Why Waste to Energy is not the solution

As Councils and Local Government authorities across Australia consider Waste to Energy as a solution to the current recycling crisis, Boomerang Alliance explains why burning our waste is not the solution to the problem. 

The decision by the Chinese Government to ban mixed paper and plastic recyclables above a 0.5% contamination rate has caused great consternation in local governments across Australia. Kerbside recycling has depended, in recent years upon this trade with China, where about 50% of collected recyclables have been exported. Whilst the ban represents an immediate crisis in recycling, in the long term it represents an opportunity for the development of a Zero Waste or Circular Economy future for this country. Such an agenda will support sustainable resource use, improved manufacturing processes, localised business opportunities and employment in collection and innovation, while dramatically reducing waste to landfill and GHG emissions.

Unfortunately, in seeking to address these challenges some local Councils and associations have supported Waste to Energy (WTE) to avoid landfill, rather than a Zero Waste or Circular Economy approach. Minimising waste to landfill assumes that all other waste treatment options are better than landfilling and does not solve the problems caused by unsustainable resource use, wasteful management of discarded materials or pollution of the environment. It simply transfers the problems of poor waste management somewhere else.

A Zero Waste approach on the other hand includes all options in the Waste hierarchy and promotes the best options.

WTE is not a preferred option and in many instances should be considered below landfill. In other jurisdictions such as the USA and Europe, where WTE has been a common practice, authorities are now warning about the dangers and consequences of the continued use of these facilities, in particular for mixed municipal wastes. 

Boomerang Alliance has compiled a short briefing paper, which outlines our views on WTE and the recognised consequences of developing such facilities.

In summary WTE:

  • Is not an alternative for recycling and sits beneath recycling in the waste hierarchy.
  • Requires guaranteed and significant material streams, therefore undermining other recovery efforts
  • Can have an equivalent (or greater) GHG profile to coal fired power stations
  • Risks toxic emissions, including mercury, lead and cadmium, at greater levels than coal burning
  • Produces a toxic residual waste that requires specialised and dedicated storage
  • Is significantly more expensive than recycling and landfilling
  • Produces little energy despite the massive inputs
  • Will be opposed by local communities on health and environmental grounds, and pose a particular political problem for Councils considering such facilities.

The Circular Economy Plan recently published by the European Community outlines that a circular economy approach should focus on the minimising, reusing and recycling of products and materials in the economy. It cites mixed waste incineration as no better than landfill and recommends the ‘introduction of a moratorium on new facilities and the decommissioning of older and less efficient ones.’ ('The role of waste to energy in the circular economy', 26/1/17)

Boomerang Alliance urges Councils to support a Zero Waste or Circular Economy future and to reject Waste to Energy as having any part to play in that future.