Government should not be cowed by anti-Energy from Waste campaigners

Written by: Libby Forrest | Published:
The UK still sends over 12Mt of household and commercial waste to landfill

The Resources and Waste Strategy, published in December, included much of what the industry had wanted for many years.

This included producer responsibility reform, efforts to increase food waste recycling and tougher action on waste crime, to name some of the key asks.

However, we have heard little about plans for residual waste. The silence so far has been worrying. Not only could the UK be facing a residual waste treatment capacity crisis, but there are clear opportunities for EfW to bring greater benefits to energy security, resource efficiency and climate change mitigation, while boosting jobs and the economy.

The need

The UK still sends over 12Mt of household and commercial waste to landfill. With landfills closing at a faster rate than expected, there is an urgent need to ensure we have the right infrastructure in place to deal with this waste going forward.

Some new capacity is expected to come online, and measures to boost recycling will move some waste up the hierarchy into recycling.

However, it is currently unclear whether such measures will be robust enough to achieve significantly higher recycling, and under any scenario it is apparent that we will continue to produce large volumes of residual waste. A plan for resources and waste must take this into account.

Some landfill replacement will be needed for incombustible waste. But for the vast majority, Energy from Waste (EfW) remains the best available option for putting that waste to further use by generating energy.

Without strong action, there may be up to 6Mt of residual waste without a home by 2030, after additional capacity has come online and assuming we can continue to export RDF.

Even with 65% recycling by 2035, there is a risk of under-capacity of EfW since some plants will likely come offline in that time.

And we would still have the opportunity to reshore around 2.5Mt of RDF a year which could be treated here for the benefit of the UK economy and energy security. Investment is needed if a crisis is to be averted and opportunities are to be realised.

The opportunities

In 2017, UK EfW generated over 6,000GWh of electricity and 865GWh of heat. It produced almost 3Mt of incinerator bottom ash (IBA), almost all of which was used to replace virgin construction aggregate.

Over 185,000t of metals were recovered from the process and recycled. It saved over 2Mt of CO2 equivalents by diverting waste from landfill.And it has the potential to do even more.

Decarbonising the UK’s heat is one of the biggest challenges for the energy sector. Very few plants in the UK have been able to utilise the heat generated from the process due to lack of co-ordination in planning and policy.

With more co-ordination in the planning process, EfWs could be connected up to local heat users, as routinely happens in other countries in Europe.

Almost all IBA is recycled into aggregate, replacing virgin construction materials and the emissions associated with their extraction.

However, recycled IBA is not counted in municipal recycling targets. Since the origin is household waste, it follows that IBA that is fully recycled should also be included in targets in order to recognise its contribution to resource efficiency.

The barriers

There are some significant challenges preventing these opportunities from becoming reality. Many of them are related to a negative perception of EfW among some sections of the public and some policy-makers.

Earlier this year, the Green Party published a report claiming that high EfW capacity causes low recycling rates, despite evidence from across Europe demonstrating that high levels of recycling are compatible with high levels of EfW since the latter displaces landfill rather than recycling.

Anti-incineration campaign groups have also been active in the past year, publishing a handful of reports criticising emissions from EfW. Despite misinterpreting the data, these reports have unfortunately gained traction with Labour’s shadow environment team.

These concerns should not simply be dismissed by industry, and indeed in response to some of the criticisms, the industry has agreed to amend some of its reporting practices to bring an even greater level of clarity and transparency to its operations.

However, anti-EfW campaigning efforts are putting projects at risk on the basis of very spurious information, increasing costs and making a capacity gap all the more likely. The government’s silence on EfW has allowed this situation to persist.

Most worryingly, earlier this year the Treasury announced it was going to consider introducing a tax on EfW in order to incentivise greater recycling. This was based on the misguided notion that EfW is the barrier to recycling, rather than the lack of sustainable end markers and poor quality.

Since this would have significantly increased costs for local authorities without doing anything to support recycling, the industry was relieved when the Treasury announced in the Budget that it had decided against this option under the current circumstances.

The solution

So how can the Government help overcome barriers hindering EfW projects and realise the opportunities?

First, it must clarify its view on the role of EfW, building on a clear strategy for waste prevention and recycling. The Resources and Waste Strategy is arguably more ambitious than many had feared just a year ago.

The UK will not only adopt the Circular Economy Package recycling targets, including 65% municipal recycling by 2035, but aim to go past it. The measures it proposes to reach this target must be scrutinised carefully to ensure they will deliver this outcome. Only then can there be any foresight on the volumes of residual waste we will be dealing with in the future.

The government must then articulate its intentions for EfW. If, as we believe, more EfW capacity will be required, this should involve sending out positive messages on EfW that reassure members of the public about the safety of the plants to people and the environment, and explain how EfW plays a crucial role in the waste hierarchy, delivering sustainable outcomes and value for money.

This clarity will help underpin the much-needed investment in new plants and avoid over- or under-capacity.

Support can also be provided by government for heat offtake at EfWs. This could be through the Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP) or by better joining up the planning system so that EfWs are located next to heater users and vice versa.

On top of this, IBA recycling should be recognised in municipal recycling targets, an opportunity afforded by Brexit, in order to reflect its contribution to the UK’s resource efficiency aims and encourage its continued use.

It is absolutely right that government is making a serious effort to boost recycling. However, it cannot afford for residual waste policy to get lost among the announcements on drinks bottles, plastic-free aisles and coffee stirrers.

While such measures may complement producer responsibility reform and help deliver higher levels of recycling, there will still be waste that is not recyclable, and the government is ignoring it at its own peril.

Libby Forrest is policy and parliamentary affairs officer at the Environmental Services Association.

The Energy from Waste Conference 2019 will return to etc. venues, County Hall on 27-28 February.


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