The rise of RDF

Written by: Kathryn Warren, Dr Stephen Wise and Dr Adam Read | Published:

The production and export of refuse-derived fuel continues to make headlines, and not always for the right reasons. Kathryn Warren, Dr Stephen Wise and Dr Adam Read, senior technical specialists in Ricardo Energy & Environment’s due diligence team, ask what the potential impacts will be on infrastructure development

A key alternative to landfill disposal is the production of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) for energy generation via combustion, a common output from the plethora of mechanical biological treatment (MBT) led private finance initiative (PFI) deals in the mid-2000s.

However, with the current lack of available energy from waste (EfW) treatment capacity in the UK, RDF producers have taken advantage of spare capacity in the wider European market.

This has seen exports of RDF from the UK grow rapidly from less than 300,000 tonnes in 2011 to over 2.3 million tonnes in 2014, and an increased figure expected for 2015 with every month showing record rises.

Two main factors are driving this overall market trend. First, following the global economic downturn, decreases in waste arisings and an increase in recycling levels in many European countries have left EfW infrastructure with spare capacity which needs to be filled. Second, the relatively high cost of waste disposal in the UK has made export an increasingly attractive option. Even with the additional costs of processing, baling, wrapping and associated logistics, the export of RDF is price-competitive and less expensive than landfilling.

Developing market complexities

But where are the exports from the UK going and what drives them?

The available information shows that in the first quarter of 2014, the majority of exports were destined for the Netherlands, followed by Germany and Sweden. The route to the Netherlands has been the traditional and most straightforward route for RDF exports. However, the export routes have become more complex with, for example, the emergence of the Scandinavian countries as consumers of RDF, driven by the requirement for heat as well as electricity.

A significant proportion of their facilities are combined heat and power (CHP), providing district heating to towns, cities and industry, which cannot afford to reduce their output just because local waste arisings have dropped off.

District heating is considered a lower-cost and more environmentally sustainable alternative compared to other heating options in these countries, but to keep prices low a continual supply of waste is needed.

In Sweden, there has been a reduction in the quantity of waste available due to the successful implementation of municipal and commercial recycling schemes and a general reduction in consumption. Even with a ban on sending combustible waste to landfill, EfW facilities still face a shortfall of feedstock.

As a result, Sweden imported over one million tonnes of RDF from other European countries in 2014. Sweden is currently developing further in-country capacity in order to fulfil the demand of its district heating networks which will also need feeding.

This growth is also being driven by high taxes on fossil fuels, which means the import of RDF is set to continue and grow, at least in the short term.

Additional factors such as local policies and market conditions, choice of broker and their preferences and the quality of the RDF have made the export market more complex.

For example, some German EfW operators receive a higher gate fee for RDF from the UK, resulting in German RDF producers having to pay increased gate fees or export to other countries. RDF is also coming into Germany from the Netherlands, having been ‘pushed out’ by more recent UK imports, with both Germany and the Netherlands competing for the UK-derived RDF.

These factors interweave with wider European market drivers. Norway both imports and exports waste from Sweden depending on the specific location, while Italy exports RDF to Austria, Germany, Hungary and several other European countries despite local over-capacity in these countries due to higher prices for the RDF in Italy.

Meanwhile, France is due to pass legislation soon banning any more mechanical biological treatment plants while setting limits on the amount of waste sent to EfW. It has already introduced an EfW tax, yet surprisingly is encouraging the production of RDF, and any new RDF combustion facilities will be classified as boilers, and not incinerators; a more complicated situation for those operating in and around France.

The majority of RDF exported from the UK is generated from commercial and industrial waste streams, with waste operators investing in RDF processing facilities to capitalise on lower costs rather than landfill.

However, there is an increased interest in RDF production and export by many local authorities. An example of this is the £48 million deal agreed by Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire Councils in West Wales, which will see 30,000 tonnes of household waste yearly turned into RDF and exported to Sweden over 15 years.

And they will not be the last authorities to sign up to such deals given the current financial circumstances.


Quality requirements for RDF are generally set by the end-user.

