The waste management company behind plans for a €160 million municipal waste incinerator for Cork Harbour have clashed with local environmentalists over a recent European Commission document which sets out the role of waste-to-energy processes, such as incineration, in dealing with waste.
According to Indaver, which has applied for planning permission for a 240,000-tonne municipal and hazardous waste incinerator in Ringaskiddy, the European Commission's document is a reiteration of the proximity principle that waste should be disposed of as near as possible to where it is produced.
However, the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase) said the European Commission's communication issued on January 26th clearly sounded the death knell for incineration and the phasing-out of public money for the construction of such facilities.
According to Indaver, the EC’s communication recognises the importance of the proximity principle as expressed in the waste framework directive and it was this, together with Ireland’s regional and national waste management plans, that prompted Indaver to propose the Ringaskiddy facility.
“Waste-to-energy supports high-quality recycling by treating polluted and complex waste, thereby keeping harmful substances out of the circular economy, and it transforms residual waste into sustainable energy, residual waste which would otherwise be consigned to landfill,” said Indaver in its statement
"Waste-to-energy goes hand in hand with high levels of recycling . . . countries such as Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark have very low rates of landfill and very high recycling rates supported by energy recovery."
Indaver also said that almost half of the European Union’s 28 member states still sent more than 50 per cent of their waste to landfill – amounting to more than 67 million tonnes of municipal waste every year – and have little or no waste-to-energy capacity.
According to Indaver, Ireland’s Regional Waste Plans identify a need for 300,000-tonne capacity for thermal recovery of residual municipal waste with no such suitable facility currently available in the southern region but the proposed incinerator in Ringaskiddy would address this deficit.
"There is . . . as a result, a large quantity of non-recyclable municipal solid waste (MSW) being exported for recovery in similar facilities in continental Europe, resulting in a loss in revenue to the economy and a loss in the valuable energy resource in the waste."
However, Chase said the EC’s communication clearly argued for the phasing-out of public monies to build incinerators, the introduction of a moratorium on new incinerators and the introduction or increase of incineration taxes.
Chase chairperson Mary O’Leary said the EC document “shreds Indaver’s energy recovery charade as it clearly states that waste incineration with limited energy recovery is disposal” and “it advises member states to gradually phase out public support for the recovery of energy from mixed waste”.
"This is a clear death knell to the incinerator industry. The foundation on which their business plan is built is crumbling. Ireland needs to cut any financial obligations to incinerator operators in the form of energy subsidies and move towards a circular economy and a sustainable future," Ms O'Leary said.
“Chase fully supports this document and it reflects the direction which we have advocated since the outset of our campaign 16 years ago.”
She also urged An Bord Pleanála to pay heed to the document in its deliberations on Indaver's most recent planning application for an incinerator.
“While the Ringaskiddy site is intrinsically unsuitable as shown in this latest and prior oral hearings, these latest European Commission guidelines mean that Bord Pleanála . . . is duty-bound to the taxpayer to refuse planning,” she said.
Ms O’Leary also argued that the EC communication also “gives a green light to the movement of cross-border waste as an interim solution”, while countries with low or no incineration implement moves towards circular systems that focus on increasing recycling and clean production systems.
“Ireland clearly needs to reflect this EU direction . . . The incinerator industry has nowhere left to hide. Europe has stated clearly that incineration is not the future path and Ireland would be foolish to set out on that path at this stage,” she said.
The European Commission on waste-to-energy processes
According to the European Commission, “waste management is one of the main areas where further improvements are needed” and it says that “increasing waste prevention, reuse and recycling are all key objectives” in the circular economy where waste is reduced.
The EC document goes on to say that it is important to ensure that waste-to-energy recovery, which includes incineration and various waste treatment processes that generate energy, supports the objectives of the circular economy plan which promotes greater resource productivity.
The document refers to the waste hierarchy which seeks to maximise waste prevention, preparation for reuse along with recycling and other recovery and seeks to minimise disposal with “incineration with limited energy recovery being regarded as disposal”.
The EC document says that the EU encourages a transition towards more sustainable waste management systems through co-financing using EU cohesion funds and any new investments should be in line with reuse and 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 should only be granted in limited and well-justified cases where there is no risk of overcapacity,” said the EC document.
“Public funding should also avoid creating overcapacity for non-recyclable waste treatment such as incinerators.”
The document also says it is important that waste-to-energy processes do not undermine the waste hierarchy by discouraging waste options with high circular economy potential.
It says a recent study commissioned by the European Environment Agency found that dedicated incineration capacity for municipal wastes was unevenly spread in the EU with Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and the UK accounting for 75 per cent of capacity.
"Sweden and Denmark have the highest per capita incineration capacity . . . followed by the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Belgium [while] in contrast, the southern and eastern parts of the EU are practically devoid of dedicated incineration capacity and are highly reliant on landfill.
“The European Environment Agency study suggests that there is currently no incineration capacity in the EU as a whole. However, the statistics show that some individual member states are excessively reliant on incineration of municipal waste.”
The EC also says export of waste is permissible in some circumstances. “Member states should not necessarily be seen as contradicting the so-called principle of proximity, ie using the nearest appropriate facility, that underpins EU waste legislation,” said the EC.
According to a European Commission study in 2014, just 1.5 per cent of the EU’s total final energy consumption was met by recovering energy from waste through incineration, co-incineration in cement kilns and anaerobic digesters.
While this is unlikely to increase significantly with more waste being directed to recycling, improving the energy efficiency of waste-to-energy processes can contribute to decarbonising key sectors such as heating, cooling and transport and reducing greenhouse gases from the waste sector, it says.