Sector and state lack joined-up thinking in the Energy from Waste market

Written by: Ian M. Arbon | Published:
Professor Ian Arbon

The Waste Hierarchy has been with us for about 20 years, but has it delivered what we needed or expected?

In the beginning I was hopeful that it would deliver, but the reality is that it has largely led to a ‘silo’ mentality and a lack of joined-up thinking.

Rather than providing a logical hierarchy for assessing the most suitable way of dealing with various waste streams, it has been misapplied by different factions who, blinkered in their silos, persist in regarding waste as a problem rather than a potentially rich energy resource benefiting both society and the planet.

An improved but largely ignored model, provided a decade ago by the engineering institutions IMechE and ICE, was their ‘Waste as Resource’ strategy.

This proposed that, instead of attempting to meet arbitrary and unrealistic targets at each level, every item of waste material needed to be assessed depending on whether it best suited a material-prioritisation or an energy-prioritisation strategy.

It is obvious that genuine recycling – recovering materials for our future use – is a good thing to do, but that should not make it the only show in town, as it has tended to become with ever-increasing recycling targets, regardless of whether a particular item is actually recyclable or not or even if there is a market for the recycled object.

This situation is exacerbated by lack of clear definition of what recycling actually is or whether material officially classified as recycled truly ends up recycled.

Furthermore, almost every form of recycling requires the input of energy, which would otherwise not be produced or consumed in the UK.

There are so many calls on energy derived from sustainable sources that it would be facile to suppose that all of the different forms of energy required for the various recycling processes could be sustainable.

Adhering to the hierarchy

It has become popular to add Refurbishment to the Reuse tier of the Waste Hierarchy. While superficially a worthwhile addition, is it a viable business prospect in the UK, even if we had the skills-base to achieve it?

A large proportion of our consumer products in the UK are manufactured in the low-labour-cost economies of the Far East; many of these are designed with ‘built-in obsolescence’ and are simply not capable of refurbishment.

If they were, we would have to perform the work using UK labour rates, material and energy costs and could never price-match brand new products from the Far East, even including shipping costs.

Furthermore, the GHG emissions for this work would have to be recognised in the UK, not in some other jurisdiction (and nobody anywhere accounts for the GHG emissions of shipping or aviation). Given the UK consumer’s obsession with ‘cheapness’, it is very difficult to envisage a viable business case for a refurbishment business in the UK.

Conversely, the use of non-recyclable waste as a fuel or feedstock to produce electricity, heat and transport energy, although much maligned by many in the UK, must be seen as an important component of a wholistic approach to both waste and energy strategies.

This is the norm in much more environmentally aware countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany – all of which, by this means, have already achieved their long-term objectives of sending virtually nothing to landfill (landfill really wastes the resource).

Such countries also already have a completely integrated energy strategy (Denmark’s even incorporates a waste strategy); it is difficult to envisage anything similar happening in the UK in the foreseeable future.

Sound business sense

There are no major problems with making a sound business case for building Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities in the UK. There is an adequate supply chain for the fuel (if we stop exporting it to other countries) and an ever-increasing market for the energy produced.

This already exists for the electrical output and there would be for both the heat and transport energy outputs if the government would do what happens in other countries and become enablers of heat networks, for example, rather than expecting the private sector to fund these.

The current concerns about the disposal of the plastic waste previously sent to China is a case in point. Sending material, already classified as ‘recycled’ in the UK, to China in an unrecycled form, without any knowledge of its ultimate use, is morally dubious.

The fact that it needed the Chinese government to stop us shipping our waste problems to them should be a national embarrassment; a more sustainable solution should have been developed years ago.

It has been obvious to some of us for at least 20 years that the proliferation of unrecyclable, non-degradable plastics was an incipient major environmental problem, but neither the government nor the waste industry has taken the matter seriously until recently. As in many other areas of waste strategy, there is a complete lack of joined-up thinking.

Prof Ian M. Arbon is a chartered engineer and environmentalist and has been involved in Energy from Waste internationally for over 40 years.


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