For example, if the final destination is a dedicated EfW facility, the input quality criteria may be low, with the waste not requiring pre-treatment as the plant will be operated under strict regulations and operate the necessary equipment for removing and cleaning emissions before release to atmosphere.

This enables the plant to accept waste with more varied compositions while still achieving the strict emissions criteria as set out in the EC’s Industrial Emissions Directive.

However, if the RDF is to be used for co-incineration or as part of an industrial process such as cement production, then it is in the best interests of that plant to ensure that certain quality criteria are met to avoid technical problems such as corrosion, negative impacts on product or unwanted emissions to atmosphere.

Indeed, this does not necessarily address the environmental, storage and transportation criteria but provides ‘fit for use’ criteria under which the waste can be accepted.

Based on the 2014 Call for Evidence, Defra has taken the view that any industry-wide RDF definition, should it be developed and introduced, must be relatively simple and clear, requiring some form of processing but without being overly prescriptive.

This overarching approach could provide the basis for a suite of treatment standards such as EN 15359 aimed at specific uses and developed in conjunction with the end-users of the fuel.

So what is the problem?

There is a clear supply and demand for RDF that extends beyond the short term. But production and export has not been without its issues. For example, there have been numerous fires at RDF production and storage facilities in the UK, as well as complaints of odour and flies from local residents and logistics companies and receiving ports. In addition there has been an increase in waste crime associated with RDF production, such as storage of RDF being portrayed as agricultural bales or storage being undertaken illegally in warehouses. Many of these have been high-profile incidents that impact on the reputation of the sector as a whole.

Despite these issues, the export of RDF seems set to remain, although the industry is divided on how long exports are expected to continue for.

Recent reports of long-term outages in some European EfW plants have had some impact, and may change the attractiveness of UK-derived RDF both in the short term and beyond. On the other hand, AEB’s EfW plant in Amsterdam temporarily suspended imports of RDF from the UK earlier this year when the facility was hit by a major fire.

Elsewhere, the demand for RDF can be highly seasonal, for example in Sweden where the majority of RDF is needed to meet winter heat demand. Other unexpected barriers can also emerge; for example, following a ruling by the city’s environment department, the Swedish port of Malmo has recently introduced a ban on the import of baled and wrapped RDF unless it is in closed containers – this is understood to be due to instances of poorly wrapped bales splitting and the resulting litter and odour.

In summary

While the UK is part of a competitive market, RDF will continue to go where the best price can be achieved. It is therefore incumbent on developers and operators in the UK to develop and deliver affordable treatment solutions that help ensure long-term waste and energy/heat solutions. Addressing the concerns about the reliance on export markets and the real lack of available UK capacity presents an opportunity for the development, delivery and operation of new infrastructure and partnerships for the production, management, storage, transportation and ultimate treatment of RDF in the UK and wider afield.

Where RDF has been manufactured to a high quality, we have already seen its use exploited within the cement industry in the UK, Europe, and beyond as a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuel.

The sector must look to identify, embrace and maximise these types of opportunities where RDF can become a more sustainable fuel source to support manufacturing and power generation. For example, the production of quality RDF will enable opportunities to be better exploited for the production of energy through more advanced, efficient and sustainable EfW plants.

This will ultimately lead to an increasing level of complexity in the RDF market as it becomes more commoditised, forming a core part of mainstream waste management operations.

However, to do this the sector must ensure that it recognises that RDF must be produced in a manner which prevents harm to the environment all the way through the supply chain from production to transportation.

While there may be little appetite for more prescriptive standards that would also be difficult to implement, it may be time to ensure that a joined-up approach is used to develop and implement best practice across the RDF supply chain to protect the environment, increase standards and assist in preventing rogue operators from entering the market.

This requires more central government leadership and a joined-up industry approach to help solve a UK issue, in the medium to long term, but that needs action to be taken in the short term from both a waste management and an energy generation perspective. RWW

- To take the EfW debate forward, book a place at the International EfW conference in London on February 24-25 2016. Visit

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