Smoke emission from factory pipes

EU countries fail to curb harmful pollution from burning waste

More than 80 million tons of waste is burnt in Europe every year and waste incineration plants are responsible for toxic emissions of health-harming substances. Now the conclusion of a lengthy three year process to update EU environmental standards for these plants could result in some key protections actually being weaker than existing guidelines.

Most currently operating facilities already comply with some of the new draft rules.

A new report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) reveals that Germany, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic actively tried to weaken the new rules during the talks. Praise is reserved for the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Belgium for trying to raise the standards.

EEB Technical Expert Aliki Kriekouki, who took part in working group meetings that provided advice to those drafting the rules, said that people in Europe expect the EU to have the world’s best environmental standards.

Kriekouki said that despite three years of work to update the rules for waste incineration: “we’re stuck with a proposal that makes some progress but falls short of boosting the deployment of effective, readily available technologies that prevent or minimise harmful pollution.”

For air pollution, maximum emissions levels have largely remained unchanged, with the levels of some critical pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and mercury being raised compared to the existing guidance.

Kriekouki said:

“Sadly, especially for people living near these plants, it’s a clear cut case of one step forward, two steps back.”

Campaigners say that burning so much waste is incompatible with the aim of moving to a ‘circular economy’ – where waste is prevented and products reused or recycled.

The health-harming substances emitted by waste incineration plants include dioxins, heavy metals and particulate matter known to cause respiratory diseases, cancers, immune system damage and reproductive and developmental problems.

The talks on the new standards took place as part of a special EU process on setting minimum binding standards for industry. The last time the waste incineration rules were updated was 2006. When these new rules are finalised industry will have until 2024 to comply with them.

The standards will be finalised next week in Seville when the talks between European Commission representatives, experts from EU countries, and representatives from industry and NGOs conclude.