Why Can Europe Burn Its Waste Effectively and The US Can’t?

For plastics recycling, European methods provide a larger supply of plastics going back into the recycling loop. As explained in greater detail below, their methods allow them to recycle 61% of the waste, burn 34% for energy and heat, 4% goes to landfill, with the remaining 1% (chemicals, paints and some electronic equipment) going to special disposal places. The 34% waste burned is burned cleaner and provides greater heat than incineration methods used in the US.

There are 3 key reasons Europe can be this effective and the US can’t:

1.    Necessity

2.    Policy

3.    Technology

These reasons drive innovation that has provided cost effective and energy saving solutions to several countries in Europe, with acceptance by the surrounding communities. In fact, in several cases, the residents wanted the facility near them, so that they could directly benefit from heat generated by the plants and enjoy lower electricity costs, thereby increasing their home value.

The information provided in this blog article comes mainly from an article written by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the NY Times, titled “Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags”. It was published April 12, 2010 and can be found in its entirety at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/science/earth/13trash.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&adxnnlx=1285524145-vAhP1cH6SJVta52%20CWT67A


Europe has limited space in a densely populated area. By definition, they can’t afford to take up valuable real estate on waste materials that will never be used again. In addition, each new landfill requires significant capital to ensure no toxic elements leak out of the area. In Europe also, you can drop your recycling off for free, but have to pay for your garbage to be incinerated, clearly an incentive to recycle as much as possible.

In the United States, with all the open land available, the motivation is not as strong. Another aspect, most trash removal is done by private enterprises, which have less ability to offer incentives and still be profitable for them. Most of the trash is generated in densely populated areas of the United States and even though it can be very expensive, most trash is hauled to remote areas. This transport is mainly due to the threat of lawsuits by property owners not wanting landfills close to their residence and places of business.


Europe has embraced policies promoting cleaner emissions, most coming from the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also have much more stringent recycling policies, with spot inspections of waste facilities with the threat of heavy fines if recyclable materials are found in the mix. By pulling out recyclable materials, these materials go back into the production cycle, utilizing less energy to be used again. In some of the materials, its takes 70% less energy to produce recycled materials than the energy it takes to produce virgin materials.

In the United States, most recycling policies are done at the local or state level (see our previous post on NC Plastic Bottle Ban, https://envisionplastics.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/3-reasons-why-nc%E2%80%99s-2009-ban-on-plastic-bottles-to-the-landfill-is-crucial-for-business-success/). With no federal mandate, recycling efforts may not pay for themselves, through private enterprise. Another factor is the fear with no recycling mandates, those efforts would provide an excuse not to recycle, if we can easily get rid of our waste, through incineration.


The technology developed in Europe, while expensive has proven to reduce emissions to 10-20% of the level currently mandated by European standards. In addition, this technology produces a higher level of energy, then previous incinerator technologies and this technology can also share heat with nearby residential and commercial facilities providing more than just electricity. Designs have been promoted to reduce the visibility of the facilities as well as provide esthetic appeal. In some cases, passersby would not even know there was a waste-to-energy facility there.

In the US, we are still stuck with older technology that is both cost prohibitive to update or replace and pollutes more. With it easier (and cheaper in most cases) to just find a new landfill, the motivation is not there to think long term and provide these new channels to dispose of our wastes.

In general, mandating more recycling and producing energy from non-recyclable waste would seem to be a non-brainer, but until policies in the US change to reflect that push, burning waste for energy in the US will not be a top priority nor cost effective.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.