EU plans new waste burning controls

European Commission suggests ending option to classify waste incineration as "recovery"

EU member states have begun debating a proposal to strengthen legal controls on the incineration of waste, based on a working paper circulated last month by the European Commission's environment directorate (DGXI). Officials held a second discussion on the proposal this week.

The working paper responds to a call made by EU environment ministers in 1997 for clarification on when waste incineration should be classed as recovery and when as disposal. Under a 1993 EU regulation, waste for recovery can be traded freely between EU countries but member states can block both imports and exports of waste for disposal to comply with the principles of proximity and self-sufficiency.

According to DGXI, there are two possible ways of clarifying the situation in the near-term. Both its suggestions would make it more difficult for waste incineration processes to be defined as recovery under EU law.

One solution, the paper says, would be to impose a calorific value limit so that only the incineration of high energy wastes, such as plastics, oils and solvents, could qualify as recovery operations. The paper suggests 17,000 kiloJoules as the cut-off point. This would mean that any operation in which unsorted municipal waste was incinerated would be classed as disposal, even if energy was recovered.

More radically, DGXI suggests, waste incineration could simply be deleted from the list of recovery operations in the EU framework waste directive. This would prevent any type of waste incineration being classed as a recovery process. However, DGXI warns that implementing the option would involve a lengthy legislative process and could also have negative side effects; for example if waste that is currently incinerated were pushed towards landfilling instead.

Some waste is currently traded between EU countries for incineration with energy recovery. An attempt by the Netherlands to block such exports arguing that foreign environmental incineration standards were weaker than its own was overturned in a key European Court of Justice judgement last year.

DGXI argues that this situation is not sustainable, partly because member states cannot make long-term management plans with confidence about arisings and partly because waste might migrate from EU countries with tougher environmental controls on incineration processes and higher prices to others with lower controls and prices. A new draft directive on waste incineration should resolve the issue, but this will not be effective for ten years and a more immediate solution is needed, it says.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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