Diritto Amministrativo e Appalti

Waste-to-Energy and the Circular Economy

“To simultaneously solve the dilemma of energy demand, waste management, and greenhouse gas emission for communities globally, the waste-to-energy (WTE) supply chain as district energy system should be a viable method towards circular industrial economy. Several essential state-of-the-art WTE technologies including combustion gasification and anaerobic digestion were evaluated. Portfolio options of technologies for different types of WTE supply chains must be examined for achieving circular economy system”[1].

For a better understanding of this process, it seems to be relevant to read the European Commission Communication titled “The Role of waste-to-energy in the Circular Economy”. EU legislation on waste, including recent proposals for higher recycling targets for municipal and packaging waste and for reducing landfill, is guided by the waste hierarchy and aims to shift waste management upwards towards prevention, reuse and recycling.

The Communication focuses on energy recovery from waste and its place in the circular economy. Waste-to-energy is a broad term that covers much more than waste incineration. It encompasses various waste treatment processes generating energy (e.g. in the form of electricity/or heat or produce a waste-derived fuel), each of which has different environmental impacts and circular economy potential.

Waste-to-energy process can play a role in the transition to a circular economy provided that EU waste hierarchy is used as a guiding principle and that choices made do not prevent higher levels of prevention, reuse and recycling. This is essential in order to ensure the full potential of a circular economy, both environmentally and economically and to reinforce the European leadership in green technology. Moreover, it is only by respecting the waste hierarchy that waste-to-energy can maximise the circular economy’s contribution to decarbonisation, in line with the Energy Union Strategy and the Paris Agreement. As mentioned earlier, it is waste prevention and recycling that deliver the highest contribution in terms of energy savings and reductions in GHGs emission.

At the basis of this Communication we find some considerations on the EU waste hierarchy: it is necessary to ensure that the recovery of energy from waste in the EU supports the objectives of the circular economy action plan. Also, the role of waste-to-energy processes would be optimised to play a part in meeting the objectives set out in the Energy Union Strategy and in the Paris Agreement. At the same time, by highlighting proven energy-efficient technology the approach to waste-to-energy set out in the Communication is meant to provide incentives for innovation and help create high-quality jobs.

The Waste Hierarchy[2] is the cornerstone of EU policy and law on waste and is a key to the transition to the circular economy. Its primary purpose is to establish an order of priority that minimises adverse environmental effects and optimises resources efficiency in waste prevention and management.

Consequently, this Hierarchy could help to clarify the position of different waste-to-energy processes; to provide guidance to the Member States on how to make better use of economic instruments and capacity planning with a view to avoiding or addressing potential overcapacity in waste incineration; to identify the technology and processes which currently hold the greatest potential to optimise energy and material outputs, taking into account expected changes in the feedstock for waste-to-energy processes.

The main waste-to-energy processes as identified by the European Commissions are the follows:

  • co-incineration of waste in combustion plants and in cement ad lime production;
  • waste incineration in dedicated facilities;
  • anaerobic digestion of biodegradable waste;
  • production of waste-derived solid, liquid or gaseous fuels;
  • other processes including indirect incineration following a pyrolysis or gasification step.

These processes have different impacts and rank differently the waste hierarchy.

The Communication stresses that the waste hierarchy also broadly reflects the preferred environmental option from a climate perspective: disposal, in landfills or through incineration with little or no energy recovery, is usually the least favourable option for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; conversely waste prevention, reuse and recycling have the highest potential to reduce GHG emissions.

It is also relevant to recall that Article 2(6) of the Commission Decision 2011/753/EU[3] gives to the Member States some flexibility in the application of the hierarchy, as the ultimate goal is to encourage those waste management options that deliver the best environmental outcome. For some specific waste streams, achieving the best environmental outcome may entail departing from the priority order of the hierarchy, i.a. for reasons of technical feasibility, economic viability and environmental protection. [4] For instance, in some specific and justified cases (e.g. materials) that contain certain

substances of very high concern), disposal or energy recovery may be preferable to recycling.

At EU level, the transition towards more sustainable waste management systems receives financial support, mainly through the co-financing of the Cohesion Policy Funds. In the case of these funds, pre-conditions must be met to ensure that new investments in the waste sector are in line with waste management plan designed by Member States to meet their preparation for reuse ad recycling targets. As stated in the Circular Economy Action Plan, this means that investments in treatment facilities for residual waste, such as extra incineration capacity would only be granted in limited and well justified cases, where there is no risk of overcapacity and the objectives of the waste hierarchy are fully respected.

Investments channelled through other EU financial mechanisms, such as the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) also have an important role to play in attracting private financing to the best and most “circular” solutions for waste management through loans, guarantees, equity and other risk-bearing mechanisms. In addition, available EU financial support for research and innovation in waste-to-energy technologies (e.g. Horizon 2020, but also Cohesion Policy funds) contributes to ensuring continued EU leadership and bringing advanced energy-efficient technologies to the market.

At national Level, public financial support has also often played a key role in developing more sustainable waste management solutions and in promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. When assessing public financial support for waste-to-energy processes, it is particularly important not to undermine the waste hierarchy by discouraging waste management options with higher circular economy potential. This is clearly reflected in the existing guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy which state that support for energy from renewable sources using waste or support for cogeneration and district heating installations using waste can make a positive contribution to environmental protection provided it does not circumvent the energy hierarchy.
Public funding should have also avoid creating overcapacity for non-recyclable waste treatment such as incinerators. In this respect, it should be borne in mind that mixed waste as a feedstock for waste-to-energy processes is expected to fall as a result of separate collection obligations and more ambitious EU recycling targets. For these reasons, Member States are advised to gradually phase-out public support for the recovery of energy from mixed waste.




[1] As set out in Article 4 of Directive 2008/98/EC on Waste and repealing certain Directives, in OJ L 312, 22.11.2008.

[2] The Decision establish rules and calculation method for verifying compliance with the targets set in Article 11(2) od Directive 2008/98/EC .

[3] This must be justified in line with the provision laid out in Article 4(2) of the Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC “Supporting environmentally sound decisions for waste management”.

[4]Strategies on implementation of waste-to-energy ( WTE )supply for circular economy system: a review”, Yuan Pan, Micheal Alex and others, in Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 108, Part A, December 2015.

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