Most countries are struggling to deal with the waste they create, stretching themselves to find ways to recycle or dispose of the increasing amount of rubbish they produce. Dealing with waste is a burden for government officials and a concern for environmentalists, a balancing act that always leaves somebody disappointed. It therefore seems absurd that somewhere would be looking to import waste from abroad.

A new waste to energy incineration plant in Iru, Estonia, however, is doing exactly that. Completed in June 2013, the plant has the capacity to process 220,000 tonnes of waste into energy a year. This energy is then used in the national grid to supply the Tallinn and Maardu areas. The unit could process over half of Estonia’s household waste and convert it into power, but this would still fail to take advantage of the plants full capabilities.

The plant’s operators Eesti Energia submitted the winning bid to process the waste from the Turku municipality in Finland. An average of eight truck loads of waste have been shipped every day to the plant in Estonia since last autumn. The argument is that the emissions from transporting the waste are lower than processing it in Finland or burying it in a landfill. One might argue this a case of the Turku authorities “dumping their dump” — shifting the waste disposal burden elsewhere to protect their own environment, but there are benefits for Estonia.

In 2012 Estonia used 13 million tonnes of oil shale as part of its energy production. This is neither sustainable nor a long-term solution to the country’s energy needs. The opening of the plant serves two purposes, reducing this dirty fossil fuel dependency while also making a significant contribution to waste disposal for a large proportion of the country.

By Hannu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pic: Hannu/Public domain (Wikimedia Commons)

Waste to energy plants are far from perfect. Despite improvements to counteract their environmental impact, they still produce a dangerous cocktail of toxic by-products. More importantly they undermine recycling initiatives and provide an excuse to halt research into developing reusable materials for household products. They drastically reduce the need for landfill but do nothing to discourage the generation of household waste in the first place. They are a self-sufficient stop-gap in place of a solution.

It is an unusual situation for a country to find itself in, importing the waste from another country in order to power its cities. The situation in Estonia highlights the obscene calculations that take place to reconcile energy, environment and waste disposal needs, the endeavour to remove fossil fuel dependency without sacrificing a reliable and secure energy supply and the desire to dispose of waste without just burying it in the ground. Unfortunately the results are often a compromise in place of a long term answer.