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Sorting mixed waste: Zero Waste Europe finds cost-effective paths to incineration

#Sorting mixed waste: Zero Waste Europe finds cost-effective paths to incineration

26 Jan 2024 — Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), in collaboration with Equanimator, has released a study highlighting sorting mixed waste before incineration is a swift and cost-effective strategy for achieving substantial reductions in GHG emissions from waste incineration.

The study, titled “Materials or Gases? How to Capture Carbon,” compares two approaches — Leftover Mixed Waste Sorting (LMWS) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) — as potential avenues for municipalities and incineration operators to minimize the climate burden of incinerators.

As the EU considers including municipal waste incineration in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the study advocates for cost-effective measures to diminish GHG emissions.

The study challenges misconceptions and offers a pragmatic roadmap for municipalities and incineration operators to navigate the evolving landscape of waste management and emissions reduction.

Speaking to Packaging Insights, ZWE’s zero pollution policy manager, Janek Vahk, says municipalities across Europe face many challenges in implementing LMWS, but the main obstacle they face stems from persistent misconceptions such as the belief that “sorting residual waste is not possible” and the notion that “separate collection alone suffices, leaving little to recover.”

Incinerator blowing out smoke.The study offers a roadmap for municipalities and incineration operators to navigate waste management and emissions reduction.Vahk notes that these narratives are sometimes fueled by parties invested in maintaining the status quo. According to Vahk, addressing these misconceptions is crucial: “Encouragingly, recent research exemplified by a report from the Joint Research Center challenges these myths. It underscores that ‘sorting systems for mixed residual waste complement separate collection, and can even enhance overall waste management performance.’”

“The European Commission has also acknowledged the importance of mixed waste sorting by incorporating it into its recent Sustainable Finance Package under the activities substantially contributing toward a circular economy. With these misconceptions debunked, the path forward becomes clearer.”

Incineration and reduction
The study highlights that while incineration with CCS may achieve higher reduction levels, the associated costs are significantly higher and somewhat unaffordable. Conversely, LMWS offers a rapid and cost-effective approach to reducing GHGs from incineration while avoiding further lock-in thanks to cheaper, operationally flexible infrastructure.

Waste sorting emerges as a cost-competitive, environmentally friendly, and adaptable solution, notes Vahk.

“When considering CCS in incinerators, our recommendation is to focus on implementing it in facilities that are likely to remain in the future, e.g., hazardous waste incinerators. There is a compelling argument for phasing out many municipal waste incinerators.”

“For instance, our recent report highlights an excess incineration capacity of 60 million tons at the EU level. Likewise, in our recent joint position paper with other NGOs such as EEB, we made a strong case against making CCS mandatory in municipal waste incinerators, emphasizing that municipal waste is not unavoidable,” Vahk continues.

“Moreover, we believe that the case for deploying CCS may be stronger at co-incineration facilities. These facilities serve purposes beyond waste treatment, and CCS could be a necessary component of a broader decarbonization pathway.”

Carbon Capture and Storage
The study argues against mandating CCS in municipal waste incinerators and suggests a stronger case for deploying CCS at co-incineration facilities.People sorting packaging waste in facility.Sorting systems for mixed residual waste complement separate collection and can improve overall waste management performance, says Vahk.

Dominic Hogg, director of Equanimator, emphasizes the findings, stating that the sorting system is the most cost-effective method for achieving system-wide reductions in CO2 emissions.

However, the study recognizes that while incineration with CCS reaches higher reduction levels, the associated costs are significantly higher and somewhat unaffordable.

“The synergy of both approaches, however, demonstrates the potential for the greatest overall reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, cutting the average reduction cost by approximately half compared to relying on CCS alone. Policymakers and waste managers must prioritize a holistic perspective, ensuring that a narrow focus on incineration emissions does not impede implementation of sorting systems, particularly at operational facilities in the future,” says Hogg.

Vahk reiterates: “The key point is that implementing mixed waste sorting will be a ‘low-regret’ solution.” The study suggests a sequential logic, wherein LMWS is applied widely and early, followed by the targeted deployment of CCS in facilities expected to be necessary in the future.

As the EU considers the future inclusion of incineration in the EU ETS, the study’s findings encourage a step-by-step approach. LMWS can be implemented swiftly and cost-effectively, followed by the targeted application of CCS only in necessary facilities.

By Radhika Sikaria

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