Waste to Energy A privatised false solution

In the face of a growing energy crisis and a surging global waste forecasted to increase by 70% by 2050, the Waste to Energy (WtE) industry emerges as a thriving yet controversial player. Explored in this essay are the power dynamics, environmental repercussions, and societal resistance surrounding WtE, examining case studies from India, Lebanon, Denmark, and Slovenia. The narrative delves into the industry's rapid expansion, its privatization challenges, and the potential for sustainable waste management under public control. The essay concludes with recommendations for policymakers and activists navigating the complex landscape of WtE.


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Vera Weghmann
Amager Bakke Power Plant - Copenhagen

Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Amager Bakke Power Plant - Copenhagen

The world is not only facing an energy crisis but it is also increasingly littered: the World Bank predicted that global waste would grow by 70% by 2050.1 Waste which is buried, dumped at sea or turned into ash pollutes the environment. These two trends have been used to boost a new and thriving private business: the Waste to Energy (WtE) industry, which has expanded worldwide based on contracts that last for decades, and often for 50 years. 

This essay explores the power relations of waste to energy, exploring its rapid expansion, the industry that drives it, the social and environmental impacts, resistance – and alternatives.  This is explored in several case studies. In India and Lebanon, for example residents, activists and (informal) workers are actively resisting WtE, yet face considerable institutional power that is promoting its expansion of and especially its privatisation. In contrast, there are the possibilities, as explored through the case studies on Denmark and Slovenia, for WtE to offer a sustainable contribution to waste management, when it is publicly owned and controlled. The essay concludes with recommendations on how policy-makers and activists can best address the phenomenal rise of WtE.

The rise of waste to energy

Waste to Energy (WtE) is rising fast. While in 2022 its market size was estimated to be of over US$42 billion this is expected to double by 2032.2 Currently around 15% of the of global waste collected is burned in WtE plants,3 most of which are located in the global North, especially Japan, the US and Europe.4 In Europe, six countries – Germany, the UK (before Brexit), France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and  Italy account for 75% of the EU’s incineration capacity.5 

The rise of WtE is a global phenomenon. In Asia there are ever more WtE plants being built. China alone is operating 927 plants.6 India has 106, Thailand plans to build 79 WtE in the next few years and Indonesia has 17 planned. In Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, WtE is new but also on the rise as several countries have started to experiment with WtE, such as Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa in Africa and Brazil and Mexico in Latin America.7

Several big players have entered the WtE market, among them multinational companies that have a long history in waste management. For example, Veolia runs more than 90 WtE plants worldwide and was recently awarded a contract to build the biggest WtE plant in Europe, which has a capacity for 1.1 million tonnes of waste annually.8  Other major players are China Everbright and the US companies Waste Management Inc. and Covantana. Engineering companies such as the Hitachi Zosen and the Mitsubishi group are also increasingly entering the WtE market.9 

The WtE business model relies on an increasing volume of waste and has already created a scramble for waste as many of the leading WtE countries need to import waste to fill their incinerators. Sweden, for example, imports almost 800,000 tons of waste annually from the UK, Norway, Italy and Ireland to be able to operate its WtE incinerators. But Italy and the UK, for instance, are rapidly expanding their own WtE industry. Simultaneously, most European countries are developing waste avoidance and recycling strategies supported by EU legislations. This means that Europe could soon run out of enough waste to operate all the existing WtE plants. This has already happened in China since owing to its effective municipal recycling and sorting strategy the country no longer has not enough waste to burn. Hence, in recent years China’s WtE plants have frequently stood idle due to waste shortages.10 

Waste to Energy: An environmental solution?

Converting waste into energy may sound like a good idea for addressing two environmental problems at the same time: too little clean energy and too much waste. Yet, in reality WtE offers a solution for neither. On the contrary, it facilitates the problem of increasing waste, and it produces little and not very clean energy.11 In Europe, where WtE is most advanced, it only provided for 5,134 MW in 2022–2023, less than 3% of the continent’s energy. Due to its low energy productivity even the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP) – the lobby group behind WtE – admitted that WtE makes no sense as an energy source alone.12

Research undertaken by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) showed that WtE produces 1.2 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of waste it burns. Confirming this, a recent study concluded that the ‘CO2 emissions from plastic waste-to-energy systems are higher than those from current fossil fuel-based power systems per unit of power generated, even after considering the contribution of carbon capture and storage’.13 The health of residents living nearby is negatively affected. In China, one study found that hazard-index and cancer-risk figures were above safety levels a kilometre downwind from the incineration plants.14 A Greenpeace study on WtE in the UK found that WtE plants are more likely to be located in the poorest and most racially mixed areas than in the wealthiest, homogeneous white residential areas.15 In other words, WtE incinerators deepen health inequalities. Consequently, many people living near to these plants are mobilising and resisting the building and expansion of WtE. 

