated waste management system that prioritises reuse, material recycling and energy recovery instead of landfilling “can contribute significantly to national GHG mitigation goals. Synergy effects are more efficient resource use and the reduction of environmental impacts on human health and ecosystems“. Indeed, apart from the fact that methane emissions from landfills are significant contributors to Greenhouse gases, the potential danger of landfilling for groundwater pollution due to possible leachate and the loss of land use should be good enough reasons for the Commission to come forward with ambitious diversion targets, according to CEWEP. Furthermore (legal and illegal) landfills in the Mediterranean area are the source for pollution of the sea with microplastics as the wind blows the plastic into the sea or rivers.
While for some specific waste streams landfilling will still be an option, a huge amount could be used in a better way than dumping it on landfills. This resource should be used for recycling into new quality products that can meet market demand and hence replace the use of virgin materials. The remaining waste that is not good enough to produce quality products could be used to generate affordable and secure energy from waste in Waste-to-Energy plants (incineration with energy recovery). This saves additionally around 23 – 44 million tonnes of CO2 emissions as energy production from waste can replace 9 – 44 million tonnes of coal, gas or lignite that would otherwise be used to produce this energy.
By providing energy from local resources, Waste-to-Energy plants can help to reduce Europe’s high dependence on fossil fuel imports. In 2012 EU-28 imported 108 billion m3 of natural gas from Russia3. The energy content of the waste treated by European Waste-to-Energy plants amounts to 19% of these gas imports.