The EU’s new Waste Framework Directive

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Caroline Jackson, Member of European Parliament and Parliamentary Rapporteur on the Waste Framework Directive, writes on legislation which came into effect in December 2008, and what it means for the waste-to-energy sector in Europe

by Caroline Jackson

The final form of the 2008 Waste Framework Directive was hammered out in a ‘second reading agreement’ between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in June 2008. Five months later, it appeared in the Official Journal of the European Union (L 312, dated 22 November 2008) and it entered into force in December. Member states now have two years to implement it nationally.

For the waste management industry as a whole, one of the most important aspects of the text is the inclusion of the ‘R1’ formula in Annex II. This mathematical formula specifies the degree of energy efficiency waste-to-energy (WTE) plants must reach to obtain ‘recovery’ rather than ‘disposal’ status. The creation of this yardstick will, it is hoped, resolve the confusion that had arisen from recent European Court of Justice judgements. Plants that meet the mathematical criteria move off the bottom of the waste hierarchy, which the Directive puts into a legal text for the first time in a five-step arrangement.

Coming to an agreement

Initially I was sceptical that the majority of my MEP colleagues would accept what the European Commission had proposed. On past form, MEPs in the Environment Committee seemed likely to be hostile to almost any move that could be construed as favourable to the incineration of waste. Overall, the tendency of the Committee has often been to go for the greenest, most idealistic options and press for higher targets, irrespective of evidence which might suggest doubts about costs and practicalities.

Against this background, anything that might promote incineration, even with energy recovery, might be opposed as detracting from greener options, including ‘zero waste’ and an emphasis on other ‘more sustainable’ options.

Caroline Jackson MEP, at the final signing of the Waste Framework Directive in Strasbourg on 19 November 2008.
Seated: Hans-Gert Poettering MEP (EPP-ED, Germany), President of the European Parliament; Standing left to right: Caroline Jackson MEP (EPP-ED, United Kingdom), Rapporteur; Peter Liese MEP (EPP-ED, Germany); and Miroslav Ouzký MEP (EPP-ED, Czech Republic), Chairman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament
Click here to enlarge image

In fact I found that my colleagues’ views were much more balanced. A number, of course, came from countries (Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands) where incineration of waste has a long history of existing side-by-side with high recycling rates, so the process is an accepted part of the scene. On the opposite side were Green MEPs (led by a Welsh Nationalist MEP – they sit in the Green group) who opposed any incentive to incineration as the enemy of recycling, reuse and minimization. Between these two poles were a number of MEPs, especially from Eastern Europe, who were faced with the target dates of the Landfill Directive, and who feared that slow action to do anything about them might lead to a rush to an almost exclusive use of incineration.

It was therefore logical for MEPs, in the end, to seek a balance. What we did was to insert into the Directive recycling targets, along with the promise of waste prevention targets from 2014. Article 11 of the Directive thus says that: ‘Member states shall take the necessary measures designed to achieve the following targets: by 2020 the preparing for reuse and the recycling of waste materials such as at least paper, metal, plastic and glass from households and possibly from other origins as far as these waste streams are similar to waste from households, shall be increased to a minimum of overall 50% by weight.’

Construction and demolition waste is set a minimum recycling target of 70% by 2020. Article 9 says that by 2014 the Commission shall ‘if appropriate’ make proposals for the setting of waste prevention and decoupling objectives for 2020. I believe that it is highly unusual – if not a positive ‘first’ for the Parliament – to reshape a proposal so radically. Recycling targets had not figured in the Commission’s proposal, even though it grew out of its own thematic strategy on waste and recycling.

The targets were not popular at all with the European Council. One of the reasons the text setting them out is so tortuous, was that it was fought over, word-by-word, between myself and the Slovenian Presidency of the Council. But we did reach agreement and now the industry, with local authorities, has to make the Directive work.

How far will the new Waste Framework Directive actually encourage the proliferation of new energy-efficient WTE plants? The section of the Directive laying down the WTE energy efficiency formula does not go on to set out any quantitative target for the disposal of biodegradable municipal waste by incineration with energy recovery. But I think we can see a pattern developing which will mean that the Directive does give considerable encouragement to those who want to build WtE plants. The pattern of events will differ in those member states with an established and sizeable network of WtE plants, and those that are not in this position and lag behind on diversion from landfill.

