Incineration vs. recycling?

Incineration vs. recycling? A forged contradiction

If you never ran into a discussion on incineration vs. recycling, you have probably not been involved in the waste sector. I frequently run into such debates and almost always notice a kind of polarisation and even hostility. It’s probably one of those discussions that is fuelled more by hearsay and rigid standpoints than by facts. Opponents of Waste-to-Energy point their fingers at these large installations, claiming they are obstructing needed recycling and circularity.

Reality however, is different. Looking at the performance of EU countries the conclusion is unavoidably that recycling and incineration go hand-in-hand. Countries that have reduced landfilling of municipal waste to near-zero, show a treatment-split (percentages of recycling/incineration/landfill) between 40/60/0 and 70/30/0. Countries with lower incineration percentages do not perform at higher recycling rates but instead show higher percentages for landfilling. So, it’s pretty safe to conclude that the obstruction argument is not valid.

And from my personal experience I know that rather the opposite can be true; Waste-to-Energy comes with high gate-fees that spark initiatives on both recycling and prevention. There are no lock-in effects when incineration is not above 70% and when contracts exclude put-or-pay clauses.

It doesn’t mean that WtE is needed to incentivise recycling. Slovenia may be a good example. The country has shown a remarkable fast way up towards 75% recycling combined with only 15% WtE and 10% landfilling. It is attributed to a strong awareness campaign combined with an already existing green disposition of the Slovenians, leading to high public participation. Indeed, a reason for applause.

Does this mean that Slovenia’s choices are superior to those of their EU colleagues? No! In the end it all boils down to the environmental performance of the systems on CO2, resources, emissions, land-use and probably some other parameters. The conclusions may surprise us all.

Does it mean that WtE is always needed in every waste management policy around the world? Again … no. It depends on many local circumstances and it requires a stable legal, financial and organisational context.

So let’s try to stick more to facts instead of opinions. WtE is a valuable technology when dealing with residual waste in many countries around the world. Of course it’s always easier to claim zero waste and instant circularity. But for those that feel the daily responsibility of delivering a clean and safe environment, these magical formulas do not work.

So, if you can’t stand the heat …..

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