Has energy from waste a role to play in the circular economy?

Written by: RWW | Published:

Where does energy from waste fit in when it comes to the circular economy? Will landfill bans fuel investment, or will improvements in product design and recycling infrastructure see the role for EfW diminish? Freelance writer, David Burrows investigates.

The European Commission has just published its communication on the circular economy. In it, there are new targets to recycle 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging waste by 2030. As of 2025, it also proposes bans on landfilling of recyclable waste - plastics, metals, glass, paper, cardboard and biodegradable waste - with the objective to move towards “virtual elimination” of landfilling municipal waste by 2030. There will also be measures aimed at reducing food waste by 30% by 2025. 

“The 2030 targets that we propose are about taking action today to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and exploiting the business and job opportunities it offers,” said environment commissioner Janez Potocnik.

Indeed, there are 180,000 new jobs at stake here, according to the Commission, as new business models, eco-design and industrial symbiosis moves the continent towards the ultimate goal of zero waste. 

Let’s start with where we are, rather than where the Commission would like us to be in a generation’s time. 

An estimated 25 million tonnes of waste is currently landfilled in the UK. Within that there are plentiful supplies of easily recyclable materials, of course, but there is also plenty of stuff that can’t be recycled. In the future, there might be markets for currently non-recyclable products like polystyrene trays or disposable nappies - technology will advance and as the era of eco-design kicks on the proportion of recyclable materials should increase. 

Options for non-recyclables

But until then, there are two options for non-recyclables: bury them or burn them. And, regardless of the waste hierarchy, the latter has a stigma that is proving difficult to shift. 

“We haven’t really got used to the idea of burning rubbish as a fuel, and that’s partly because of our past dependence on landfill,” says Biffa CEO Ian Wakelin. “In other parts of Europe, this [non-recyclable] material is considered a useful and completely acceptable fuel for generating hot water and electricity.”

Right across Europe, existing power stations are being converted to be able to use waste as a fuel instead of coal. Let’s not forget that in the UK around a fifth of power stations are likely to close by 2020. The government is coming under increasing pressure not just to keep energy prices low, but to keep the lights on. EfW won’t plug the gap, but it has a role to play. As Wakelin explains, non-recyclable waste is plentiful, cheap and indigenous. 

“The British public are slowly beginning to accept the prospect of using waste as a fuel, but we clearly still have a long way to go in terms of public perception. 

“Because of a lack of incineration capacity here, we are actually exporting refuse derived fuel and solid recovered fuel to facilities in mainland Europe,” he explains.

Changing landscape and attitudes

WRAP has just published its annual gate fees report, noting “a greater number of local authorities reporting gate fee data for mechanical biological treatment (MBT) or mechanical heat treatment (MHT). 

This, it adds, may indicate greater uptake of MBT/MHT technologies or more facilities coming on-stream. 

In the next five to 10 years, this expansion in EfW infrastructure will continue, not least given the EU Landfill Directive targets that loom at the turn of the decade. 

The Commission’s proposed new targets and landfill bans could also spark an increase in EfW, predicts Kristian Dales, director at resource management company FCC Environment. “If material is banned from landfill then other disposal options will be needed for material that cannot currently be effectively or economically recycled. The waste hierarchy places energy recovery above landfill and, as such, we believe EfW is a better option than burying material until new recycling technologies are developed or the market dynamics significantly change.”   

Peter Jones, Waste2Tricity chairman, agrees. 

“The European ambitions are to be welcomed insofar as they reinforce the view that landfilling of materials is a surrogate for the linear economy perception. 

“There is no reason to believe that EfW will thus diminish, especially when linked to the growing nervousness around the integrity of the network and capacity to keep the lights undimmed next winter,” continues Jones.

That’s in the shorter term. As Europe and its waste policies begin to move up the rungs of the waste hierarchy and a more circular approach to resource use emerges, the role of EfW will, naturally, diminish. 

Bob Couth, SLR Consulting technical director, explains how: “Over the last 20 years the EU has been seeking to apply the waste hierarchy on packaging and packaging waste and on the landfilling of waste and to date it has delivered a significant reduction in the disposal of waste to landfill across Europe. 

“The next rung above ‘disposal’ on the hierarchy is to ‘recover other value’, such as energy. Moving towards a circular economy with resource efficiency targets of 70% for recycling and re-use and 80% for packaging waste recycling and re-use by 2030, will result in a reduction in waste available for combustion-based energy from waste facilities - including traditional incineration and advanced thermal treatment (ATT) such as gasification and pyrolysis,” adds Couth.

The director sees a future role for more decentralised, high efficiency ATT facilities. 

One of the companies rolling out EfW on a smaller scale is Energos, which has £170m of work in progress and more projects in the pipeline, according to MD Nick Dawber. 

“We welcome the increased recycling targets and do not see this as a threat to the future of the business. There will always be an element of residual waste that is not economic to recycle and these new targets will likely reduce the number of large-scale regional facilities.”

As ESA economist Jacob Hayler points out, the Commission has calculated that by 2030, a maximum of around 5% unavoidable landfilling will take place alongside the targeted 70% recycling levels. This leaves 25% of municipal waste which will still need to find a home and that will be provided by EfW. 

George Giles, head of renewable power, oil and gas at Siemens Industry UK, says there will also be more feedstock from some waste streams, notably industry. “I think there will be more of a focus on industrial waste [where currently only 2% is being fed back into EfW]. 

“This waste stream is harder to dispose of but could create a new market to tie in with the energy needs of the industrial customers creating the waste in the first place.”

Reduction in need for EfW?

Adam Read, practice director for waste management at consultants Ricardo-AEA, says that if everything worked perfectly then the need for EfW might be reduced, but that’s not going to happen in the course of a generation. 

He says: “Recovering energy from materials that can’t currently be used for more productive purposes will continue and will be supported by local, national and international policies. Just as we strive to reduce our carbon footprint and preserve our resources by pushing for more circular economies, we also need to embrace the need to reduce fuel risks by generating more energy within the UK. 

“Even with heightened levels of recycling and reuse, there will be significant feedstocks available for well-designed EfW plants that can generate heat, power or electricity that will underpin some of our economic growth plans. Even remanufacturing companies will need heat and energy to operate. I am not too worried at this point for my clients operating EfW technologies and plants around Europe,” adds Read.

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