In the countries which have made the move from landfill, the Directive enlarges an existing commercial opportunity. Hopefully, it will also remove the need to have recourse to the courts in order to obtain legal certainty. Indeed, the Directive may cause problems of success.

The Danish government became very worried in the course of our discussions. They foresaw the prospect of receiving unacceptably large quantities of German waste sent for ‘recovery’ in Danish incinerators. The classification of a plant as a ‘recovery’ and not a ‘disposal’ operation means that it can receive waste from another EU country. Such German imports might disrupt the Danes’ domestic arrangements. They therefore lobbied for a let-out clause allowing them to limit incoming shipments of waste ‘destined to incinerators which have been classed as recovery where it has been established that such shipments would result in national waste having to be disposed or waste having to be treated in a way that is not consistent with their waste management plans.’ They obtained this in article 16 of the Directive.

In those countries where key decisions have still to be taken about how to reach the 2013 and 2020 diversion from landfill targets there is a possibility that a plant which can be described as a ‘recovery’ rather than merely a ‘disposal’ plant will be less strongly opposed than has been the case so far. But the case needs to be sold effectively and all too often this is not happening.

Taking the UK as an example...

In Britain, memories of old, highly polluting municipal incinerators – memories frequently stoked by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) opposed to the incineration process – together with planning procedures which can be strung out for years, have until recently meant that local authorities regard incineration of waste as a last resort. Instead, they have turned their attention to increasing the recycling rates, and to research into almost any other kind of waste disposal other than waste-to-energy, because of the troubles they suspect this option will bring.

The government has not helped. The last minister to be realistic about incineration was the UK’s Michael Meacher MP, who, in the early years of the Blair administration, forecast that the UK would need to increase the number of incinerators. He was rapidly sat on by various Green spokesmen and remerged from their indoctrination suite an opponent of incineration and enthusiast for almost anything else. Ministers after him restricted themselves to issuing strategy papers and washing their hands of decisions which would have to be left to local authorities.

But now the scene is changing. The intermediate (2013) targets for diversion from landfill are fast approaching and the UK may well miss them. That will mean it takes its place alongside Greece and Portugal in the dock at the European Court of Justice, with possible fines for non-compliance ensuing. Hence the immense pressure on local authorities, via the landfill tax and Landfill Allowance and Trading Scheme.

What is happening at local level is mildly encouraging. Recycling rates are up to 36.3% in England while waste arisings have fallen. Pushing recycling rates up further, faster, gets more difficult and more expensive. It can also, as we have seen, create a strain on relations with the public. Waste-to-energy technology takes up 12% of municipal waste treatment in England – compared with about 50% in Denmark and 35% in Holland.

Now the pressure is on to remove a large volume of waste from landfill: for England the reduction demanded by the 1999 Landfill Directive is from 11.2 million tonnes (12.3 million tons) going to landfill in 2010 to 7.46 million (8.22 million tons) in 2013.

A number of local authorities are turning to incineration as part of their plans. For example, Viridor has applied for an environmental permit to operate a 350,000 tonne-per-year capacity (385,800 tons) waste-to-energy facility on the outskirts of Cardiff, Wales. SITA UK is commissioning a new 136,000 tonne-per-year (149,900 tons) extension to its existing Tees Valley WTE facility at Haverton Hill, near Stockton, which already sends 18 MW of electricity to the National Grid.

At the same time, public realization of Britain’s vulnerability to having its future energy policy (and prices) essentially controlled by Russia, Algeria and other oil and gas-producing states, is creating an argument for regarding non-recyclable waste as a resource for producing energy. And the scientific community, long coyly silent, is speaking out against the propagators of the view that modern incineration is dirty and dangerous to health. Thus the Environmental Knowledge Transfer Network, based in Oxford, is prepared, through its spokeswoman, Liz Mullis, to say that: ‘Mass burn is a mature technology but it has actually completely changed. It’s almost completely re-invented itself. The level of control on emissions is phenomenal and incinerators comply with higher standards than power stations.’

