Scandinavians call their waste incineration ‘crazy’, so why copy them?
Last week, Policy Connect released a report, supported by the cross party Sustainable Resource Forum, looking at waste management and the shift to net zero. It contains several assumptions worth challenging (not least the opening statement that half of England’s waste isn’t recyclable, which is internally contradicted by the statement that the country can recycle 60 per cent of its waste by 2030). But I’ll concentrate here on its main recommendation: that England “should move towards a Scandinavian style approach to residual waste”.
Incineration is hampering Scandinavian climate and recycling targets
Policy Connect’s recommendation is surprising as even Scandinavian governments think their approach to residual waste is now wrong. Over previous decades, they invested heavily in energy from waste (EfW) plants that generate electricity and heat from residual waste. But now, they are going through the painful process of changing their approach as it will prevent them from meeting both recycling and net zero targets. The history of waste treatment in Scandinavian countries clearly shows the unfortunate consequences, indeed the avoidable folly, of starting at the wrong end of the material cycle and over investing in EfW. It should be a warning to England not to make the same mistake.
Studies have clearly shown that the most effective waste measures in terms of carbon come from preventing its existence in the first place. The Scandinavian approach has done the opposite: on average, the Scandinavian countries have incredibly high levels of waste generation per capita. Denmark’s is the highest in the EU: a whopping 766kg per person per year, compared to a European average of 492kg. Norway’s not far behind, amassing piles of 703kg per person per year.
Only Sweden bucks the trend, with less waste than average per head at 434kg per year. But even the Swedes are coming out in opposition to incineration and, as of 1 April this year, have imposed a tax of £6 per tonne for waste that is burnt, which will rise to £15 per tonne by 2022. The explicit reason? To help meet climate change targets. According to a spokesperson for the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament): “The tax is introduced in order for Sweden to be able to achieve the national climate targets and to create a more resource-efficient and non-toxic waste management.”
And it’s not just climate change targets that are hampered. There have also long been suggestions that incineration crowds out recycling. This is the experience in Denmark, which has said its strategy of over investing in waste incineration has prevented recycling. In 2013, it launched a new waste plan, with the title making that clear: Denmark without waste: recycle more – incinerate less. (An update in 2015 put the focus even more squarely on the need for waste prevention, with the government noting: “We generate large amounts of waste – waste that could have been prevented to benefit the environment, the climate and the economy.”)
Recently, various Danish politicians have expressed their frustration at the difficulty of changing approach, given the considerable over capacity for EfW there (even with the high levels of waste generation). They have suggested it is hampering efforts to green the economy, with climate minister Dan Jørgensen going as far as to call it “crazy” in May: “It’s crazy that we import large quantities of waste into Denmark. We must reverse the trend so that we import and burn far less and recycle far more.”
A roadmap that starts at the beginning is needed
What is needed, clearly, and what Policy Connect’s report does well to recommend, is “a waste and resources roadmap, outlining the targeted and managed transition to a circular economy and net-zero ambitions.” But if that roadmap took as its baseline the need to reduce waste, rather than treat it, it would not be recommending that the UK follow the Scandinavians in over investing in long lasting incinerators that would very probably still be with us until the 2050 net zero deadline.
Instead, it would take where we want to get to (zero waste to landfill or incineration) as a starting point and figure out the best way there. That should involve examining the current infrastructure in the UK and acknowledging that, in fact, the bulk of investment is already heavily skewed towards EfW: nearly all waste and resource investments from the Green Investment Bank, when it was state owned, went to EfW, and all of them since it went private as the Green Investment Group (GIG) have gone to large scale incineration. These have mainly been in partnership with Covanta, one of the world’s largest incineration companies. By comparison, the infrastructure for a truly transformative circular economy: for reduction, reuse and remanufacturing, has received relatively little policy attention, and is not even centrally tracked by the government.
Some residual waste will have to be treated for a while
An assessment of the waste we generate and how we prevent and treat it is beyond overdue. And, a new roadmap should also figure out the best way to deal with the ‘leftover’ residual waste the country will generate until we can crack a zero waste, circular economy. It should include consideration of more modular, lower cost, shorter lived residual waste treatment capacity, such as, advanced material recovery and biological treatment (MRBT), which offers the possibility to treat waste more cheaply and with vastly lower emissions than incineration.
It should also consider whether we can negotiate access to the current incineration over capacity in countries like Denmark in Scandinavia. The Policy Connect report is right to note that the plants in Northern Europe are much more efficient and better at using heat than plants in the UK so, if spare capacity exists, we should use that rather than create even more. This is, of course, becoming more challenging as these countries impose taxes on waste from the UK, and so would probably require a mechanism to attribute emissions from UK waste to the UK. After all, other countries are right not to want emissions from our waste on their net zero balance sheet.
But, most importantly, a new roadmap for waste in the UK should learn from Scandinavian over investment in waste treatment infrastructure and prioritise the need to drastically reduce waste in the first place, which is where the real carbon and material savings lie, as well as the jobs and wider economic benefits. If we want to reach a net zero future with a truly transformative circular economy, that’s where we have to start.