Is there enough joined-up thinking in energy from waste?

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Energy recovery, the efficiency of the combustion processes and refuse derived fuel were among the headline topics at the 11th International Energy from Waste Conference held last month in London. Geraldine Faulkner reports.

Julio Garcia Burgues, head of the waste management unit, European Commission - DG environment, got the debate going at the 11th International Energy from Waste Conference last month by asking: Is there a role for waste to energy (WTE) in the circular economy?

Burgues pointed out that with the increase of recycling and reuse, waste generation [in certain member states of the EU] is in decline.

Nonetheless and further to the legislative proposal put forward last year, recycling targets are being increased for municipal waste (70%) and packaging waste (e.g. 90% for paper and 60% for plastic) by 2030.

Landfilling will continue to be phased out, added Burgues with the focus on materials such as paper, plastic, metal, glass and bio-waste being collected separately.

He told the conference that the future circular economy proposal, the publication of which was delayed last year and is now expected to be submitted by the end of 2015, aims to address the 'other half of the circle'.

This, according to Burgues, includes issues such as sustainable production and consumption, design for recyclability and the development of markets for secondary materials. "It will be broader and more ambitious," he stated before adding: "In terms of waste incineration in a circular economy; for us it plays an important role.

"Our main objective is to phase out landfilling and WTE is a sound alternative to the management of non-recyclable materials. In fact, if landfill rates decrease, more waste will become available to WTE."

Burgues went on to say: "I think we should aim for a bolder design of the circular economy. Up until now, the focus has been on recycling. I think WTE should also be considered as an element of the circular economy, pumping back energy into the country."

Looking at 2012 statistics, he told the conference that WTE represented 1.3% of the total EU energy consumption. However, he pointed out there are a number of important challenges facing the sector. These include ending the practice of incinerating unsorted waste and addressing over-capacity.

"From a policy perspective, this is the most important one," emphasised Burgues. "This is a practice that is still prevailing in parts of the EU and if we are to follow a circular economy approach, it is clear that non-recyclable waste should be sent to an incinerator."

He added that it is also important to "push the boundaries of energy efficiency in WTE plants".

"Now that we are moving towards a circular economy, it is important to broaden the circle to encompass not only material recycling but also energy recovery. It is a very useful and positive element of the mix."

The UK perspective

Jacob Hayler, executive director, ESA, took a look at the government's position on the waste sector and reminded the conference of the letter Dan Rogerson (who along with Barry Gardiner, shadow waste minister, both cancelled their appearances at the conference due to "other commitments") had sent to various industry stakeholders in November 2013.

The letter stated that Defra was stepping back from certain areas of waste policy and one of the areas was energy from waste (EfW).

Hayler recalled how the minister had said he saw investment coming from other streams.

"However, it hasn't emerged as he anticipated," stated ESA's executive director.

"In July 2014 when the minister was giving evidence to the EFRA committee, he was at pains to say Defra was in no way stepping back from waste policy and that there was a prevalence of market failures. I don't see the market failures; there is a failure in terms of direction, lack of overview and lack of certainty."

However, where there is no lack of governmental direction is Wales. "They are smashing targets in Wales and achieving rates of 60%," continued Hayler.

"How are they doing that? There are two principal differences. They have additional funding support from the Welsh government and a 20% higher spend than English authorities. Plus, they have introduced statutory recycling targets which don't exist in England."

Looking at the current situation in England, Hayler said: "We have a build programme that is still being carried out; some under PFI funding, and some on an independent private public partnership.

"Will there be any further support? The experience of our members is there is little appetite for projects such as merchant plants. Also the drivers are not in place to prevent the export of refuse derived fuels."

Ending on a positive note, he said: "It's encouraging to see the Commission is remaining true to their word to bring in more ambitious packages including higher recycling targets which will result in more materials for EfW."

David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA UK, looked at whether the circular economy is short-changing EfW. He told the conference: "Most energy observers will acknowledge that the UK is facing an energy crunch.

"We are left with domestically generated renewables such as wind power and other technologies such as tidal power which is very costly and in their infancy.

"The UK is heading for a future increasingly reliant on imports with all the geo-political risks. We know that EfW is the most stable, the lower cost per tonne CO2 avoided and the highest reliability in supply as we can supply 24/7.

"Next year, we can ask the minister if the government can ignore this energy generation," suggested SITA UK's CEO.

The Dutch perspective

Turning to Europe once more, Herman Huisman, senior advisor at the Agency of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, Government of the Netherlands, explained how the country produces 18% of renewable energy while making no bones about the fact that its capital, Amsterdam, is dependent on 25% of imported RDF and waste for its EfW operations.

"When capacity planning was revoked, it became a 'free for all' for our EfW plants to import materials. From 2003 capacity in the Netherlands increased and when the last facilities became operational, we had a crisis and the amount of waste was reduced and we had an over capacity overnight. We were able to import RDF from other countries; this included 1.3m tonnes from the UK, Naples and other places which equates to 20% of our total capacity," continued Huisman.

When asked how the Dutch EfW plants were financed, Huisman said: "There are no subsidies; capital investment was supplied by cooperative municipalities. The plants are based on the needs of the cooperative municipalities which also accept commercial waste from companies who pay.

"There is no distinction between municipal and commercial waste." This prompted the observation that there is a danger of the market not controlling the capacity. "In the Netherlands, more than 50% capacity is private owned," responded Huisman.

Mike Brown from environmental consultant, Eunomia, wondered whether EfW should be part of the UK's energy policy.

"Are EfW plants power stations or waste facilities? It all depends on efficiency. If you are generating energy from less than 30% efficiency, you are less efficient than heat generated by fossil fuels," stated Brown before adding: "There is not enough joined-up thinking."

For a copy of the conference presentations, email

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