Moreover, WtE is at odds with the circular economy. This is firstly because WtE plants burn mostly recyclable or compostable waste, almost all of which comes from municipal waste.16 Secondly, WtE plants require a minimum volume of waste in order to be able to operate. Large-scale incinerators need about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year. As such, WtE creates a dependency on waste, which runs counter to the principles of waste avoidance. UNEP has warned about this ‘lock in effect’ through which the need to fill WtE incinerators ‘hamper[s] efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle’.17 This risk is heightened when WtE is privatised. Incinerators are expensive to build, so for the companies to recover the investment costs and to make profits they usually demand very long-term contracts with municipalities stretching over decades – between 20 and 50 years. These contracts usually bind municipalities to deliver a minimum volume of waste or to pay compensation if they fail to do so (see more on the issue of privatisation below).

Thus, WtE stands in direct contrast to recycling initiatives – formal and informal. The work of informal recycling workers is often forgotten or disregarded. Yet, according to research produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are around 15 and 20 million informal waste workers worldwide who collect, sort and sell and re-use household or commercial/industrial waste on the street, co-operative recycling facilities or in open dumps.18 While informal waste work is not only both a highly unpleasant and hazardous occupation it provides a means of survival for people and households who often lack other alternatives. In many countries around the world the informal waste workers provide the only form of recycling and often also the only waste collection – and that at no cost to the municipalities. WtE plants that burn recyclable waste are thus taking away their livelihoods. These informal waste workers should be involved in the process of implementing WtE and any other questions regarding solid waste management (SWM) systems. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Together with citizens, informal waste workers across the world have therefore organised against WtE.19

Delhi, India – hazardous emissions and the destruction of the informal circular economy

India has a long history of failed WtE projects. The first attempt was in 1987 in Dehli when a plant was built for US$ 4.4 million by the Danish company Volund Miljotecknik Ltd. The plant was supposed to incinerate 300 tons of municipal solid waste per day to generate 3.75 MW of electricity. In fact, the plant only ran for three weeks. Then it had to shut down as the incoming waste was of inadequate quality (usually calculated in terms of calorific value) for the plant to run.  It attempted to supplement this by adding diesel fuel, but even that failed.20 

Following the global WtE trend, this experience has not stopped India in persisting with WtE. To date, Delhi alone has three WtE plants. The biggest is the Timarpur-Okhla plant, which was planned for over a decade and started to operate in 2012 and is another Public–Private Partnership (PPP). The plant claims to have the capacity to burn 25% of Delhi’s mixed waste but has been the subject of much controversy.  Residents and activists have raised their concerns for years due to the emissions and health hazards. Indeed, a report by India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) submitted to the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court in September 2020 proved that all three of the WtE plants in Delhi release toxins beyond what is legally permitted.21 The WtE plants also destroy India’s informal recycling system and threated the employment of about half a million informal waste workers who are making a significant contribution Delhi’s circular economy system.22 Despite the negative consequences of WtE and the resistance of residents and informal workers India continues to build mostly privatised WtE facilities all over the country. By the end of 2023 India had 109 WtE plants in operation according to Statista.23 

Beirut, Lebanon – Resistance to WtE

Lebanon has been facing a waste crisis since August 2015. In fact, since the end of the civil war (1975–1990) there has never been a functional waste management system. The government contracted out waste management services without even a call for tender, landfills are overflowing, and much waste has been openly burned and/or just accumulated on the street. Serious environmental damage and air pollution is the consequence and waste spilling over into the Mediterranean is creating global pollution concerns.

The solution to this crisis was thought to be WtE, ignoring citizens who had protested against waste incineration since 1997. A new WtE incinerator was planned to be built in Karantina, an area of Beirut which already suffered from air pollution due to two open-air waste incinerators and the residents suspected that a further WtE incinerator will only worsen and not enhance the situation.24 The WtE plans went directly against the initiatives to sort the waste and enable recycling. It also ignored the existing informal recycling undertaken mainly by refugees (mostly from Syria) who make a living through such activities. A group of informal recyclers and citizens therefore formed the ‘Waste Management Coalition (WMC)’ to advocate for recycling and sustainable waste disposal in Lebanon.25

Lebanon’s problematic economic and political situation means it is very reliant on international funding to cover the cost of waste management. The European Union (EU) and the World Bank provided finance for Lebanon to improve its solid waste management (SWM) that mostly involved WtE as well as landfilling.26 However, a recent study found the 16 SWM facilities that were established through these international grants of €89 million between 2004 and 2017 not only failed to provide local people with improved environmentally friendly waste management but also created the risk of environmental and health hazards – as well as wasting money and incentivising corruption.27 In June 2023 the EU again allocated €3.7 million to fund a circular economy project implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).28 

Solutions are desperately needed. Citizens have taken matters into their own hands. To date the protests have stopped the building of the WtE plant in Karantina and a few innovative recycling projects have been established. For example, the ‘Drive Throw’ project has now two recycling stations in Beirut where people can dump their recyclables, for which they are paid in cash. While these stations have managed to collect and sort 450 tons of recyclables, they rely on people having private transport, so it is only a small, wealthy and environmentally conscious element of the population that uses the stations.29 There have also been projects that recycle glass into traditional Lebanese slim-necked water jugs.30 Yet, these initiatives are not sufficient to establish a functioning and universal waste management system that Lebanon so desperately needs.

