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Lund-Harket: Energy from burning waste? Bad news for the climate

from Sam Lund-Harket, writing for the World Development Movement:

On Dirty Energy Month’s Global Day of Action – Don’t Burn Our Future: Against Waste Burning and for Zero Waste. Mariel Vilella from Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) writes about the consequences of refuse dirived fuel projects.

Municipal governments throughout the world are facing choices about how to manage the unending stream of waste generated by their residents and businesses. In some places landfills and dumpsites are filling up, and all landfills and dumpsites leak into the environment. As populations continue to grow, the issue of waste becomes more urgent and more complicated. Many regions are already facing a waste crisis, and drastic measures are needed.

It’s a golden opportunity for private companies with “innovative” waste technologies, which they claim, will not only eliminate waste but will also generate energy. Some municipal governments, seduced by the idea that they will be able to turn their urgent problem into something of immediate value, have made the mistake of investing significantly in refuse derived fuel (RDF) projects, resulting in the burning of waste in incinerators, biomass plants, cement kilns, and other combustion units.

However, producing and burning RDF does not make household and industrial waste disappear, nor is it an energy or climate solution. The basis of the technology is incineration, and the burning of garbage – whether in “waste to energy” (WTE) plants, incinerators, biomass plants, cement kilns, or other industrial burners – involves an unsustainable consumption of natural resources, pollutes the environment, increases climate change, compromises human health, and seriously disrupts the lives of huge numbers of informal sector recyclers, specially in the Global South.

Moreover, despite burning RDF involves paper, plastic, and metals that come from finite natural resources such as forests, energy from incinerators is considered ‘renewable’. Even if plastics and tires are made of oil; incinerators, biomass plants and cement kilns burn them as ‘alternative fuels’, taking advantage of this blatant ‘green washing’. Not only this is a distortion of what should be deemed a sustainable, clean, and renewable energy source, it’s an extremely inefficient use of resources, as it requires an enormous amount of waste to produce a small amount of energy. Ultimately, burning these resources creates a demand for more “waste” and discourages the real solutions: conservation, redesigned packaging and products, reuse, recycling, and composting.

Countries like the UK, China, India or the US, are strongly supporting the production and burning of RDF through the application of renewable energy subsidies to these practices, amongst other bonuses for these industries. Take the example of the planned Barton Renewable Energy Plant in Urmston, Greater Manchester, which if built, it will burn 75% biomass and 25% RDF. Despite the fierce opposition of the local Council and community, the UK government has pushed its approval arguing the necessity to meet the Renewable Energy national targets.

In China, the energy generated by incineration is subsidized at the same level as solar and wind power, and 0.38% of the energy cost on-grid is covered by public funds.  A similar situation can be found in India, where government’s pledge to double the capacity for renewable energy without mentioning specific sources has been met with skepticism and controversy.  In the US, most federal energy subsidies that benefit incineration are actually meant to support the development of real renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and micro-hydro, which should not have to compete against dirty energy for the same funding. Read more on this here.

Investments are needed to think waste out of the system, but not through burning but through practical, bottom-up, decentralized strategies and urban solutions for reducing climate pollution and conserving energy and natural resources. These efforts go hand-in-hand with clean production, producer responsibility, and waste minimization programs for dangerous and hard-to-recycle materials. In contrast with the primitive idea of burning our garbage, recycling and composting create livelihoods, save money, and protect the environment and public health.

8 Nov 2013

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