Innovation and Resources on Urban Waste



Take a tour around Copenhagen's (in)famous incinerator

18 June 2019

Adorned with a ski slope, the Amager Resource Centre (ARC) cuts an imposing figure just outside the centre of the city of Copenhagen (Denmark) itself. The new facility is one of the world’s greatest capacity incinerator in Europe, and one of the world’s most efficient. Aiming to be the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025, the country of Denmark still produces some of the highest rates of municipal waste in Europe at 16 million tonnes; 80% of which is incinerated. How does this fit into a carbon free future? And at a cost of 59 Million Euro, is it a feasible solution to our waste problem more widely? We took a tour with ARC’s Sune Scheibye around the famous landmark to find out.

Part of the city

The incinerator’s design uses recreation to incorporate the €500 million 2-year-old waste centre into the city it powers. “Our focus as a city, as citizens, is all about livability." says Copenhagen Lord Mayor Frank Jensen. The city intends to replace coal with biomass, to upgrade energy inefficient buildings, and to lure even more residents onto bikes and public transit. Not to mention add more wind and solar electricity to the grid, exporting surplus wind electricity to other parts of Denmark to offset Copenhagen's remaining several hundred thousand tons of transportation emissions.  


The cleaning process and recycling pollutants 

Even state-of-the-art incinerators emit dioxins and other harmful pollutants. Here (at the first energy plant in Denmark equipped with a catalyser to remove it) 40m tall scrubbers “take out the NOX emissions (minimised to a tenth of the former plant it replaces) and SO2 (reduced by 99.5%) things you wouldn’t want to emit into the air.” The electric filter removes most of the dust or “fly ash” in the smoke which is used for road construction, while the flue gas cleaning product is landfilled at controlled sites for hazardous waste. 


What about the city’s goal to go CO2 neutral, especially given the high percentage of plastic in imported waste?

While the new plant will increase carbon dioxide emissions by 43% - from 140,000 tons a year to 200,000 tons—ARC says new technologies will make the plant 25% more efficient than the old incinerator. Posing a net benefit to the atmosphere, at least compared to landfill, the process also creates much less potent methane. Poor plastic recycling rates, which present a loss of up to 1.6 billion kroner (€214 million), means more toxic gases being released, although plans have been put forward to raise it by extending the current deposit return scheme. 

Recycling rates: how are they being raised?

While metal recycling rates are exemplary (111%; some imported); plastic recycling remains low, at 15%. Work is being done to raise rates including a small pilot plastic sorting plant next to the incinerator built in 2017 and the introduction of EPR (extended producer responsibility). But the separation of contaminated, multi-composite containers remains an issue. “People are sorting waste at home more, but a lot of it comes down to production, where you produce too many different types,” says Sune.

Does the overcapacity of the new incinerator create a conflict of interest with the European Commission’s plans to achieve zero waste? Aside from importing waste from Europe e.g. the UK, how is it dealt with?

Imported waste is not necessarily reported. Currently, 40% of imported waste comes from the UK for one, where it would otherwise be landfilled. “This plant will be here for the next 30 years, so you’d rather have overcapacity than too little. We’re producing heat and electricity from the waste which we’d otherwise have to get from fossil fuels. [Using renewables] is not possible 100% of the time. Geothermal energy for instance can only provide a small amount. It would be great if we could have only renewable energy, but we need to be pragmatic and realistic about it. Until then, this is the better option. Instead of depending on the regimes of coal, oil or gas producing countries - Russia, Ukraine etc. we can keep it [...] here in Copenhagen.”

Do you have insight into product stewardship and/or total cost of ownership throughout the life cycle of products to ensure circularity?

“Not within our business. We’re managing the waste people produce. We’d like to see people sort it more. But producers need to make smarter products, in essence. We’d like to incinerate as little as possible. We’re actually working towards not incinerating anything. But there is waste that cannot be recycled.” Several Danish waste incinerators have though in recent years actively involved life cycle assessment (LCA) modelling, including world-leading assessment model EASEWASTE in collaboration with the Technical University of Denmark.

From symptoms to source

Alongside climate impacts, the question of power, communication with and involvement of the public and feasibility of alternatives to the incinerator and incineration itself have caused controversy. Some argue incineration makes sense in the transition to a sustainable society. Meanwhile, the Regional Development committee of the European Parliament (REGI) proposed to stop burning funds in the form of incineration subsidies. Zero Waste Europe warn “that safeguards are needed to prevent other countries from committing the same mistake [of overinvestment in waste-to-energy facilities]”. Especially since one can obtain 5 times as much energy from recycling, much of the incinerated waste is non-renewable and imported from afar. Taiwan and cities in Spain, Italy and Japan for example have shunned incineration for waste reduction as part of a zero-waste commitment/ strategy, with an emphasis on composting, recycling and disincentivising waste. The jury is out on whether incineration is a necessary and sound solution in the short term transition towards a circular economy or simply legitimises our throwaway culture, distracting from the complete system change that could be possible.