The institutional power behind WtE

The WtE industry is well organised. In Europe, the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), the umbrella association of the operators of WtE incinerators, is its most outspoken lobby group. CEWEP represents about 410 plants from 23 European countries and, in its own words, contributes to ‘European environmental and energy legislation’ through the following:

  • ‘Close and permanent contact with the European Institutions
  • Careful analysis and proactive contributions to EU environment and energy policy
  • Participation in on-going studies (UNEP, OECD and EU)
  • Undertaking our own studies, e.g. based on Life Cycle Thinking, composition and recycling of bottom ash etc.’ 

CEWEP also states that it is ‘often in the European Parliament, in order to inform decision makers and the public about Waste-to-Energy’.31  

In the US, Friends of the Earth revealed that Covanta, one of the biggest WtE companies in North America, lobbied to get billions of dollars in climate funding under the Renewable Fuel Standard.32 Covanta has for decades advocated for WtE, boasting that it has thereby ‘sustainably diverted over half a billion tons of waste from landfills’.33  

Not only lobby groups but also the international and regional financial institutions have played a considerable role in the promotion of WtE by financing PPPs with multinational corporations to build and operate WtE plants. As shown in the example of Serbia, the World Bank has not only financed but also advised countries to develop their WtE industry. The European Investment Bank (EIB) also finances several WtE plants, for example the construction of one in Olstyn, Poland in 2021 for €47million.34  The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has helped to facilitate and finance WtE plants in China, Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines.35 And 2018, a US$100 million ADB loan financed the PPP between Vietnam and China Everbright to also build a series of WtE plants in Vietnam.36  

Burning of waste – a largely privatised model

Most of the WtE plants worldwide have been constructed through PPPs. Research has shown that in China that around 80% of the WtE plants have been built and operated through PPPs, with three players holding nearly 50% of the market in 2019 – China Everbright (19.7%) International, Henan City Environment (13.2%) and Shanghai SUS Environment 10.5%).37  In Germany, Europe’s leading WtE country, most of the plants are completely privatised; 95% are run via PPPs and only 5% are in public ownership.38 Also, in Sweden and Italy WtE is mostly fully privatised or operated via PPPs, as it is in the UK39 and the US.

Only very few countries have public ownership of WtE, for example Austria and Denmark. A recent academic study compared private and public ownership of WtE and concluded that ‘private ownership generally leads to inefficiencies’ 40. This can be seen from the experience of two cities – Belgrade and Ljubljana – which illustrates that public ownership and control is essential for a holistic waste management system that allows the prioritisation of environmental concerns over profit.

Furthermore, the example of Denmark, showed that when it is in public ownership WtE can be adjusted according to the country’s needs. Developing waste prevention and recycling schemes alongside WtE treatment meant that by 2018 Denmark had to import nearly a million tons of waste.41 Consequently, it decided to reduce its incineration capacity by 30% by 2030, with the closure of seven incinerators in order to expand recycling. These decisions were enabled by the fact that Denmark’s incinerators are in public ownership and hence the country is not facing legal lawsuits for compensation due to the decision to close the plants.

Belgrade, Serbia – privatised WtE hampers recycling

In Serbia the introduction of WtE has become a barrier for developing the country’s recycling capacity. The privatised WtE came into being through a PPP contract signed with the Suez-Itochu consortium in 2017 for a duration of 25 years for the provision of municipal waste treatment and disposal services, with WtE at the core of the contract. It was then the largest PPP contract in Serbia and had an estimated value of €957 million over the course of the contract. The PPP was financed through loans from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). The World Bank not only financed WtE but it also advised the city authorities on the legal, regulatory, technical and financial aspects of the project as well as on the public procurement procedures and the selection of the bidder. In other words, the World Bank enabled and shaped the conditions of the privatised WtE in Serbia. According to the contract Belgrade is obliged to deliver around 66% of the city’s municipal waste. The contract also stated that the WtE plant would incinerate municipal waste without prior sorting, thus ruling out the development of a recycling system. This even meant that the EIB, which had first offered support for the PPP, withdrew from the project as it recognised that it would prevent Serbia from achieving the EU’s recycling and circular economy objectives.42 Yet the deal went ahead anyway without the EU’s financial support. The introduction of WtE is not only a barrier to effective recycling but it is also jeopardising Serbia’s prospects of entering the EU, as EU member states have a binding obligation to recycle at least 60% of municipal waste. Currently, there is no functioning formal recycling system in Serbia (official recycling rates were as low as 0.4 % in 2019.43 Most recycling is carried out by the informal sector (European Environment Agency, November 2021). Hence, the current WtE project in Serbia also means that, as in other countries (see the example of India and Lebanon below) there is a risk that WtE will also destroy the existing informal recycling system. 

