Stronger EU waste incineration rules proposed

Draft directive puts forward stricter pollution limits for broader range of incinerators

The European Commission yesterday published a draft directive which aims to cut pollution from non-hazardous waste incineration plants. The proposal includes limits on dioxins and furans that would cut emissions by 99% by 2005, according to the EU executive.

The draft law contains limit values for a range of pollutants - including acid gases and heavy metals - that waste incinerators emit into air, water and in their solid residue. It is intended to replace two directives on municipal waste incineration dating from 1989, and to broaden the range of incinerators whose emissions are covered by EU law.

The proposal includes emission limits for burning of industrial wastes, such as oils and solvents, which are not covered under the existing directives. It also covers industrial plants, such as cement kilns. Although not built as waste incinerators, these sometimes use waste as a fuel - a process known as co-incineration. According to the Commission, this will plug a regulatory gap and will "ensure that co-generation does not represent a loophole allowing lower standards of environmental protection".

If the law is passed by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament, it will be the first time that the EU has set limit value for dioxin emissions from non-hazardous waste incineration plants. The Commission conducted a study in 1994 which showed that two-fifths of EU dioxin emissions came from incineration plants - municipal waste incineration accounting for 25% and clinical waste for 15%.

The Commission says its proposal will mean an "average" incineration plant, which today produces 10-30 grams of dioxins per year, will produce 0.01-0.06 grams by 2005. Emissions of heavy metals, especially mercury and cadmium, would also be cut to 20% and 7% of current levels respectively.

Based on the reduced risk to human health, the Commission has estimated the theoretical benefits to society to be Ecu210m per year. This compares with an estimated cost to industry - whose greatest cost would be the fitting of end-of-pipe abatement systems - of Ecu550m a year.

The proposal excludes the incineration of biomass, such as forest or agricultural wastes, which the Commission considers to be relatively clean fuels. It also says that "as far as possible" the heat from incineration plants should be recovered for use. A Commission official said the vague wording would leave it up to member states to decide to what extent plants should provide useful heat. "It really depends on location. If the plant is close to people you can use the heat, but most modern plants already use the heat to save cost," he said.

European environmental group the EEB is disappointed that the proposal does not include a requirement for sorting waste before it is incinerated. A Commission official stressed that the directive was not meant to be a waste management tool, but was aimed at reducing pollution from a form of waste disposal which is set to rise dramatically in the next decade.

The Commission estimates that increased amounts of waste and EU restrictions on landfill and the sea dumping of sewage sludge will mean burning of municipal waste will rise from 31m tonnes in 1990 to 56.5m tonnes in 2004.

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

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