Burning questions about the new EU Waste Incineration Standards

The EU recently published a new set of environmental standards for waste incineration, raising the bar for one of Europe’s most controversial industries. But emissions from burning waste are still putting our health, the environment and the climate at risk.

More than 80 million tonnes of household waste is burnt in Europe every year, including materials that could be reused, recycled or composted. This comes at a high cost in terms of public health, environmental contamination and climate impact. As reported by the environmental network Zero Waste Europe, even the most advanced incineration technologies cannot prevent the release of vast amounts of pollutants that contaminate the air, soil and water, and end up entering our food chain. At the same time, the incineration industry is among the worst emitters of CO2  per megawatt-hour.

Christian Schaible, Policy Manager for Industrial Production at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), welcomed the new EU standards as a step forward while emphasising that “there is no place for waste incineration in a circular economy”.

“Ultimately, Europe must prevent waste and stop burning precious resources. To embrace the zero pollution strategy, we need to replace waste incineration with clean heating alternatives. Yet as long as incineration plants are still operating, Europeans expect and deserve the very best protection,” he said.

The publication of the new EU standards triggered a four-year deadline for operators across Europe to comply with the revised requirements. New installations which receive a permit after the publication of the standards must comply immediately with the new requirements.

But what are these standards about?

The new EU standards on waste incineration stem from the review of the Best Available Techniques Reference document (BREF) on Waste incineration (WI). EU BREFs are industry-specific documents which define the most effective techniques that industry can employ to minimise the impact of their activities. Such techniques are used as a reference to set industrial permit conditions, including emission limits. 

The drafting of BREFs is coordinated by the European Commission in consultation with representatives from member states, industry and environmental groups. Industrial production policy expert Aliki Kriekouki followed the process on behalf of the EEB, to ensure the voices of environmental citizens’ organisations were taken into account. We asked her what news the updated standards bring.

Will the new standards help curb waste incineration emissions?

The new standards include some significant improvements in comparison to the original 2006 ones. Most notably, progress has been made in terms of monitoring of mercury and dioxin emissions to the air, management of abnormal operating conditions – which are often associated with very high emission levels – and abatement of water pollution. Another improvement regards the monitoring of persistent organic pollutants – the so-called POPs – in the output streams after hazardous waste is burnt, to ensure a high destruction efficiency of such substances. However, the new standards also present a few shortcomings to watch out for.

What should we be concerned about?

The revised standards fail to promote the uptake of the most advanced and effective techniques, especially in terms of air emissions abatement, including techniques that have already been in place for some time. 

A case in point? NOx emissions as high as 150 mg/Nm3 (and 180 mg/Nm3 if the most effective technique, known as SCR, is not applicable) are suggested ‘as associated with use of BAT’ for existing plants, whereas data show that even generally less effective techniques, such as SNCR, can achieve levels lower than 100 mg/Nm3 (daily averages).

Furthermore, a loophole could allow certain plant operators to pollute more if they add biomass – like wood chippings or vegetable waste – to the materials they already burn, as doing so could place them out of the scope of the standards. Competent authorities must ensure that whenever waste is burnt these dedicated standards apply to curb harmful impacts on human health and the environment.

What are the next steps?

Ultimately, the real impact of the new standards will largely depend on how our governments will implement them on the ground. National and local environmental groups shall watch the implementation phase closely, and assist the competent authorities in the process. 

This is a key moment to take action: the revision of permits will kick off soon, and in those countries implementing the standards through sector-level general binding rules, the national transposition process may have already started.

What can citizens’ groups do?

Citizens’ groups 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. Following the adoption of the new EU standards on waste incineration, the EEB published a briefing for national waste watchdogs to follow that process, including blind spots and suggested recommendations.

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