Ljubljana, Slovenia – WtE can work when in public ownership

In contrast, Ljubljana in Slovenia demonstrates that WtE can indeed make a valuable contribution to waste management, when not competing with waste prevention and recycling, but when there is a holistic approach to waste management. Slovenia was for a long time quite the opposite of a good practice case in relation to waste management. Yet, this changed. Between 2006 and 2017, Slovenia managed to achieve the most significant reduction in landfilled municipal waste in the EU, cutting it by almost 70%. 

Now Ljubljana is also branded as Europe’s zero waste capital, with Slovenia pioneering in waste prevention and recycling. For example, the city operates packaging-free vending machines for basic household items, and it is a nationwide obligation for all municipal institutions to use toilet roll that is produced from re-cycled milk and juice packaging.44

When Slovenia introduced WtE this went in line with these circular economy practices rather than destroying or competing with them. The country constructed a modern waste management treatment plant that served 37 municipalities in central Slovenia and processes over 170,000 tonnes of waste annually. The plant, the Regional Centre for Waste Management (RCERO), which started to operate in 2015, strictly follows the waste hierarchy – waste avoidance, recycling and composting, waste to energy and then landfill. So, the waste is recycled through mechanical treatment and is used to produce solid fuel and organic waste is composted. Some unrecyclable materials are processed into fuel, which has a similar calorific value to brown coal. WtE is used for the rest of the waste that cannot be otherwise re-purposed and the waste that is not suitable for WtE is used for landfill. 

Such a holistic waste management system needs to be motivated by more than a profit. Recycling and composting are more labour-intensive and less profitable than WtE. The RCERO plant was facilitated through public funding with 66% (€77.6 million) coming from the EU Cohesion Fund and the remainder from the national and local government, the construction of the treatment plant was completed in October 2015. 

The example of Ljubljana shows that when waste management is publicly owned and operated it facilitates an integrated system where waste prevention can go hand in hand with recycling as well as WtE, rather than having these three aspects of waste management competing with each other for profit.45


Industrial lobby groups, multinational companies and financial institutions, like the World Bank and the ADB, have promoted WtE as a sustainable alternative to landfill and as a solution for the overwhelming need for waste management in many parts of the world. However, as this essay demonstrates WtE is, in fact, not so environmentally friendly. The first aspect that policy-makers and activists need to be aware of is that WtE, contrary to what the name suggests, does not produce much energy (and the energy it produces is heating rather than electricity so it is a less useful energy source for hot countries). Due to the high emissions of WtE incineration – higher than from other fossil fuelled energy production – it is certainly not a source of green or renewable energy. 

The second aspect of which activists and policy-makers need to be aware is that it creates the need for increasing volumes of waste, because WtE plants need a certain volume of waste in order to operate. Many of the countries with an established WtE industry are already heavily dependent on importing waste, leading for a scramble for waste. This is especially severe as it is often recyclable waste that gets burned in WtE energy plants (the plants need a certain calorific value in order to operate and plastic and paper, for example, are high in calorific value). Hence, even the UN and the EU have advised countries to reduce their WtE capacity.

Thirdly, WtE plants create environmental and health risks. They release not only emissions but also toxins that cause health risks for the people living nearby. 

Fourthly, policy-makers need to recognise that many places where WtE was introduced it deprived many informal recycling workers of their livelihood. While informal recycling work should not be glorified as it is both unpleasant and hazardous, it is securing the livelihood of millions of people. These informal workers are making a tremendous contribution to recycling in many countries.

Currently, most WtE plants across the world are privatised (either fully or via a PPP contract). This means that the municipalities have contractual obligations with the private providers to deliver a certain volume of waste or pay compensation. This directly goes against any waste-reduction efforts. Denmark, on the other hand, where WtE is mostly in public ownership, was able to shut down some of its WtE plants in order to incentivise waste prevention and recycling while reducing its dependence on imported waste. 

The case of Slovenia provides an example of a holistic waste management system that strictly follows the waste hierarchy (waste prevention, recycling and composting, waste to energy, landfilling) when waste management is in public ownership and control.

This essay thus suggests that WtE needs to be in public ownership so that it can be part of a comprehensive approach to waste management that addresses the need of the environment and citizens: local residents, the public that needs a functioning waste management system and the workers (formal and informal) who deal with the waste.

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