Incineration: the monster lurking in the shadows of Malta’s half-baked waste management policies

Don’t celebrate incineration. Malta wasted too much time to avoid incineration. JAMES DEBONO asks whether ‘feeding the monster’ derails real efforts to reduce our waste

 

Environment minister Josè Herrera does his bit for the environment at tree-planting event in Marsaxlokk. Malta’s growing waste problem has now forced our hand to proceed to incinerate it
Environment minister Josè Herrera does his bit for the environment at tree-planting event in Marsaxlokk. Malta’s growing waste problem has now forced our hand to proceed to incinerate it

Improvements in emissions technology have made incineration a far less scary prospect than it was two decades ago.

As Malta sets its course to start incinerating its waste, new challenges come onto the horizon. Incinerators need a large, fixed supply of waste to operate. Will the government’s decision to open an incinerator in 2023 derail efforts which actually encourage people to separate and recycle more waste?

The increase in population and economic activity of the past years, coupled with the exhaustion of limited space for landfilling waste may have given an aura of inevitability to the government’s decision to opt for incineration.

But incineration has always lurked in the shadows of half-baked waste management policies as successive Maltese administrations struggled to catch up with the EU’s waste recovery targets.

Malta’s missed targets

By 2020, Malta should have halved the amount of garbage it was landfilling in 1995. But this will certainly not be the case.

With a target to recycle 50% of its municipal waste within two years, Malta had only managed to recycle only 5.68% of this waste in 2014.

Through the past decades there was always the nagging feeling that incineration had always lurked in the corner of waste management plans, with governments waiting for the politically opportune moment to introduce it

And the percentage of recycled waste declined from 8.1% in 2012 to 6.8% in 2013 and to 5.7% in 2014 and 6.7% in 2015.

The island is now ranked sixth among the EU countries that generate the most waste per inhabitant. Nearly 90% of all rubbish is sent to landfills, with just eight per cent being recycled.

It was only in October 2017 that Environment Minister Jose Herrera announced that recycling will be made compulsory under new waste separation laws. The Circular Economy Act will require people to separate recyclable, organic and waste streams. Would Malta have been spared the waste incinerator had it taken this decision a decade ago?

Achieving high rates of recycling is not impossible. The Flanders region of Belgium recycles around 75% of its municipal waste, while Austria recycles 70%, and Germany 66%.

Landfilling has to be drastically reduced
Landfilling has to be drastically reduced

The long road to incineration

Through the past decades there was always the nagging feeling that incineration had always lurked in the corner of waste management plans, with governments waiting for the politically opportune moment to introduce it.

In 2000 a first draft of the waste management plan suggested that incineration should have been in place by 2010.

And while a decision on incineration was postponed, an energetic push for waste separation by former parliamentary secretary Stanley Zammit in the 1990s was not followed up in subsequent years.

While EU membership did away with the uncontrolled disposal of waste at Maghtab, this was replaced by an engineered landfilled located in the vicinity of the former dump.

Incineration, later redefined as a “waste to energy” plant, was also recommended by a committee appointed by former resources minister George Pullicino before 2008. In 2009, the waste management plan proposed an incineration plant in Marsaxlokk close to the power station. But amid opposition from the Labour-led local council, the government postponed the decision and indicated that a site had still to be chosen.

Although incineration was on the agenda of the previous government for years, studies had not been finalised by the 2013 general election, to the extent that a tender on technical assistance for a waste-to-energy facility was shelved on the eve of the election.

In order to buy time, the newly-elected Labour government under former environment minister Leo Brincat opted for a feasibility study on exporting waste to other countries to be incinerated.

The idea was based on exploiting the spare capacity many incineration plants in Europe have, because of their excessive demand for waste imported from various other European countries – a factor which reportedly was reducing fees changed for incineration.

At the time Nationalist MP Charlò Bonnici had rubbished these plans, claiming the government was just playing for time by postponing the inevitable. Five years down the line Malta is back on the road to incineration. In June 2016 Herrera hinted that the new plant will be located on a disused oil-rig.

The new plant will now be located at Ghallis and completed by 2023, curiously after the expiry of this legislature. The incinerator will generate electrical energy from the fumes emitted and will cater for around 40% of Malta’s waste.

Incinerators and EU targets

The EU does make a distinction between incinerators which simply burn waste and those which convert this resource into energy. The EU considers incineration as a recovery operation; incineration without energy recovery is considered a disposal operation.

Modern incinerators are equipped with rigorous pollution control technologies to decrease the emissions of potentially toxic chemicals
Modern incinerators are equipped with rigorous pollution control technologies to decrease the emissions of potentially toxic chemicals

But energy from incineration does not contribute to achieving recycling targets: by 2020 EU member states should be recycling 50% of waste materials such as paper, metal, plastic and glass from households.

This means that incineration cannot be used as a short-cut to evade EU directives encouraging recycling but it does help member states to meet the criteria and targets stipulated by the landfill directive.

The EU sees landfilling as the least preferable option, which should be limited to the necessary minimum. Rules specify that the amount of biodegradable municipal waste must be reduced to 35% of total waste landfilled in 2016.

Incineration capacity for municipal waste is unevenly spread in the EU. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and the UK account for three quarters of the EU’s incineration capacity. Sweden and Denmark have the highest per capita incineration capacity followed by the Netherlands, Austria Finland and Belgium. In contrast, the southern and eastern parts of the EU are practically devoid of dedicated incineration capacity and are highly reliant on landfill.

The risks of incineration

Traditionally incineration has been linked to emissions of cancerogenic dioxins. But improvements in technology have minimised this risk. Modern incinerators are equipped with rigorous pollution control technologies to decrease the emissions of potentially toxic chemicals. The use of these systems greatly reduces, but does not completely eliminate, the emissions of chemicals from incinerators.

Malta may still increase recycling substantially above current levels even if incineration is used. But this depends on a stricter legislative framework

Incinerators are also less taxing on land than engineered landfills which also produce greenhouse gases like methane. But while limited space for landfills may spur governments to encourage recycling, incinerators may discourage such efforts.

The major criticism levelled at incineration now is its impact on the circular economy. To make a profit and repay investors of large modern facilities in Europe, incinerator operators need a guaranteed stream of waste. The operators sign contracts with municipalities to provide a certain volume of waste over a long period of time, often 20 or 30 years, effectively committing municipalities to generate a certain amount of waste.

Yet having an incinerator does not exclude higher rates of recycling.

As it turns out, countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration – Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for example, all incinerate at least 50% of their waste – also tend to have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste.

However, Germany incinerates 37% of its total waste and recycles 45%– a considerably better recycling rate than the 30-plus percent of Scandinavian countries.

Malta may still increase recycling substantially above current levels even if incineration is used. But this depends on a stricter legislative framework. In fact the Maltese Government is also expected to start preparations on new mandatory rules obliging people to separate their waste.

But will any progress that is done in the next five years to encourage recycling end up being undone by erecting a monster which needs to be constantly fed to operate?

According to Friends of the Earth international, incinerators create a massive demand for rubbish for many decades and most of such rubbish may be recyclable.

Incineration produces bottom ash, which contains contaminants but can be recycled into concrete or asphalt. But it also produces greenhouse gas emissions – a typical incinerator converting waste to electricity produces around 33% more fossil fuel-derived carbon dioxide than a gas-fired power station.

In contrast, recycling saves greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding the need to extract and process primary resources.

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