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European Union countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have been sending millions of tons of trash to be burned in “waste to energy” incinerators. But because of the incinerators’ CO2 emissions and health impacts, the bloc is starting to cut off funding for new plants. This change “comes after a building spree that doubled EU countries’ municipal waste incineration between 1995 and 2019, to 60 million tons annually,” Yale 360 reports.
Most of the emissions from incineration come from plastic, which is made from fossil fuel products, is effectively not recyclable and leaches toxins into the soil around landfills.
Why This Matters: Incinerators tend to be located in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color, exposing people to carbon, dioxin, and particulate matter emissions. Some wealthier incinerator-reliant countries like Sweden and Austria say their plants properly treat emissions and are a better option than landfills, which produce methane.
Even with the EU pulling back on funding, southern and eastern European countries are moving forward with new plants. They are less likely to be able to afford the level of filtration in richer western European countries but are working toward the same EU-wide target of only sending 10% of their waste to landfills by 2035. Britain, no longer part of the EU, burns nearly half of its waste — more than it recycles — and incineration now produces more carbon emissions than coal.
Toward a Zero Waste economy: Rethinking waste is key to hitting climate targets, but it requires looking to the beginning of its lifecycle, not just the end.
The EU has an ambitious circular economy plan that aims to create less waste with items designed to last, reusing, and recycling. Phasing out single-use plastics and reducing municipal waste are key components. But critics warm that investing in incinerators now will shoot those plans in the foot.
“The way incineration works, it skews the economics of waste by its very existence,” British environmental engineer and Extinction Rebellion activist Georgia Elliott-Smith told Yale360. “Once you build the beast, you’ve got to keep feeding it.”
Elliott-Smith is suing the British government over its incineration strategy, arguing that “Britain violated its Paris Agreement commitments by omitting the waste-to-energy sector from the market it created when it left the European greenhouse gas emissions trading system as part of its divorce from the E.U.,” as Yale360 reports.
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