The possibility of a link between energy from waste and low recycling rates was discussed at a committee of MPs yesterday (20 May) with the waste management sector emphasising there was no connection.
The ‘link’ and a range of waste and recycling topics were on the agenda at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee which held an opening evidence session for a new inquiry into the implications of the Resources and Waste Strategy for local authorities.
The committee, which is chaired by Labour’s Clive Betts, heard from a panel of experts from the waste sector after seeing presentations including one from Professor Nicky Gregson of Durham University. She indicated that residual waste contracts can lock local authorities into low recycling rates.
On reaching recycling targets, Professor Gregson said that many local authorities would struggle to achieve current goals. She pointed out that 84 local authorities – roughly a quarter – currently have a recycling rate of less than 35%. “I think it would be challenging for those to reach 50% in a year,” she added.
And Professor Gregson questioned whether this could be due to underperformance from contracts. She said: “Either contracts are working to performance levels, in which case some of them are not very high performance levels, or they’re not performing to performance levels and local authorities are carrying the cap.”
Speaking for the waste management sector, Jacob Hayler, director general of the Environmental Services Association, said that he would disagree that residual waste contacts are a big restraint in restricting local authorities on recycling.
“Energy from waste doesn’t lead to low recycling levels, there are numerous examples of high levels of recycling complemented by energy from waste, such as in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. EfW competes with landfill for non-recyclable waste.”
Mr Hayler suggested that “Funding restraints for councils have been a factor and at the same time local authorities have not been subject to mandatory recycling targets.” Consequently, he said councils had focused attention and spending on other areas of activity.
The ESA chief said that he considered the Resources and Waste Strategy was less ambitious on energy recovery than recycling and argued that even if high recycling rates were achieved, there would still be 20 million tonnes of non-recyclable waste a year with a 7.5m tonnes treatment gap in the UK. He said that of this gap, “Defra expects 6m tonnes to go to landfill and the rest to export to EfW facilities overseas, which we believe should be used in the UK”.
Mr Hayler continued: “We should be trying to recovery energy from that non-recyclable waste and follow the Scandinavian model of two thirds recycling and the one third energy.”
For waste management company Veolia UK, Martin Curtois, director of external affairs, emphasised to the MPs the benefits of using heat from energy from waste plants, saying it “is a growing area where the government is pushing for the bringing of heat networks alongside EfW facilities”.
The MPs were also interested in waste contracts with local authorities and asked whether it is likely that local authorities will need to renegotiate contracts with local authorities under the new Resources and Waste Strategy.
Jeremy Jacobs, technical director at the Renewable Energy Association said that “By default there will have to be some – MBT processes contain up to 40% biological waste and if that material comes out, there will no longer be a need for the biological part because that material won’t be there. There will have to be contract negotiations.
“At the same time if you look at EfW, the food waste removal is going to mean changes in the calorific value, so you are doing the right thing taking it out and from landfill but …. there could potentially be a loss of revenue at that facilities. There may be a lot of unintended consequences.”
Mr Hayler said that with the Strategy changes there might be concerns that there would be an under delivery of material to the plants. However, he reassured the MPs that this should not be a problem. “Considering we have an energy from waste shortfall we should be OK. Contractors are keen to work with partners on contracts and keen to see that where changes are introduced they should work well for both parties.”
He also reasoned that improved environmental performance “can have a direct cost and the benefits are seen elsewhere. Councils will have to put in extra services and we think that is absolutely essential that is properly funded. EPR is going to be focused on packaging which makes up 25% of the waste stream by weight, but not for food waste and garden waste. So, government has to make sure there is a proper funding route.”
Costs for local authorities in implementing new collection models, as proposed in the strategy, were also discussed in the session.
Professor Gregson remarked that costs of £21 million, an estimate from Stockport council, were realistic for implementing one of the proposed collection methods, involving multi-stream collection and six separate containers.
However, Mr Gover added that these costs should be covered by the other measures in the strategy.
Highlighting the cost savings of moving to a multi-steam approach, Mr Gover said: “You would expect that local authorities as they bring their services into the consistent approach would be making the best savings they could from those approaches,” he said.
And, Mr Gover added that local authorities face the “risk” of higher landfill costs if recycling targets aren’t met.