How to be a waste watchdog

Waste treatment operations are regulated by strict European standards. But what happens with these standards at the national level? A handy new guide empowers green groups to ensure compliance.

From plastic to electronic scrap, waste is on the rise all across Europe. The average EU citizen produces almost 500kg of waste a year, only 30% of which is recycled.

Much of the waste we produce is treated by waste management facilities that apply biological, mechanical and chemical processes. Such treatment aims to reduce the amount and hazardous nature of the waste. However, most waste treatment installations also emit carbon dioxide, ammonia and particulate matter into the air, as well as heavy metals and organic chemicals that can contaminate water and soil.

Luckily EU rules set minimum standards that should reduce or eliminate the environmental impact of waste treatment, covering a very wide range of activities, with a special focus on those leading to emissions of harmful pollutants into the air and water.

Aliki Kriekouki is a technical officer at the EEB. She represented environmental NGOs while the new rules were being drafted and has coauthored a guide to help green groups act as watchdogs while they are implemented at the national level. The guide offers an introduction to the implementation of waste treatment standards – known as the WT BREF – as well as specific recommendations for selected industrial sectors. It also provides concrete examples of successful implementation based on the EEB’s experience.

Kriekouki compared the development and implementation process of EU standards to a relay race.

“The EEB has actively contributed to drafting this BREF, taking the voices of environmental citizens’ organisations to the negotiating table. Now it’s time to pass the torch: as governments have to put the requirements into effect, national and local groups have a key role to play”, she told META.

What are BREFs about?

‘Best Available Techniques Reference Documents’ (BREFs) are industry-specific documents which define the most effective techniques that industry can employ to minimise the impact of its activities – the so called ‘Best Available Techniques’, or BATs.

The ‘Best Available Techniques’ conclusions included in the BREFs are used as a reference to set permit conditions, including the emission limits industrial installations must respect to comply with the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), the EU law that aims to prevent and control the industry environmental impact.

The drafting of BREFs is coordinated by the European Commission in consultation with representatives from member states, industry and environmental protection groups. The adoption of the standards triggers a four-year deadline by which installations across Europe must be compliant with the requirements.

Citizens’ organisations have the right to be informed and consulted during the permitting process of industrial installations, and can formulate recommendations for the competent authorities to ensure the standards are turned into a reality with no delay.

What’s new with the WT BREF?

The revised Waste Treatment BREF brings in several improvements compared to the previous standard.

First of all, the scope of the standards was extended to cover the mechanical treatment in shredders of metal waste, including Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), as well as end-of-life vehicles and their components.

In terms of air pollution, diffuse emissions of dust, heavy metals and other toxic substances will now have to be captured and properly treated in most waste treatment facilities that fall under the scope of the standards.

Regarding water pollution, a key highlight is the inclusion of requirements in case of indirect discharges. This means that the operators will have to track and, if necessary, treat at source toxic heavy metals or other persistent pollutants before discharging to a sewer or to an off-site waste water treatment plant. This is important as common waste water treatment plants may not be fitted to treat such pollutants.

However, the revised BREF still includes too many exemptions when it comes, for instance, to the biological treatment of waste. Moreover, a too vague formulation of the requirements concerning the management of hazardous wastes leaves national authorities with additional responsibility to ensure proper implementation, and curb current illegal practices, such as the dilution of hazardous wastes with non-hazardous ones, and their re-direction to cheaper, inefficient treatment options.

Check out the EEB guide for national NGOs