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German flood waste to be incinerated in Denmark

Illustration: Fjernvarme Fyn

Danish waste incinerators will help to burn off the many tons of waste generated by the severe flooding in Germany last July – waste that mainly consists of a jumbled mass of tree roots, stones and gravel.

So says Jacob H. Simonsen, director of the Copenhagen waste management company Amager Ressourcecenter, ARC, to WasteTech, the waste media section of Ingeniøren. The first 700 tons of flood waste from Germany have already been incinerated at the site at Amager Bakke, after ARC was recently given the green light by the owners and the environmental authorities to open up the gates and help with the clean-up work.

“The problem greatly exceeds our capacity, but we feel we have a responsibility to help when someone knocks on the door and asks for help, as we have one of the best facilities in Europe.”

The flood debris stems from the four fateful days in July when large parts of western Germany and Belgium were hit by torrential rain and record rainfall, causing huge floods with over 200 deaths and damage costing billions of euros. The subsequent clean-up operation has generated astronomical amounts of waste, which Germany does not have the capacity to manage alone.

“Estimates vary, but somewhere between 400,000 and two million tons of waste was created in something like an afternoon this summer when these heavy rains hit Europe. It’s an absolutely enormous amount of waste,” says Jacob H. Simonsen, and continues:

“We have said we will take as much as we can. We currently receive, for example, bio-waste from the forest industry that cannot be used in ordinary biomass plants. We’re talking about roots and other wood waste, which are filled with stones and gravel. We can turn down the intake of that so that we can take the German flood waste instead.”

European driver crisis delaying waste deliveries

In practice, ARC has been approached by some intermediaries seeking access to waste treatment capacity around Europe. The agreement only recently fell into place, as it had to be approved by ARC’s owners. Jacob H. Simonsen estimates that ARC could make room to burn up to 500 tons of German waste per day “if it really takes off”.

Measured against the total amount of waste and ARC’s daily capacity, the 700 tons so far received is not much, but the slowness of deliveries is not due to a lack of space or will, but to something else entirely:

“They just can’t find enough drivers to bring the waste up here. There is a general driver crisis across Europe, which has been much publicised in relation to the UK and Brexit, but it also affects this area,” says Jacob.

“We hear, however, that the waste is now in temporary storage in Germany and that they will try to reduce the piles slowly. Right now, we don’t know how long it will take. Some people say they could be gone by Christmas, while others say it will take years.”

Severe weather puts pressure on the entire European waste system

It seems extraordinary that events down in Germany can send tremors through the waste system in Europe that reach all the way up here. Is there no capacity for this waste to be treated elsewhere?

“No, there isn’t. I myself participate in several of the European fora for waste-to-energy plants, and all of them are under enormous capacity pressure. We’re drowning in waste at the moment, mainly due to the weather events of the summer,” Jacob replies.

“At the same time, we can see that this is a growing problem and that Europe is interconnected, for better or worse. Last weekend it rained the same way in Genoa, Italy, creating further large amounts of waste – and with all the plants already close to full capacity, the problem is moving all the way up through Europe.”

On Sunday evening, northern Italy was hit by a downpour so heavy that a new European record was set, when the town of Rossiglione saw 736 millimetres of rain fall in just 12 hours – about 83% of the average annual rainfall for the area. At the same time, Sicily has also been hit by floods that have been described as “extremely critical” and atypical for the time of year.

In Denmark, we have been spared floods of this calibre. According to Jacob H. Simonsen, the closest thing we have experienced was the torrential downpour of 2 July 2011, which affected parts of Zealand and the Greater Copenhagen area.

“In 2011, we had major floods in Denmark, which cost something like 11 billion kroner to clean up, and created massive amounts of waste. We struggled for many months to get rid of this – and that was peanuts compared to the amount of waste in Germany. Down there, whole neighbourhoods have been completely razed,” he says.

A mass of gravel, mud and waste

“Capacity is a strange thing. Once the plant is full, there’s just no more coming in – so there may be three to five percent spare capacity at times, but it fills up very quickly when peak events like this happen.”

Is there no possibility that the flood waste could be recycled instead of being incinerated or used as landfill?

“When an incident of this magnitude happens, it often tears up sewer lines and everything else, and then the waste becomes contaminated. The same applies to the basement floods we’ve experienced in Denmark. Waste contaminated by sewage is by definition not recyclable.”

The German waste arrives as one big mass of gravel, mud, plastic and other things, which have been violently mixed together. However, a rough sorting does take place before the waste arrives at ARC, with caravans, cars and other large items being fished out of the pile, Jacob explains. Incineration of the German waste does not pose challenges for the plant’s operations, or its energy production.

“One of our tasks is to mix the waste we receive, so that it is as homogeneous as possible. So the German waste has no impact on operations – just as it didn’t when we received mink for incineration.”