New study: Energy efficiency of EU waste incinerators appallingly low

A new study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) shows that the efficiency of electricity generation from existing EU waste incineration facilities is appallingly low.
Photo: Martin Kummer,

Equanimator’s study ‘Debunking Efficient Recovery: the Performance of EU Incineration Facilities‘ found that typical efficiencies for energy generation, especially for electricity generation only, are in the mid-20% range in the best cases. This compares poorly with figures of around 35% for coal-fired electricity generation and 55% for combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants.

The situation is slightly better for heat generation, but even here the performance is no better than that of domestic gas boilers. The situation worsens – emissions effectively double for both electricity and gas – when non-fossil CO2 emissions from waste incineration are taken into account.

The study also questions the rather arbitrary basis for distinguishing between disposal (D10) and recovery (R1) incineration. The energy efficiency threshold set by the R1 formula to distinguish between disposal and recovery incinerators is far too easy to meet. The R1 threshold could be met with efficiencies as low as 16.5% net. The report therefore recommends that the meaningless distinction between D10 and R1 incinerators be abandoned.

Janek Vähk, ZWE’s Climate, Energy, and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator, says: “The report provides evidence that burning waste for energy is a very inefficient process, and as such, the energy recovery aspect of it is often overemphasised by some stakeholders. Moreover, the ongoing decarbonisation makes it increasingly difficult to consider waste as a suitable source of energy, thus the need to recover energy from waste which led to the R1 formula is outdated.”

Dominic Hogg, Director of Equanimator: “The case for distinguishing between ‘recovery’ and ‘disposal’ on grounds of energy efficiency is always questionable. Incinerators are required, by law, to recover heat as far as is practicable, and any meaningful distinction would have excluded a significant proportion of operating facilities. Instead, according to EU data, some 98% of all municipal waste incinerated is dealt with at facilities that qualify as ‘recovery’. That suggests the ‘efficiency threshold’ has been designed to be too easily met. Given the diminishing benefits from incineration as energy systems decarbonise, it’s time to dispose of this distinction, and reclassify all incinerators as disposal facilities.”

The low generation efficiency of incineration leads to greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity are almost double of those associated with natural gas generation.

In view of the above, ZWE calls on the European Commission in the forthcoming revision of the Waste Framework Directive to

  • Remove the R1 formula in Annex II of the Waste Framework Directive so that municipal waste incineration can no longer be classified as “recovery”;
  • set a target for the generation of mixed (residual) municipal waste of 100 kg per capita by 2035 in order to shift the focus from waste disposal to tackling the generation of mixed waste in the first place.



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