The various waste management regulations are informed by Directive 2008/98/EC, which lays down the measures for protecting health and the environment through the prevention or mitigation of the adverse effects of waste generation and management. It also promotes the reduction of the overall impacts of the use of resources and an improvement in the efficiency of such use.

Article 4 of the Directive lays down a hierarchy for waste management that serves as the priority order for the different legislations and for waste prevention and management policies.

Through its Circular Economy Package and Waste Directive 2008/98/EC, the EU indicates that waste-to-energy processes come after waste prevention and recycling and before its disposal via landfills. As is becoming apparent in EU-27, recycling and waste-to-energy processes complement one another in the efficient management of UW.

Waste Management Directive 2008/98 [PDF]

Spain's 2011 Act on Wastes and Contaminated Spoils [PDF in Spanish]

Zabalgarbi produces 30% of the domestic electricity consumed in Bizkaia, using the non-recyclable waste produced locally.

  • In a typical year, the plant produces 650 million net kWh (waste + natural gas), equal to the annual consumption of 370,000 people. In addition, it records an availability of > 8,000 hours/year, one of the highest in Europe.
  • Primary energy is saved by using the biomass contained in urban waste (UW).
  • The use of UW in conjunction with the plant’s efficient performance reduces atmospheric CO2 emissions.

Two key milestones mark the transition from yesterday’s incinerators to today’s waste-to-energy plants:

  • The first was the adoption of Directive 2000/76/EC on incineration (transposed into Spanish law by Royal Decree 653/2003 of 30 May on waste incineration), which set strict limits on these kinds of facilities.
  • The second was the adoption of Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (transposed into Spanish law by Act 22/2011 of 28 July on waste and soil pollution) that laid down a requirement regarding the minimum energy efficiency to enable the process to be classed as a waste-to-energy.

These new requirements signalled a radical change in the sector, which had to incorporate the best available technologies to meet them. Some incinerators could not make this transition to waste-to-energy plants and were forced to close. Between 1996 and 2008, the Basque Country had to close three UW incineration plants -Mondragon, Bermeo and Aulesti- as they were unable to adapt to the new regulations.

Today’s modern waste-to-energy facilities, which have incorporated the best available technologies, easily comply with the stringent limits imposed by current legislation.

Waste management in the European Union (2014 data)

Europe has over 460 waste-to-energy plants, with a capacity to deliver energy to 14 million people, at an annual saving of approximately 40 million tonnes of fossil fuels.

Eurostat 2014

Green: Recycling and Composting.
Yellow: Incineration.
Red: Landfill.

The EU’s Directive 2008/98/EC on waste sets forth the waste management hierarchy, which starts with prevention, as the most appropriate option, followed by preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery (e.g. energy recovery), and finally disposal.

Incineration with energy recovery is included in one of these two concepts: waste-to-energy or waste disposal. The line that marks the difference between one concept and the other is energy efficiency, defined as the facility’s capacity to extract energy from waste.

To measure this efficiency, the Directive provides Guidelines on the interpretation of the R1 energy efficiency formula, setting a minimum value of 0.6 for a facility to be considered as waste-to-energy.

Zabalgarbi's R1 Energy Efficiency Certificate [PDF]