Welcome to the German garbage crisis: The country doesn’t have too much, but too little to feed its furnaces.
Since legislation went into force in 2005 banning untreated household garbage from landfills, incineration plants have been built all over the country. Many use the heat to produce steam or hot water and some turn turbines to produce electricity.
“In effect, the flow of garbage has been diverted into incineration,” said economist Christoph Partisch of Dresdner Bank in Frankfurt.
What is more, solid waste can be a cheap fuel alternative to gas and oil, which are soaring in price.
On its own, the refuse is still worthless and a nuisance, but it can be a desirable material for owners of a waste-to-energy plant, since they not only receive money to incinerate it but also a small amount of income from the heat it gives off.
Under German government legislation, such energy plants also gain a valuable exemption from carbon-emissions rules. They are free to release carbon dioxide gas because they do not use up fossil fuel.
The result is likely to be a shortage of solid waste to feed the furnaces of Germany.
German households eject about 14 million tonnes of solid waste a year, not counting their paper, glass, old packaging and compost which are collected separately to be recycled.
The Environment Ministry in Berlin said there are so far 68 incineration plants with an annual capacity of nearly 18 million tonnes to burn household garbage as well as factory and office waste.
Added to that are a rash of mini power plants that operate on refuse-derived fuel, which is made by drying, screening and shredding rubbish into a substance that burns almost as well as waste wood.
Germany, which used to have a shortage of garbage-disposal capacity, may soon be hit by fierce competition for garbage, which could depress prices. Municipal incinerators charge trade customers about 150 euros (US$235) per tonne to burn it.
The German waste-disposal industry federation says about 100 new incineration plants are being planned around the country.
It warns that such plants will only be economic if the owners obtain long-term “supply” contracts with industry and other sources of waste. A spokesman, Karsten Hintzmann, said the group would like to see an end to government regulation of waste disposal.
”We should be able to ‘trade’ in garbage as if it were an ordinary commodity,” he said.
One of the group’s complaints is that permits are needed for all imports of garbage to Germany.
That was demonstrated when Italy appealed to Germany for help in clearing rubbish from the Campania region around Naples. That was a business opportunity for the incinerator companies, but it has been taking months to go through all the regulatory steps.
Germany has agreed to take 160,000 tonnes of the Italian garbage.
The Federal Environment Agency says Germany accepted 6 million tonnes of refuse imports last year, mainly from western neighbors like the Netherlands. It exported 1.8 million tonnes, also mainly to the West.