But problems still arise. Most recently, in the region of the south-west that I represent, Cornwall County Council has voted down plans for an incinerator at St Dennis in the county’s clay country. This places the county in an awful dilemma: landfill space is running out, planning for any alternative will have to start from scratch, and county tax payers will have to pay heavily for any delay. In this situation, attention will turn to alternatives, and the fashionable one is anaerobic digestion, dealing particularly with food waste. Recently this has been the government’s pin-up policy but it cannot be the magic bullet, not least, because if it were, there would be a mega-problem with what to do with the digestate it produces.

If Britain is to make the maximum use of the new Waste Framework Directive to build, within a reasonable time, a number of WTE plants, we need two things to happen.

First, the government and main opposition parties need to get real now about the role that WTE can play in their waste management policies. They need to explain the imperatives of the Landfill Directive, spelling out the risk of extra costs falling on council taxpayers, and, through EU fines, on all national taxpayers. They need to point out, again and again, that the EU countries with the greatest use of incineration also have the highest recycling rates. They should make these points loudly and in public debate.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn recently spoke to reporters in the south-west about the future of incineration plans in Cornwall and Devon. He told the Western Morning News that incineration had a role to play without risking public health: ‘The evidence on incineration with the new equipment we have now got, is that this is not a problem as far as public health is concerned.’ He went on to recall a conversation with his Danish opposite number last year when he asked how controversial convertine waste-to-energy was in Denmark. She had replied: ‘What controversy?’

Yet Benn’s message, whispered at Westminster rather than widely and loudly publicized, had not got through to those councillors who helped throw out the Cornish incineration plan, partly on the argument about health effects. So long as Ministers leave such decisions, in an unchanged planning process, to local authorities Britian will continue to struggle along. Yet it will be as a nation that Britian is penalized for failure to comply with the EU Directive; as politicians with national responsibilities, ministers cannot shirk their duties. So far the alternative (Conservative) policy is hidden from us, it is ‘work in progress.’ It needs to be unveiled soon.

Secondly, we need to recognize and respond to public concern, rather than expect it to cave in when faced by continental examples. If the energy efficiency formula in the Waste Framework Directive is to result in more energy efficient WTE plants being built in Britain, then there has to be something in it for local communities. They will, in most cases, have to put up with more lorry movements; they are concerned, wrongly I believe, but still concerned, about the health aspects.

So what is in it for them, when somebody comes along and plans to build a WTE plant 500 metres from their homes?

Here we come up against the lack, in Britain, of almost any infrastructure that can deliver district heating schemes on the continental model. Sheffield has such a scheme, but is a lone example. We need to be absolutely sure that those planning the new eco-towns, and all major building projects now on the drawing board, examine the potential for the construction of a district heating infrastructure.

We need to look at the impact combined heat and power (CHP) could have on national energy supply, and we must promote CHP design and installation. If we get to grips with this we can hold out the prospect that the neighbourhood WTE plant would be something to be cherished, not opposed, because it will deliver lower energy bills. We need to be prepared to spend money on this – it is a long-term investment.

People are concerned about the traffic movements into such plants. We should explore every chance to move waste to them by train – as I have seen done at the Freiburg plant in Germany. We should avoid our national tendency to settle for the cheap and cheerful – what Lord Chris Patten once described as ‘nostalgia for the chipped white cups of Dover.’

And if district heating schemes are beyond us, we must play up the benefits that WTE plants can bring, more generally, through supplying energy to the grid, possibly offering lower tariffs to local communities that neighbour a new WTE plant. I repeat, we cannot expect local communities to accept or welcome the arrival of a WTE plant near them unless there is something in it for them.

Finally, a personal point: if we are to build any more WTE plants in the UK at all, they need to be of decent design. Take a look at the Grundon WTE plant near Heathrow, London (you will probably have plenty of opportunity to view it when stuck in a traffic jam on that part of the M25 motorway). You cannot miss it, and it is a pleasure to look at – a triumph of industrial design. Other plants I have seen resemble dying turtles and are a blot on the landscape.

Our land is very precious and compared with, say, Japan, we have done quite well in preserving it, even in industrial areas, so far. We must continue to insist on good designs which may, who knows, actually complement and not destroy the view, even as the buildings themselves play their part in dealing with the vexed question of what we do with our waste.

Caroline Jackson has been an MEP since 1984, and chaired the Environment Committee of the Parliament from 1999 to 2004. She is also Chairman of the London and Brussels based Institute for European Environmental Policy,


The views stated here are the author’s own.

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