Challenges lie ahead for the waste wood sector

Written by: Andy Hill | Published:
There was a fall of approximately 300,000 tonnes in waste wood exports in 2017

Over the past five years, the waste wood sector has seen unprecedented growth as well as far-reaching changes to legislation, guidance and processes, altering the shape of our industry as we know it.

Over the next 12 months we are expecting even more change with several further large-scale Industrial Emissions Directive/Waste Incineration Directive-compliant biomass plants due to enter commercial operations, demanding in excess of an additional one million tonnes of waste wood per year.

Given we estimate that the UK produces approximately five million tonnes of raw waste wood a year, these new plants will be a game-changer, generating sufficient industrial and commercial demand to ensure the UK no longer has to landfill waste wood – a real success.

Considering our 2017 review of waste wood usage, the effect of the increasing biomass market is clearly evident: its demand rose to 1.7 million tonnes in 2017, compared to 1.4 million tonnes during 2016. In the main this increase was offset by a fall of approximately 300,000 tonnes in waste wood exports in 2017 from 600,000 tonnes in 2016.

There was also a year-on-year growth of 38% within the panel board sector for Wood Recyclers’ Association (WRA) members. Total UK panel board usage in 2017 rose to 924,000 tonnes.

Further recycling routes such as landscaping, animal bedding and the equestrian surfaces markets produced a total volume of an additional 1.7 million tonnes during 2017, which is fantastic for our economy and environment.

Post-Brexit worries

For the WRA, one of the biggest threats of a no-deal or bad-deal Brexit is to the UK’s ability to import.

We have already seen a decrease in waste wood being exported and our predictions clearly show we are likely to become a net importer before very long if we are to feed the new biomass plants with the feedstock they will require.

So the Brexit deal is as crucial for the waste wood and biomass industries as it is for any other. How we will be able to work with our European cousins, how the customs systems will work and how easy it will be to strike trade deals in the future with Europe remains to be seen.

Let’s just hope when the powers that be are signing on the dotted line they have considered that every consequence of their negotiations will have an impact somewhere on UK industry, including our very own waste wood sector.

Looking at developments closer to home, we have had some real success influencing policies and guidance for the sector by working closely with colleagues at the Environment Agency (EA).

We are now very close to publishing our waste wood FPP guidance, which will enable wood recyclers to stand a better chance of gaining Fire Prevention Plans at first attempt.

We believe the EA is approving more FPPs for wood recyclers and better understands the challenges our sector is facing in trying to meet the demands of an industry striving to help the UK achieve its renewable energy and landfill reduction targets.

Hazardous wood

We have also been working closely with the EA and other industry trade bodies to identify the real scale of hazardous wood in the UK waste wood stream.

This is an ongoing project on which we have recently been complimented by the EA, and we are pleased to say that as a result of our hard work so far, the EA is looking to extend the RPS (regulatory position statement) it issued at the end of last year. This will allow the continuation of low-grade waste wood to be sent to panel board and Chapter IV IED/WID-compliant biomass boilers while the project is completed.

One interesting fact that has come out of this project is the explanation as to why Germany appears to have as much as 15% hazardous wood within its waste wood stream while in the UK we believed it to be much lower.

It is now agreed by all parties that this is because Germany has an outlet for hazardous wood – it can be legally burnt in the many hundreds of large-scale boilers the country houses. Therefore there is no need or incentive for reprocessors to separate it from thermal waste streams, skewing the figures as to what proportion of a load actually is hazardous.

In the UK, what is becoming crystal clear is that the percentage of hazardous wood in our waste stream is currently less than 0.1%, and although this may increase slightly as a result of the work we are currently doing, it will remain far below the levels seen in Germany. We will continue to work with colleagues to complete this project and look forward to sharing the result in due course.

Another issue the WRA has been responding to over the summer is Defra’s clean air strategy consultation, which raised other and new issues for our sector, namely the burning of wood in the domestic setting.

The WRA submitted a response outlining a number of concerns, including that confusion is being caused by some reports that link the burning of wood domestically versus commercially compliant biomass.

Headlines stating that burning wood causes pollutants damaging to health are not only unhelpful but quite clearly also inaccurate.

For the WRA the message is clear: Chapter IV IED/WID-compliant biomass boilers are licensed to burn post-consumer waste wood that has been properly processed to an exact specification. These boilers are regulated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They possess flue gas abatement technology which ensures their emissions are within strict tolerances, thus protecting the air we breathe.

On the opposite side of the coin are the domestic boilers and log burners, and for the WRA we maintain our position that only clean, untreated pre-consumer waste wood or suitably dried virgin wood should be burnt in these.

In addition, we would advise that wood should only be burnt in modern burners or boilers and that flues are cleaned out regularly. These simple steps should surely allow those who want to enjoy a domestic wood burner to do so.

Understanding the differences may seem simple to those of us working in the industry but to the public at large it isn’t, and there is a real danger that the burning of wood will become synonymous with air pollutants if we don’t publicly clarify the difference now.

Acting responsibly, wood can be burnt safely domestically and commercially. Furthermore, the large-scale compliant biomass plants will help to power approximately 800,000 UK households, once those currently in their build and commissioning phases come on line in the next six to 12 months, bringing me back to my point on Brexit.

Andy Hill is chairman of the Wood Recycler's Association


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