A three-year process to update EU environmental standards for waste incineration plants is drawing to a close with mixed results from an environmental perspective.

Here, META reflects on five things we’ve learnt from the process and what the new rules will mean for the future of waste incineration in Europe.

1. Too much waste is burnt in Europe

More than 80 million tons of waste is burnt in Europe every year. Campaigners warn this is incompatible with the aim of moving to ‘circular economy’ – where waste is prevented and products reused or recycled.

Piotr Barczak, Waste Policy Officer at the EEB, said that the aim of a circular economy is not to burn valuable raw materials and products, but rather “…to reduce waste generation by extending the life cycle of products, by reusing and putting secondary raw materials back into the economy.”

Pointing out a common problem with countries that have invested in waste incineration infrastructure, Barczak added:

Many Nordic countries oppose higher recycling targets and waste prevention because this would imply a reduction in residual waste, which they need to feed the expensive incinerators they built.

In other words, the more waste incinerators you build, the more rubbish you need to burn in them.

2. The European Commission doesn’t like comparing revised documents with the originals

After an EEB report revealed that new rule were set to contain weaker emissions levels than those in the document being revised, industry groups and the European Commission reacted with anger.

They told ENDS Europe that the report was “erroneous” because it compared the revised document to the original, which “wasn’t legally binding”.

EEB technical expert Aliki Kriekouki, who took part in technical talks about the new rules, defended the report’s content and called this response “ridiculous”:

We spent years working to ‘revise’ a document and were then told that comparing the updated version with the original was unfair. It beggars belief.

Kriekouki continued: “When documents are revised after more than a decade, we don’t think it’s unfair or unreasonable to expect higher standards that reflect the technological progress that has been made.

3. Industry lobbyists tried to bully green groups out of the room and then refused to apologise

The new rules, contained in a technical document known as the ‘WI BREF’, are agreed following a consultation with industry, governments and NGOs.

It’s supposed to be an data-driven process based on a range of expert opinions, but green groups are outnumbered 15-1 by industry lobbyists.

This numerical disadvantage was made worse after a middle-of-the-night email from the president of a waste industry lobby group found its way to a journalist’s inbox  In the email he proposed to colleagues that they “isolate” and “unilaterally oppose” anything that green groups say during technical discussions.

The lobby group ESWET quickly distanced itself from what it said were the “spontaneous and emotional” response of its president. Calls for an apology went unanswered

4. There’s only limited progress on cutting emissions

While in some cases the new rules could cut emissions, most plants will probably already comply with the revised guidelines.

In any case, the new standards document fails to ensure that the latest and best techniques will need to be used to cut emissions and reduce the environmental impact of the waste incineration industry.

As a result, incineration facilities will still be allowed to pollute more than necessary for many years to come.

5. ….but there was some good news on monitoring!

There’s some good news about new requirements for monitoring the pollution the waste incineration pumps out.

Getting an accurate picture of exactly how much plants are polluting helps experts understand their true environmental impact. So campaigners welcomed significant progress to strengthen the rules in this area.

Dioxins are serious and persistent pollutants that cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

The updated rules will strengthen the monitoring requirements for dioxin emissions to air, and for the first time plants will be required to measure dioxin emissions during the critical start-up phase of operation – when much higher emissions can occur.

Under the new rules, known as the Waste Incineration Best Available Techniques Reference Document – or ‘WI BREF’, the monitoring of air emissions of the dangerous neurotoxin mercury will also improve. Emissions will need to be continuously monitored, a significant improvement on the current much weaker regime.