18 January 2019

Is Defra sweeping residual waste under the carpet?

Libby Forrest, policy & parliamentary affairs officer at the Environmental Services Association, looks at what the Resources & Waste Strategy tells us about future energy from waste capacity needs and investment.

It is common to see Whitehall ‘taking out the trash’ just before Summer and Christmas breaks, and dump various documents and announcements to clear desks (or, more cynically, to hide bad news stories they would rather you quickly forget).

Libby Forrest, ESA

This Christmas the government more literally took out the trash by publishing the long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy just days before Parliament arose for recess. But far from a clever tactic to hide stale and disappointing proposals, it was seen by many in the industry as an early Christmas present.

Extended Producer Responsibility, combined with greater consistency of kerbside collections and more food waste recycling, should help give recycling the boost it desperately needs. And many positive interventions on the prevention side should help us waste less in the first place.

But even if these measures deliver the target of 65% municipal recycling by 2035, there is still the 35% of residual waste to think about.

Does the Resources and Waste Strategy adequately plan for this?

Capacity

Defra’s analysis clearly shows that without additional investment England will have a significant shortfall in EfW capacity by 2035.

Even if we meet the ambitions to reduce waste in the first place and recycle 65% of arisings, Defra forecasts that there will still be 20Mt of residual waste to deal with in 2035. The strategy concludes that with 10.5Mt of current EfW capacity and 2Mt of extra capacity coming on stream by 2020, there may be no need for significant additional EfW capacity. However, this assumes that we can continue to send around 3Mt overseas as RDF, and can continue to landfill the rest (around 4.5Mt) whilst remaining within the target of landfilling no more than 10% of MSW arisings.

For a strategy with the aspiration of leading the world in using resources efficiently, this seems unambitious and environmentally-backward.

If we instead diverted that remaining waste from landfill into new EfWs, we would generate almost 2,600GWh of electricity and save 900,000 tonnes of CO₂. That’s the equivalent of powering 650,000 homes and taking almost 200,000 cars off the road a year.

On top of that, we could re-shore the 3Mt of RDF that we currently pay (almost £270m in 2016) to be sent overseas in order to generate electricity which we then buy back.

Based on Defra’s analysis, this would require up to 7.5Mt of additional EfW capacity, even if we meet 65% recycling.

Investment

It is unsurprising off the back of these projections that the Strategy says it continues to welcome further market investment in residual waste treatment infrastructure. But it fails to say any more on the subject. Given that EfW plants require multi-million pounds of finance and four-to-six-year lead-in times, Defra must do more to bolster investor confidence.

Entertaining the idea of an incineration tax is only going to create uncertainty and deter investment. Encouraging more heat off-take is vital in order to increase the efficiency of existing plants, but it does nothing to address the millions of tonnes that will be wasted at landfill without further action.

It is as though Defra is sweeping residual waste under the carpet, hoping that no one will notice just how much there will be left to deal with going forward. If Defra wants to ‘take out the trash’ properly and is serious about making the most out of the nation’s resources, it should show more enthusiasm for the role EfW can play.

2COMMENTS

The opinion is based on the flowed argument that 65% recycling is the objective. On the contrary, it’s the bare minimum. Also, in order to achieve a 65% recycling rate we need a very high separate collection rate eg 80% or higher. This together with waste prevention targets means that there will be very little residual waste. In addition, the residual waste generation rate should decline in line with mandatory separate collection of organics (currently roughly 30% to 50% of residual waste) + plastic measures (single use item banns + targets to make plastic packaging recyclable by 2030). In my opinion, we will need to start think how to scale down the current waste incineration capacities.

Posted by Janek Vahk on January 18, 2019

I agree with Janek that incineration capacities should be scaled down, but it is not necessary to increase separate collection rates (or have them at all).
Fiberight’s process currently under construction in Maine will achieve > 65% recycling from unsegregated municipal waste.

Posted by Peter Speller on January 22, 2019

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