What's on the horizon for refuse-derived fuel as Brexit looms and production evolves?

Written by: Marcus Brew | Published:
The UK has halved the amount of waste sent to landfill over the past 15 years

Refuse-derived fuel (RDF) has come a long way over the past decade.

In fact, it would not be too extreme a statement to say that the use of this fossil fuel substitute has been a game-changer in industry.

It has contributed significantly to the UK halving the amount of waste sent to landfill over the past 15 years, and it makes up a healthy proportion of the 14 million tonnes of waste sent to different WtE facilities per annum.

While it is by no means as sophisticated in specification as its ‘sister’ commodity solid recovered fuel (SRF), it is becoming increasingly acknowledged as an important sustainable energy source. Unfortunately, it is yet to achieve true ‘product’ status, but it is no longer considered smelly rubbish destined for incineration.

A more refined fuel

There was once a very distinct difference between black bag burner waste (RDF) and the comparatively more refined <30mm fraction defined as SRF. However, as WtE facility operators and other off-takers have become more knowledgeable about feedstock possibilities, they have naturally placed more stringent quality control pressures on producers.

SRF remains the more extensively processed of the two. But fuel users are now seeking heightened material segregation at source and greater particle homogeneity for burn efficiency. The industry is therefore increasingly talking about ‘refined RDF’ as a result.

Savvier production methods

In light of this, RDF production is no longer an ‘easy fix’ for leftover waste. It requires thought. Processing lines are more intelligent. And technologies need to achieve more.

Generally, RDF production in a single pass is now a priority. This limits the initial capital investment, ongoing running costs and maintenance intensity, which maximises potential manufacturing margins without jeopardising output quality. In fact, a cement-grade fuel should now be attainable, even from an incredibly simple processing line.

Armed with an energy- and cost-efficient system such as this, RDF producers are not as exposed to market constraints. They take back an element of control and are able to realise the wealth in waste that they set out to generate.

A hunger for innovation

The more astute machinery manufacturers recognise this hunger for processing technologies that can achieve more. This has driven a significant level of industry innovation, particularly in the past three years, and engineering feats will no doubt continue to evolve in 2018 and beyond.

As output specifications become more varied and a growing number of input materials require treatment for RDF, processing technologies need to demonstrate greater flexibility. From foreign object protection to cutting systems that can tackle particularly tough wastes such as carpets and pulper waste, machinery needs to tackle new challenges on a weekly basis, to maximise investment longevity.

Sometimes, this means looking beyond the initial price tag of the equipment, in favour of calculating whole-life running costs. The industry, as a whole, has not traditionally made investments in this manner, but margin-conscious operators now have no other choice.

There’s more to RDF than money

It is important to note that RDF manufacturers are not just experiencing fiscal pressures – there is also mounting concern surrounding the CO2 emissions and noise pollution of alternative fuel production plants. This is understandable – there is little point such extensive effort going into creating a sustainable energy source if the net environmental impact of the process is ‘in the red’.

Community relations often also require careful management, with ‘nimbyism’ remaining a particularly huge obstacle for many operators to navigate. If the noise output of the plant can be minimised, to the extent that neighbours are not disturbed, planning consent will be far easier to achieve.

Marcus Brew

This is before the topic of safety is considered. Waste is, by its very nature, a notable fire hazard, so in-built fire suppression systems should now be supplied within RDF production machinery, as standard, if operators are to protect their assets and minimise their insurance premiums.

Each of these considerations should be factored in to the technical design of the processing line from start to finish. If one engineering firm can supply all equipment as a turnkey solution, this is often the easiest way to satisfy the multifaceted criteria that the plant must fulfil.

The impact of Brexit

The repercussions of Brexit will be felt in virtually all areas of business, and the waste industry is no exception. Exactly what the true impact will be remains uncertain, and anybody who professes to know of a concrete outlook is naïve. Much depends on ongoing negotiations which have, in many respects, been far from favourable to date. But the crystal ball for waste looks murkier still, given the environmental agenda is, unfortunately, not a priority right now.

It’s a fair assumption that the waste hierarchy will continue to drive decision-making and resource prioritisation in the UK, with the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra quite rightly taking precedent over an energy recovery process such as RDF production.

But the reality is that when it comes to many waste streams in the UK and wider Europe, specialist recycling facilities either still do not exist, or they are perceived as commercially unviable. So, even where closed-loop models could be developed, they are not pursued because of the associated expense.

Plastic straws are a great example – more could be done to recycle them, but costs would then undoubtedly be passed on to the consumer. RDF production therefore represents a convenient alternative – it’s certainly better than plastics ending up in the ocean.

Utilisation of such RDF depends on Brexit trade deals. There are currently very few barriers to trade waste between EU states, but when the UK leaves the Union, how will this look?

The future of RDF trade

If the transfer of RDF is still permitted but under more stringent parameters, this could be a good thing. There are some less scrupulous firms that still manage to get away with shipping less refined materials overseas, and this has to stop. A more refined RDF specification could therefore wipe out rogue traders once and for all.

However, if EU trade becomes overly tied up in red tape, this could create significant supply and demand challenges for more responsible industry players. Nobody wants this.

There has been a significant investment in WtE plants on the Continent, and operators will not wish for their fuel feedstock to dry up. That said, if our European neighbours can no longer accept RDF from the UK, reduced export levels could force greater domestic usage of the product.

The benefits of greater resource security have been well documented and – in readiness for the UK no longer being a member state – maybe we do need to be better at standing on our own two feet as a nation.

The EU will no longer set our waste agenda – we will! And, while neither RDF nor SRF are panaceas, they should form a key part of our resource infrastructure.

Marcus Brew is managing director of UNTHA UK


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