EUROPE Mountains of waste have for centuries piled up on landfills in Europe, providing  seagulls with a luxury buffet to pick from. But did you know that waste is  increasingly making the journey across borders to be recycled or used as fuel  for heat and electricity generation?

What’s that smell?” a Vattenfall employee asks in the harbour of Hargshamn in Sweden. The sharp smell of waste was building up from the bales that had arrived from Ireland and were destined for the Uppsala waste incineration plant. Vattenfall’s R&D department acted fast and proposed a preservative agent that could slow down the decomposition process and abate the smell.

“Some months later, during a visit to Sweden, the Irish customer who supplied the smelly waste came very close to repeating the question when a can of ‘surströmming’ was opened,” Björn Mollstedt from the fuel sourcing team says with a resounding laugh. It is a Swedish fish speciality that also has a rotten smell – and the customer got the message to never send smelly garbage again. 

But what is Irish waste doing in a Swedish harbour in the first place? Well, you could argue that the story started in ancient times with the kitchen middens, the landfills of that time. For centuries, waste has been considered a nuisance needed ridding of. However, within the last  30 years focus in the EU has increasingly been on the value of waste as a resource. The EU has prioritised the different methods of waste treatment in a so-called waste hierarchy: first reduce the amounts of waste, then reuse, recycle, recover energy and dispose – in that order.

According to Head of Heat Generation Uppsala Johan Siilakka, “There is no doubt that materials such as glass, metals, plastic and paper should be separated from the waste streams and reused whenever possible. And there is also a general agreement that landfilling is the worst solution to modern society’s waste problems, as it may cause pollution of surface and ground water, soil and, not least, the air, through methane emissions that are 23 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.”

The challenge, however, is that there are huge differences in the European countries’ capability to handle their own waste. Some landfill all their waste (see illustration below) while some northern European countries like Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden only landfill 0–2 per cent of waste. Thanks to the current discussions about phasing out landfills within the EU, waste may increasingly travel to countries with the capacity to treat it. Recycling operations need certain volumes to be economically viable, and the non-recyclable part of the waste can be used for energy recovery in countries with excess capacity in their incineration plants.

of waste landfilled e.g. in the UK, Ireland, Finland, Italy, Iceland, Portugal
of waste landfilled e.g. in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania

“This is where Vattenfall comes into the picture. In Uppsala, Vattenfall’s waste incineration plant recovers the energy in some 350,000 tonnes of waste every year. About 30 per cent of this is imported from countries like the UK, Ireland and Finland, thus helping them to avoid landfilling. Instead, we convert the waste into heat, electricity, cooling and steam for Uppsala and neighbouring industries,” Mollstedt explains.

For three to four years, Sweden has had an incineration capacity in excess of the amount of waste produced locally. According to Mollstedt, it is no coincidence that Vattenfall imports waste from the UK, Ireland and Finland.

“It is important that we can trust the customer to be capable of delivering the right type of waste. Some of the countries with almost only landfilling lack the logistics and infrastructure necessary for us to be confident in the quality of the waste.”

The fuel sourcing team in Uppsala has visited companies in many countries to find out whether potential customers are capable of observing the extensive list of waste Vattenfall does not want. Companies in the UK, Ireland and Finland have passed the test and are supplying household and industrial waste that has already been through a recycling process.

“It means that materials such as plastic and wood have been reused to the limit of their life, and now make their final contribution to society by supplying energy to heating, electricity, cooling and process steam, instead of ending up in Irish, English or Finnish landfills,” Mollstedt says.

In Sweden, 20 per cent of all district heating stems from waste incineration – in Uppsala the figure is as high as 60 per cent. Two big pharmaceutical industries are part of an industrial symbiosis with Vattenfall’s combined heat and power plant in Uppsala, using large amounts of cooling, heat and steam for their production processes.

According to Siilakka, it is good to have waste as a base load in the district heating system, and it is much more efficient to run the incineration facilities in places where there is, for instance, a heating, steam or cooling system to utilise the fuel.
“The places we import waste from would have to build, for instance, district heating systems from scratch to match the energy recovery levels we can offer. And at the time when we built our waste facilities there was no excess capacity,” Siilakka says.

Opinions on incineration and waste moving across borders are, however, highly diverse. Some NGOs take a highly critical view of incineration and cross-border trade in waste, arguing that there is not enough focus on waste prevention, reuse and recycling. A January 2013 report by the global alliance for incinerator alternatives, Gaia, argues that the existing overcapacity in European incineration plants combined with prospects of an increase in capacity may lead to an increase in waste shipping in the EU, and that it may hamper the accomplishment of the EU recycling targets, especially in those countries that are currently farther away from achieving them. 

On the other hand, a report by the European Environment Agency states that the movement of waste across borders can enable access to recycling and disposal options that are unavailable or more costly in the source country. Trade can also increase the potential to use waste as a valuable input for production.

According to Vattenfall’s Director of PRA & Stakeholder Relations, Sabine Froning:
“Members  of the European Parliament in June called on the EU Commission to ban the incineration of recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2020 and demanded a gradual reduction in landfilling from 2020 onwards aiming for a nearly total ban by 2030”. She furthermore explains that the Parliament’s environment committee in late June voted to ask the Commission to set targets for recycling and preparation for reuse to at least 70 per cent for municipal solid waste and 80 per cent for packaging waste by 2030. The Commission has promised to table a proposal by the end of the year.

In Uppsala, they agree that more should be done at a European level to reduce, reuse and recycle waste so that raw materials are used to the highest possible extent locally. They also believe, however, that even with high degrees of utilisation of waste it is better – also from an environmental perspective – to move the unavoidable residual waste to those places where they can be put to best possible use.

“If we look at the impact on the greenhouse gas emissions from imports of waste to Sweden, there is a clear positive net effect. The size of the effect, however, depends on the technological level of the landfills in the respective countries,” Siilakka explains.

In the UK, for instance, there is a growing awareness that waste is a valuable resource, and the export of waste is questioned. So what are the prospects for getting fuel from abroad for Vattenfall’s waste incineration plant in Uppsala?

“If more countries climbed up the waste priority steps, utilising more of their waste, it would probably mean that they would also have the logistics to ensure the qualities of waste demanded by our plant. Still, the necessary investments for themselves to utilise the energy in the waste would be massive, and even though I don’t have a crystal ball, I am convinced that there will be sufficient waste for the Uppsala plant until 2030 at least,” Mollstedt concludes.

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