Recycling comes first – Energy transformation without refuse incineration


To make a contribution to the climate protection, the waste management has to place its trust in recycling instead of refuse incineration. It can only contribute to the energy transformation if waste is utilized as comprehensively as possible and if the remaining waste is used flexibly and efficiently for the energy generation. These are the main results of Oeko-Institut’s new report “Contribution of recycling management to the energy transformation” conducted on behalf of the Federation of the German Waste, Water and Raw Materials Management Industry (BDE).

Already today, recycling essentially contributes to the climate protection and saves resources - about 15 million tons of secondary raw materials are available for second use. Furthermore, close to five million tons of compost are produced conserving valuable resources such as peat and mineral fertilizers, increasing the soil fertility and also contributing to the climate protection. These portions can and must be further increased, explained the experts of the Oeko-Institute. Above all, plastics made from natural oil, which are not utilized but incinerated in inefficient base load plants, pollute the climate with high CO2 emissions.

“If we increase the portion of the recovered plastics by means of separate collecting, sorting and processing, this will take the pressure off waste incineration and save primary raw materials. It will reduce the emission of CO2 by about six million tons”, explained Günter Dehoust, scientist at the Oeko-Institute focussing on recycling management. “Thus, at the same time more high-quality materials are recovered more efficiently and also make valuable contributions to the climate and resource protection.”

Waste incineration plants are no flexible power plants

Waste that cannot be recycled is not to be used in base load power stations to produce more electricity. These materials should rather be used as flexibly as possible for power generation. At the same time the emissions from waste incineration plants must be reduced heavily to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 to 90 percent in Germany by 2050.

“With the further expansion of renewable energies, the power market system will be changed fundamentally. We need clearly less base load power stations, but more flexible reserves, which will generate power if the wind will not blow or if the sun will not shine”, said Ralph Harthan, expert for climate protection in the Energy and Climate Division of Oeko-Institute. “The fossil portions must be reduced as far as possible by recycling so that electricity production from waste will cause as little CO2 as possible.”

So as to be able to use the remaining residual products for power generation, they have to be processed to get a high quality and it must be possible to store them. The conclusion of the Oeko-Institute is to use the refuse incineration only for pollutant containing waste within the framework of the energy transformation, which cannot be used otherwise.

Make better use of biogas potential from waste

The analysis of the Oeko-Institute also shows that the collection and use of biowaste must clearly be improved. Today, about 50 to 60 percent of the biowaste are separately collected and utilized. In the future it should be almost 100 percent. From the point of view of the eco-balance, this organic waste should first ideally be transferred to high-quality regenerative biogas in fermentation plants, which could be used as stand-by capacity for the power and heat generation. In addition to the energetic use of the biogas, the remaining organic waste from the fermentation plants should be used as compost and replace mineral fertilizer and peat for the fertilization and improvement of the soil.

Recommendations for more climate protection in the recycling management

The Oeko-Institute proposes to increasing the separate collection of recyclables. For this reason, waste disposal charges should be prescribed in all Germany according to the polluter pays principle, a uniform recycling bin should be introduced and regulated with ambitious quota. The regulation of the recycling management and waste law regarding the separate collection of biowaste has to be implemented uncompromisingly and it must be expanded by technical requirements concerning an efficient and low-emission treatment. Finally, the overcapacities of the refuse incineration plants should be reduced with a carefully controlled program to put a stop to the price dumping in this field.

Study “Contribution of recycling management to the energy transformation. Maximizing use of climate protection potentials even under changed framework conditions” of the Oeko-Institute 

You will find a joint background paper “Essential findings based on the study of the Oeko-Institute on behalf of the BDE

Recycling comes first – Energy turnaround without refuse incineration
(Translation based on an article in recovery 1/2014)

Contact at Oeko-Institut:

Günter Dehoust
Researcher in Infrastructure & Enterprises Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Berlin office
Phone: ++49 30 405085-355

Ralph Harthan
Researcher in Energy & Climate Division
Öko-Institut e.V., Berlin office
Phone: +49 30 405085-387