Emissions monitoring requirements for Europe’s waste incinerators are to be strengthened but revisions to proposed new standards have been weakened.
A three-year process to update EU standards for waste incineration plants is drawing to a close, with mixed results from an environmental perspective. While progress has been made to improve monitoring for emissions of mercury and dioxins, emission levels will see little or no tightening compared with current guidelines.
At the end of last month, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) joined government and industry representatives to discuss the revision of EU rules for waste incineration plants. While incineration has no role to play in the circular economy, it is important that the industry is appropriately regulated to offer the greatest possible protections for health and the environment for as long as waste is still being burnt.
Yet agreeing appropriate protection measures in a room dominated by industry voices is far from straightforward. Within the technical working group, representatives of environmental groups were outnumbered by industry by 15 to 1. Some private sector employees were even seconded to speak on behalf of member states.
The UK was not immune from this, with the British delegation including representatives of waste incineration firms Uniper and Suez. It should come as no surprise that the UK delegation spoke on numerous occasions in favour of maintaining weaker environmental standards.
Ahead of the meeting, an EEB report warned that the current proposals for a revised document were weaker than the existing version and that the EU was heading for ‘updated’ protections that most waste incineration plants probably already complied with.
The lame response from industry and the European Commission was that comparing the revised standards document (the so-called WI Bref) with the original version of the same document was not fair because the original was not legally binding. This nonsense argument ignored the fact that the previous WI Bref was adopted more than a decade ago, and agreed by experts as a fair reflection of what was technically possible at that time.
Take, for example, the maximum emission level for harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx). The current 2006 WI Bref sets this as low as 100mg/Nm3, but the updated WI Bref raises this to 150mg/ Nm3. The UK delegation successfully argued for the inclusion of a footnote that could allow emissions up to 180 mg/Nm3 in some circumstances.
But progress was made with some more stringent requirements, including the monitoring of mercury and dioxin emissions to air.
Despite UK officials arguing that their evidence (from a single facility) showed there was no problem with dioxin emissions at start-up, and therefore no need to worry, the meeting agreed that the issue is now well-recognised, and monitoring requirements should be established to cover the whole cycle of incineration activity. This is a major victory that will reveal the true impact of incineration in years to come.
The European Commission will now need to distil everything that has been agreed into a final version, which will be approved by a vote of member states later this year. The new rules will then come into force in 2019 and need to be met by 2023 at the latest.
The final document should represent some progress compared with existing rules, but it falls well short of reflecting the true potential for reducing the environmental impact of Europe’s waste incinerators.
It means that such facilities will still be allowed to pollute more than necessary for many years to come. However, as a result of the improvements in monitoring requirements, we should learn more about just how polluting these plants really are.
Regulation must benefit health and environment
Modern energy-from-waste plants operate under one of the most stringent regulatory regimes for an industrial activity. The Bref revision process is important in ensuring the industry continues to improve its environmental performance and does not pose a risk to health.
As the EEB report points out, many plants operate well below the upper best available techniques and associated emission levels for many of the pollutants. But because of the heterogeneous nature of waste, a margin is required for when something unexpected turns up in the waste stream that may result in a brief emissions peak.
Unlike the 2006 document, the revised WI Bref will be legally binding, and so represents ambition and improvement rather than the status quo.
It is also important to ensure that where regulation is tightened, it results in clear environmental and health benefits that justify the costs to industry.
To give an example, waste entering UK plants has demonstrably very low mercury content, but continuous monitoring for mercury is expensive and associated with high levels of uncertainty. It is therefore entirely proportionate that where there is low and stable mercury content, plants do not need to install continuous monitoring.
Libby Forrest is policy and parliamentary affairs officer at Environmental Services Association
Anton Lazarus is communications officer at European Environmental Bureau