Today, Italy still dumps in landfills over six million tonnes of urban waste every year. The landfill rate is 30 times higher than in other best performing European countries. If we also consider special waste, we are talking about over 17 million tonnes of waste sent to landfills, an amount equal to 26 times that of Milan Cathedral. A paper published by The European House – Ambrosetti and A2A in 2021 estimates at nearly 4-4.5 billion euros the investment required to fill the waste-to-energy and organic waste plant gap.
During COP26, countries revisited the COP21 Paris agreement, confirming and reinforcing their climate pledges. The goal is to keep fighting climate change by cutting emissions. The world economy is still based on linear processes, and it will take time to shift towards a circular economy. As regards waste management, the objective is to maximise waste-to-material when feasible while opting for waste-to-energy in the case of non-recoverable waste. Waste-to-energy facilities provide sustainable means of waste disposal which allow the recovery of heat and energy and a reduction of the volume of waste that is landfilled (landfill emissions are almost double compared to a waste-to-energy plant). In the light of this, waste-to-energy plants aimed at the production of energy and heat are vital for all the countries whose economies rely on carbon-rich fossil fuels. Thus, the key assets for energy recovery are waste-to-energy plants, organic fraction treatment plants and biomethane production plants.
EU waste management practices vary considerably from one Member state to another. Northern European countries achieve a perfect balance between energy and materials recovery with a low volume of waste that is landfilled whereas southern European countries rely on landfills. Landfilling is bad for the environment since it contributes to the increase in greenhouse emissions and land consumption. European legislation aims to allow a maximum of 10% of waste going to landfill by 2035.
European Waste-to-Energy (WtE, or waste incineration with energy recovery) plants provide a local source of reliable (baseload) energy by treating non-recyclable waste. This waste and its embedded energy would otherwise be buried in landfills. WtE plants in Europe produce enough electricity to supply almost 19 million people per year. Additionally, around 10% of Europe’s energy covered by District Heating comes from WtE. In cities with good district heating infrastructure in place, like Brescia, Malmö or Klaipėda, WtE covers more than 50% of the heating needs.
The amount of primary energy produced by WtE in 2019 in Europe was equivalent to 13.8 billion cubic metres of natural gas. This corresponds to 9-10% of the natural gas imports to the EU from Russia (155 billion cubic metres in 2021). For instance, in Brescia, the WtE plant currently allows savings of around 98 million cubic metres of natural gas per year and, with the ongoing investment plan, savings will increase to more than 115 million in the near future.
In addition to the CO2eq emission savings by substituting fossil fuels, WtE also mitigates greenhouse gases by diverting waste from landfills (a source of disperse methane emissions) and recycling metals from the incineration bottom ash, the leftovers of the combustion process.
Furthermore, WtE’s potential for programmability and flexibility of energy production allows many possibilities of sector coupling and industrial symbiosis to be explored. For example, some European WtE plants have already successfully contributed to grid balancing, energy storage and decarbonisation of public transport through the production of hydrogen.
In this context, Italy needs six or seven waste-to-energy plants (75% of them in southern Italy) in order to fill the infrastructure gap in the waste disposal management process compared to Europe’s best performers (~5% landfilling). The need for new waste-to-energy plants in southern Italy is small compared to the 37 plants located in the north of Italy. Despite the obvious advantages of the above-mentioned plants, several factors have hindered the development of infrastructure so far. One of the main obstacles is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome, fostered mainly by political interests and protest groups. Moreover, the NIMBY syndrome is worsened by bureaucracy, which has a negative impact on the time to market of waste-to-energy plants. The NIMBY syndrome is based on the belief that WtEs are a deterrent to the development of sorted waste collection, not to mention that a certain part of the recycled waste still needs to be disposed of anyway. In actual fact, the European countries where waste-to-energy is used in a significant way have among the highest levels of separate waste collection in Europe. Another belief is that the presence of a waste-to-energy plant causes traffic congestion. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that, for operational purposes, a medium-sized plant would need fewer than 100 means of transport on a daily basis. Filling the infrastructure gap would make it possible to enhance the overall waste disposal process, lower the waste disposal tax charged on southern municipalities and generate value on a local and national scale.
Compared to the first incineration plants, the new plants ensure increased environmental efficiency in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, clean energy production and materials recovery. In addition to this, research and development is moving forward in this field, focusing on green hydrogen production. This could further increase the strategic significance of WtE plants. In the years to come, it is likely that the demand for decarbonised hydrogen will grow in the heavy transport sector. The main source of decarbonised hydrogen will be non-programmable renewable generators (e.g. photovoltaic and wind power plants) and waste-to-energy plants characterised by baseload production which will ensure continuity to the generation and production of hydrogen.
In conclusion, the European policy framework should consider European countries’ peculiarities and their level of development in terms of waste disposal management and infrastructure, and it should value the electricity, heat and hydrogen production generated by waste-to-energy plants.