Waste-to-Energy technologies treat non-recyclable waste (the so-called “residual waste”): waste which is not fit for re-use or recycling. For instance, polluted waste, degraded waste after several rounds of recycling, and waste made up of composite materials.
In 2018, the European citizens generated around 220 million tonnes of municipal waste (almost 500 kg per citizen). Half of this number (116 million tonnes) was made of non-recyclable waste, which can only be treated by Waste-to-Energy or landfilled.
Waste-to-Energy plants transform non-recyclable waste into energy which is converted into electricity, heat, and steam. The energy recovered by Waste-to-Energy plants is used to power and heat thousands of houses, offices, schools, hospitals and industries.
18 million European citizens receive annually electricity, and 15 million receive heating recovered from WtE plants. Moreover, most of the Waste-to-Energy plants in Europe implement the process of supplying steam to local industrial facilities, replacing the use of fossil-fuel-fired boilers.
Find out more in our fact sheet on “Energy. Heat, Steam and Materials from Waste“.
Metals and minerals recovered from Waste-to-Energy processes prevent the unnecessary extraction of primary raw materials.
Large quantities of metals such as iron, steel, aluminium, copper and zinc can be recovered in Waste-to-Energy plants, extracted from the bottom ash or separated before waste is treated.
The remaining part of the bottom ash is then used in construction, for roads or as an aggregate for concrete. This allows to save virgin materials like gravel and sand.
In 2018 in Europe, Waste-to-Energy plants generated around 40 billion kWh electricity and 90 billion kWh heat. As a result, electricity was supplied to 18 million citizens and heat to 15 million, all generated from non-recyclable waste.
Thousands of houses, offices, shopping malls, schools, hospitals and industries are powered and heated by waste.
Waste-to-Energy plants also supply steam at suitable pressure and temperature for industrial purposes. For example, the ECLUSE network in Belgium supplies steam to six chemical companies at the port of Antwerp. It replaces the use of fossil-fuel fired boilers, saving up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.
The treatment of non-recyclable waste with Waste-to-Energy allows the offset of greenhouse gas emissions.
Why? Because the non-recyclable waste does not end up in landfills anymore. Because WtE plants recover and supply energy. And because WtE plants recover metals and minerals, preventing the extraction of further materials.
In particular, the diversion of waste from landfills prevents the production of methane emissions, which is up to 84 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period.
Between 1995 and 2017, the total amount of municipal waste treated in Europe increased by 13% but greenhouse gas emissions from waste dropped by 42%, thanks to the reduction of the amount of landfilled waste by 60%.
Not exactly. Recycling and Waste-to-Energy have different roles to play and are complementary in sustainable waste management.
EUROSTAT data confirm that the European countries performing well with recycling normally send their non-recyclable waste to Waste-to-Energy plants.
Waste-to-Energy treats waste that cannot be recycled or re-used, removing pollutants that would hamper the recycling streams. To this point, the lack of capacity for ultimate non-recyclable waste has been stressed by the recycling industry itself.
Waste-to-Energy plants meet the strictest industrial emissions requirements placed on any EU industry in terms of pollutants monitored, emission limit values and operating conditions.
In 2019, a review of the published research focused on understanding environmental and human health impacts nearby waste-to-energy plants “found no studies indicating that modern-technology waste incineration plants, which comply with the legislation on emissions, are a cancer risk factor“.
Also in 2019, a major study led by a team at Imperial College London and funded by Public Health England and the Scottish Government found no conclusive links to health effects from waste incinerators.
Around half of the energy generated in Waste-to-Energy plants is renewable as it is of biogenic origin (e.g. contaminated wood waste, residues from composting or anaerobic digestion processes, etc.). This waste is therefore biomass and thereby helps Member States to meet their renewable energy targets.
According to the World Bank report of 2018, “What a Waste 2.0”: “By 2050, waste generation across the world is expected to reach 3.40 billion tonnes”, almost doubling the current numbers. 70% of the world’s waste ends up today in dumps and landfills.
In 2018, the European citizens generated around 220 million tonnes of municipal waste (almost 500 kg per citizen), following a constant trend over the last ten years. Half of this number (116 million tonnes) was made of non-recyclable waste, which can only be treated by Waste-to-Energy or landfilled.
Calculations made by CEWEP indicate that Europe will still produce around 142 million tonnes of non-recyclable waste in 2035 even if all the waste targets set by EU Waste Laws adopted in 2018 are reached on time.