European incinerators are often misleadingly touted in other regions of the world as a global model. Articles frequently discuss the architectural appearance of incinerators in Vienna and Copenhagen, but miss the boat about the direction of EU policies overall, and sweep the consequences of incineration under the rug.

Europe: on the road to zero waste

As seen on the website of Zero Waste Europe (GAIA’s network in Europe), the European Union is in the midst of robust discussions to develop a circular economy regionwide. To move in this direction, the EU will have to find a way to limit the harm caused by an overcapacity of incinerators in many European countries.

Many cities across Europe are leading the way to Zero Waste, including Ljubljana, Slovenia, the first Zero Waste capital city in Europe. More case studies about Zero Waste successes are found here. This Guardian article quoting Zero Waste leaders across Europe gives a good picture of the contradictions between incineration and Zero Waste.

Public opposition to incineration is strong near incinerator proposals in Europe, with residents frequently calling for Zero Waste strategies. In Italy and the Basque region of Spain, community opposition to incineration has transformed communities into internationally recognized models for Zero Waste, including the 2013 Goldman Prize that was awarded to Rossano Ercolini for zero waste achievements in Italy, which led to the Zero Waste model city of Capannori. The case of Gipuzkoa is another example of opposition to incineration leading to a Zero Waste model. In Paris, the community organization 3Rs and Zero Waste France are promoting a citizens-led plan called Plan B’OM as an alternative to a new incinerator; the plan calls for for composting, recycling, and other waste reduction strategies.

Pollution ≠ recycling

Pollution from incineration is a challenge in Europe as well.

This 2015 article exposed that Sweden has been dumping toxic incinerator ash on a small island off Oslo, Norway, where the pollutants pose a serious health threat to local communities and marine ecosystems. Sweden is frequently touted internationally for low landfilling rates, but there are major discrepancies with these claims. Sweden burns more than 50% of its waste, and calls that recycling. Furthermore, Swedish waste statistics count the toxic ash produced by incineration (much of which ends up in landfills) as industrial waste rather than municipal waste. This accounting loophole means that incinerator ash from burning municipal waste doesn’t get counted in municipal waste statistics.

Additionally, Sweden is among a number of countries including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands that will need to reduce the amount of waste burnt to below 35%, in order to meet new recycling targets.

Yes, dioxins are an issue in Europe

Dioxins are classified by the World Health Organization as one of the most toxic chemicals on earth, and dioxin air emissions and ash pollution are a serious consequence of all incinerators, including in Europe.

The Scotgen gasification incinerator for municipal solid waste in Dumfries, Scotland is an example of how dioxin continues to be a concern with European incinerators. The facility violated dioxin emissions limits repeatedly. For three years, the Scotland Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) considered it Scotland’s worst polluter. SEPA closed the facility in 2013 and then revoked the incinerator’s permits. For more information about this facility, see this 2015 report from Zero Waste Europe called “Air Pollution from Waste Disposal: Not for Public Breath,” on pages 22-23.

At the Scilly Isles waste incinerator in the United Kingdom, tests found dioxin emissions 65 times higher than the permitted limit. Regular breaches of dioxins and other pollutants were documented between June 2010 and 2012.

Gasification incinerators have problems in Europe too

As the Scotgen situation above shows, staged incineration like gasification has a troubling track record at the commercial scale in Europe. Another example is the gasification incinerator on the Isle of Wight in the UK, which breached dioxin limits significantly in several tests and continued to have serious problems despite significant public funding support. These problems contributed to the local government changing course to implement more reliable and affordable recycling efforts.

This report by UK Friends of the Earth gives an overview of the environmental concerns in the region. More examples are found in the report called “Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States” by GAIA and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. The report includes a case study of Thermoselect, a gasification incinerator in Karlsruhe, Germany, which was closed in 2004, as well as other companies.

But what about the ash?

As the above story about Sweden’s toxic ash ending up polluting an island off Norway demonstrates, ash is always a problematic issue for incineration. Incinerators are fundamentally a way of treating waste before landfilling it, because ash remains as a solid waste that must be managed. Dioxins, heavy metals, and other pollutants that are captured are transferred to the ash.

Conclusion

Incineration is not the attribute of European waste policy that should be a model for the world to follow: it’s just another dirty step before landfilling. But the Zero Waste cities and communities across Europe are true solutions that protect natural resources, the climate, and public health.

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