The Association Sunce is extremely worried by the increasing advocacy for energy plants that use fuel from waste (read incinerator) in Croatian within the last few years. We participated in this year’s conference WASTE 2021 in Zagreb in September, where the main topic was the construction of incinerators in Croatia. The construction of incinerators and the production of fuel from waste was advocated by many politicians, county leaders and local governments, but also some professors and experts, directly encouraging the regression from circular to unsustainable linear economy.
Therefore, we want to clarify what dangers lie in advocating such a model. Namely, incinerators, ie fuel from waste fired power plants, require additional plants that produce that fuel. The incinerators burn fuel called RDF and SRF, and it is obtained by processing our mixed municipal waste. The plants that would produce RDF and SRF are the planned waste management centers around Croatia. There are 11 of them planned. Almost all planned waste management centers, including Lećevica, have the primary goal of producing such fuel. Simply put, this means that the centers will process our mixed municipal waste to produce fuel for incinerators.
Why is this a problem? There are several key reasons. Incinerators are primarily a response to one of the last steps / requirements in the waste management hierarchy – energy recovery. Energy recovery is the destruction of the substances from which the packaging or product is made, thus irreversibly losing raw materials in the burning process. Such a loss of raw materials is unacceptable given the already exceeded limits of the available resources of our planet. Furthermore, the technology of fuel-fired waste requires large amounts of fuel to produce relatively little electricity, ie so much fuel that the goals of separate waste collection and recycling (a step before energy recovery) in this system cannot be achieved.
We know that it is possible to recycle over 80% of waste. We see this in the example of northern Italy or the city of Prelog in Croatia. Recycling can save significant amounts of resources, while the incinerator requires a varied and calorie-high “diet” (diverse waste) that we would not be able to provide if we processed only that residual waste, after sorting. For example, Sweden, which has relied on energy recovery for its entire system, incinerates more than 50% of its waste, and imports waste, instead of implementing the first three steps in waste management (waste reduction, reuse and separation, or recycling). In other words, Sweden incinerates more than half of its waste (2 million tons) in a total of 33 incinerators, with significant imports of waste from Great Britain and Norway (1.3 million tons), producing barely 10% of the country’s electricity.
However, the main problem is not the low energy efficiency of incinerators, but the loss of valuable raw materials that can be obtained from waste, which we can no longer replace such as plastic, paper, biowaste, metals and other materials used to produce products and packaging. People are consuming more resources than nature can renew. Therefore, recycling, ie primarily reducing waste generation, is imperative. There are technologies that enable waste management centers to be just that, centers that will extract valuable raw materials from our waste and prepare them for recycling (by implementing facilities for material recovery and biological treatment, or so-called MRBT technology).
It is important to note that the two waste management centers built so far in the Republic of Croatia, Kaštijun and Marišćina, prove how inadequate the planned technology is. Apart from the fact that we cannot place the produced fuel, RDF and SRF, on the market, we even have to pay extra for shipping to foreign incinerators (if we manage to pay anyone for incineration – sometimes even foreign incinerators plants do not want our RDF / SRF even with extra service payment). In addition, these centers do not have the capacity to process the amount of waste we produce during the tourist season. The reason for this is inadequate local waste separation due to a poorly established waste collection system in local areas.
The only answer to the problem of waste is to reduce its generation, encourage reuse, or limit the use of disposable products, and recycle as much as possible. A system that relies on waste management centers that produce fuel from waste opposes circular economy principles and fundamentally stops sustainable development we must strive for if we want to survive as a society and as a species.