Europe’s incineration debate

| September 5, 2013

The lines have been drawn, and there’s a battle brewing over what to do with trash in Europe.

On one side: incineration. This increasingly popular solution advocates recycling as much as possible, and burning the remaining trash using a “waste-to-energy” approach. The act of burning produces heat or electricity, thus creating a positive outcome for discarded materials.

On the other side: zero waste. This model “seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, according to a recent article by Nate Seltenrich via Yale’s Environment 360.

One thing both sides agree upon: landfills are impractical and unsustainable in Europe, where space is at a premium.


Incinerators are commonly used to dispose of waste not recycled in northern Europe. From Edvvc.

Furthermore, reports Seltenrich, “there’s no doubt that dumping untreated municipal solid waste in landfills…poses significant environmental problems. These include the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater, an increasingly urgent shortage of space, and the release of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.”

In spite of the clear drawbacks, landfills are still common in eastern and southern Europe.

Conversely, incineration is extremely prevalent throughout northern Europe. Denmark, Norway and Sweden incinerate at least 50 percent of their waste.

It is worth noting that each of those countries also boast high recycling rates.

In theory, the combination of energy-producing incineration and high recycling rates is ideal. However, advocates of the zero waste movement contend that incineration isn’t the answer, asserting that, “incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste.”

“Even given the environmental costs of recycling, which include transporting and processing the material, zero wasters contend that it makes far more sense to recycle than to incinerate,” reports Seltenrich.

Why? It all comes down to energy savings. Zero waste groups believe that the energy produced by incineration doesn’t surpass the potential energy savings of reuse.

Plus, contends the zero waste community, incinerators are “extremely expensive” to build, and recouping the initial cost means that incineration plants are inherently hungry for a long-term waste stream. This, zero-wasters say, is a conflict of interest when it comes to contracts between incineration plants and the municipalities they serve, because the contracts are designed to require municipalities to provide a lot of waste — waste that might otherwise be recycled.

When it’s more expensive for a community to recycle than to incinerate, the temptation to sign those contracts can be significant.


Germany had the second highest recycling rate in Europe last year. From Eric Chan.

Pro-incineration groups point out that incineration and recycling don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Ella Stengler, managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, told Seltenrich that incineration and recycling can and should co-exist in an effort to reduce landfill contributions.

So what’s a continent to do? Would municipalities recycle more if incineration weren’t an option — or perhaps wasn’t as financially enticing? Or would the rest simply end up in a landfill?

The debate burns on (pun intended). With no clear resolution in sight between zero-waste groups and the incineration industry, we can expect to see a lot more on this topic. And, as landfill space becomes increasingly scarce in the United States, the debate will surely land stateside sooner rather than later. In the meantime, as we can see in the examples of northern Europe, reducing, reusing, and recycling is still a good start — and always better than littering!

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Category: Recycling programs, Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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