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Mikko Paunio: This Philosopher Of Waste Hasn’t Done His Homework

Mikko Paunio

Peter Jones, a waste management consultant, has launched a strange attack on my GWPF report “Save the Oceans – Stop Recycling Plastic”. There are indications in Jones’ analysis of my text that he has not thought through his response.

On me

Jones elaborates the strange idea that I am part of some kind of Brexit conspiracy dreamt up by Lord Lawson and GWPF director Benny Peiser along with some renegade Labour politicians. Unfortunately for Mr Jones, I am a Finn and, like most Finns, I would really like the UK to remain in the EU: our countries have had an exceptionally fruitful bilateral relationship back to the time when Finland provided tar and timber to Her Majesty’s Navy. Moreover, I am a third-generation social democrat, although I am now very critical of the party line when it comes to environment and certain other issues.

On incineration and co-incineration

“While MBT is ineffective and dangerous, according to Paunio incineration “stands apart as the best way to deal with MSW” – but he laments that controls implemented by the Waste Incineration Directive rendered incineration uneconomic. He sees no conflict between this statement and the “vast networks of incineration plants””

This shows that he has missed the words “along with other fuels” in my report. The point that I am making is that Waste Incineration Directive made co-incineration uneconomic. This is because it demands the same high standards from industrial co-incineration furnaces as it does from municipal waste incineration plants.

On carbon dioxide emissions

[Paunio] argues that incineration saves on CO2 emissions by avoiding the need to burn coal and gas, quoting a study from 1996 – not mentioning that incineration is generally more CO2 intensive than gas, or that the diminished role of coal and the rise of renewables in the two decades since have rather changed the equation.

In the first point I refer to that study because there is a great wisdom in it. If you put waste to an incinerator without trying to sort it first, you get the maximum caloric value (and in Helsinki’s incinerator, both electricity and heat are harvested). If you presort waste with a view to recycling, you start to use money and energy and precious resources, quickly making the process uneconomic. More recent ideas, like the wood pulp industry’s decision to gasify its waste streams or to produce biofuels for transportation have the same problem. Previously the streams were directed straight to the boilers to produce heat and electricity for the purposes of the factory. Now, government subsidies are needed because the end-use of the waste stream demands more resources.

On mining waste

The impression that the report is based on outdated information is reinforced when Paunio excitedly writes that “it is envisaged that we will soon ‘mine’ incinerator ash for valuable metals”. Imagine his thrill when he learns that the extraction of metals from bottom ash is already commonplace, and in the UK now counts towards recycling!

The second bullet point is strange as I give a reference to a new Swedish PhD work on the subject. Nevertheless, it appears that here at least, Jones and I agree on this useful advantage of the incineration approach.

On waste leakage

[Paunio] asserts that, because waste does not have to be sorted before it is incinerated, “it does not suffer from the problems of leakage that are found with almost every other approach”. He doesn’t explain how eliminating sorting would get rid of system leakage, but it seems to have something to do with the possibility of collecting all mixed waste in sealed bags (p9).

All green waste management options and schemes emit plastic or microplastic into environment. I share this position with the official view of the recycling industry: the International Solid Waste Association’s 2017 Marine Pollution Report reveals that paper recycling is a major source of microplastics pollution. The report says that a single Dutch paper recycling plant leaks 60,000 tons of microplastics to the oceans each year.

The EU’s producer responsibility framework

Without explanation, Paunio dismisses the EU’s producer responsibility framework as “notoriously dysfunctional, inefficient and unhygienic”. 

I admit that here a bit more elaboration would have perhaps been needed, but this might have threatened readability and the concise nature of the report. The basic flaw in in EU’s producer responsibility framework is that few people will wash plastic packages at home and/or take them to recycling centres. This is human nature. And there is no way to get them to do so.

Gro Harlem Brundtland

“The blame for waste management in these countries being so bad, he says, can also be laid at the door of Europe’s “green ideologues”, in the specific form of Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway. Her enthusiasm for “new and exciting environmental issues such as climate change and water and energy conservation”, he claims, led to an influential commission she ran in the 1980s failing to recommend support for basic urban sanitation measures. In turn, sanitation was neglected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, leading to a lack of investment that has never been rectified. I will leave it to the reader to reach a view on the plausibility of this narrative, which isn’t clearly evidenced in the report.”

The claim in my report was clearly referenced to a chapter in a book by David Satterthwaite, a highly respected urban development researcher and the coordinating lead author of the IPCC’s AR5 chapter on urban issues. In his book Satterthwaite writes:

“There were some exceptions to the lack of consideration given to urban issues in most discussions of environment and development – for instance, the report Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) which helped set the UN on its new focus on sustainable development. But even here, the idea of a chapter in the report focusing on urban issues was strongly contested within the commission and opposed by its chair. 

In addition, what little attention was given to urban environmental problems was very much seen through the perspective of environmental problems in high-income nations. The health burdens arising from infectious and parasitic diseases (fundamentally environmental, as they are transmitted through air, contact, water or disease vectors) were usually ignored.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard, has neglected what should be the most important issue in development. The environmental health agenda lifted us rich nations from misery, but the sustainable development agenda is preventing poor countries from reaping the same benefits.


All in all, it seems that this philosopher of waste and the circular economy has not done his homework. Mr Jones and his colleagues in the recycling industry are doing very well for themselves. But we should spare a thought for those who bear the costs — taxpayers, consumers and those in the developing world — and get nothing but chaos and environmental problems.