It is pointless to landfill waste during an energy crisis

By Kjetil Vikingstad, Geminor

Today’s demand for residual waste is increasing due to the expanded incineration capacity and the reduced volumes of waste in Europe (photo: Geminor)

In Europe, there is currently a capacity to utilise more of our residual waste. With an ongoing energy crisis on the continent, it makes little sense to landfill valuable waste resources.

The temperature is falling in Europe, both in terms of the winter season and of an economy affected by inflation and ongoing warfare. The reduced commercial activity leads to less access to both household and commercial waste. And when there is a lack of waste, the access to secondary fuels falls for the many WtE-plants around Europe – whose task of producing electricity and heat is becoming increasingly important.

Need of more waste
Last year, around 2 million tonnes of residual waste (WDF) were imported to Scandinavia to meet the needs of the energy recovery facilities. The challenge today is that the demand for residual waste is increasing due to the expanded incineration capacity and the reduced volumes of waste in Europe. Germany, which is the EU’s largest producer of district heating through energy recovery, has gone from being a waste exporter to becoming an importer. Other countries in the EU have also begun “hunting” waste resources wherever they can find them. In the current situation, the waste exporting country Italy has been a significant contributor of Refuse-derived fuels, thus preventing an even greater imbalance in the European market.

The current lack of waste volumes mainly has two consequences: First, it creates uncertainty regarding the industry’s ability to produce energy or recycle products as normal. The other is that sharply falling “gate fees” result in a strained economy for many district heating plants. These businesses are used to fluctuations, but the current situation is making some facilities reduce their energy production.

The situation is also a challenge in terms of sustainability. An example is the cement industry, which due to a lack of SRF could be more interested in switching over to fossil fuels.

The landfill challenges
According to the European Commission, a whopping 52 million tonnes of European household waste went to landfill in 2020. In the current energy crisis, it is hard to understand why we are not utilising more of this waste in energy recovery. In countries such as the UK, France, Spain, and Italy, large amounts of residual waste are landfilled every year. This is waste that could come to good use as secondary fuels in the midst of an energy crisis.

The EU is active in stopping environmentally harmful disposal of various types of residual waste. But in times of crisis, we need quicker, more effective, and international measures to find the best solutions to our landfill challenges.

A way of getting more of the waste transferred from landfill to recovery is to increase the tax on landfill to a point where it is more profitable to recover the waste. Another is to subsidise the use of residual waste for sustainable energy recovery. Many will also argue that a reduction in the incineration taxes in several countries will ensure that more of the waste goes to energy recovery.

At the same time, it is important that in times like these we streamline the flow of waste between markets in Europe. A lack of flexibility and long processing times for waste export continues to be challenging. Here, a common IT-system and fewer manual processes will make a difference.

At present, there is sufficient incineration capacity in the EU to reduce the consequences of the energy crisis. We just have to increase the recovery of waste that currently goes to landfill. In addition, we must develop new markets in both Southern and Eastern Europe which we know can supply our many and efficient WtE-plants.

Kjetil Vikingstad is CEO of Geminor, one of the leading companies in Northern Europe specialising in the supply of waste products to recycling and energy recovery