RDF exports fall by more than a third in 2020

Exports of refuse derived fuel (RDF) and solid recovered fuel (SRF) from England fell by nearly a million tonnes in the first 11 months of 2020 when compared to the previous year.

Provisional data published by the Environment Agency shows just 1,612,265 tonnes of RDF and SRF were exported from England between January and November 2020. This is down from the 2,569,149 tonnes exported in the same 11 months in 2019, meaning volumes have fallen by more than 37%.

Just 1,612,265 tonnes of RDF and SRF were exported from England between January and November 2020

This has largely been put down to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on commercial waste services, as well as taxes being introduced in the Netherlands and Sweden.

However, it continues a steady decline in RDF exports from England, having fallen from more than 3 million tonnes in 2018.

Robert Corijn, chair of the RDF Industry Group and marketing manager at Attero B.V., said: “In 2020 there was a significant decrease in waste arisings in both the UK and Europe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with commercial waste particularly heavily affected by national lockdowns and restrictions that were in place across most of the year. This impacted specific RDF supply routes into mainland Europe.

“Millions of tonnes of municipal and commercial waste were still landfilled in the UK, but as exports require commercial contracts and shipment permissions to be in place in advance it is not always easy to switch to alternative supplies. Several new energy from waste (EfW) facilities also became operational and increased the domestic treatment capacity available in England.”

Environment Agency data for December has not yet been published. The Agency warns the current figures are provisional and still subject to change.

Graph compares RDF and SRF exports from England in 2019 and 2020 on a month-by-month basis

Destinations

The Netherlands remains the most popular destination for exports of RDF and SRF, receiving 562,081 tonnes in the first 11 months of 2020. However, this is only just more than half the 1,076,312 tonnes the country received in the first 11 months of 2019.

In January 2020 the Netherlands introduced tax of €31 per tonne on the import of waste for incineration (picture: Shutterstock)

In January 2020 the Netherlands introduced tax of €31 per tonne on the import of waste for incineration (see letsrecycle.com story). Mr Corijn identified the tax as a major factor behind the reduction in exports and urged the Dutch government to overturn the policy.

“We strongly encourage the Dutch government to remove the import tax now that a new carbon tax has been introduced – which applies to EfW facilities – to help avoid more waste being landfilled, and we expect RDF export from the UK to begin to increase with any economic recovery in the UK, although we may be well into 2021 before this happens,” he said.

The only countries to receive more exports of RDF and SRF in 2020 than 2019 were Spain and Latvia, which received 1,043 tonnes and 79,128 tonnes respectively. These totals have risen from 92 and 74,168 tonnes in 2019.

Graph shows destinations for RDF and SRF exports from England in 2019 and 2020

Covid-19

Unsurprisingly, industry insiders also identified the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the more significant drivers behind the reduction in exports. Andrew Gadd is the company manager of environmental consultancy Footprint Services, which carries out its own monthly analyses of the RDF and SRF markets. He told letsrecycle.com: “The Dutch ‘waste import tax’ halved exports to the Netherlands in the early part of 2020. That recovered slightly but was then overtaken by the coronavirus restrictions.

Andrew Gadd says some processors switched off their RDF production lines altogether during the first lockdown in the UK (picture: Shutterstock)

“Lockdown in the UK led to commercial and industrial waste falling by nearly 40% in Q2 as companies were forced to close. With lower volumes entering MRFs, some processors even switched off their RDF production lines altogether, and the reduced output was then sent either to UK energy from waste or to landfill.”

Simon Little is commercial director at waste to fuel specialist Andusia. He told letsrecycle.com: “Here at Andusia, we did feel the effects of the ongoing pandemic, with UK waste producers experiencing a drastic fall in commercial waste of almost 50% at the peak. That said, we were able to preserve our RDF export levels where others didn’t or couldn’t.”

Mr Little remains optimistic about any lasting impact of the pandemic, saying Andusia anticipated increasing its waste exports in 2021. He added: “Andusia believes the impact of Covid-19 on waste export for 2021 will very quickly dissipate. Ultimately RDF export will remain a key component of the overall aim to reduce waste to landfill for 2021 and further.”

Domestic infrastructure

A further explanation suggested by industry insiders is an increase in domestic EfW infrastructure. Mr Gadd said: “Domestic EfW capacity rose by almost 1.5 million tonnes in 2020 as new facilities became operational. Moreover, the fall in waste production caused by lockdown meant that the existing array of UK EfW sites had a greater appetite for top-up feedstock. Not surprisingly therefore, waste which might ordinarily have been earmarked for overseas energy recovery was retained in the UK.”

“Waste which might ordinarily have been earmarked for overseas energy recovery was retained in the UK”

Andrew Gadd, Footprint Services

However, Mr Gadd believes 2020 may prove to be anomalous, with exports from England in 2021 set to return to levels seen in 2019 and other prior years.

“In the latter half of 2020, exported volumes stabilised and even recovered somewhat, and the indications are that 2021 will see shipments increasing again as confidence returns,” he said. “With the coronavirus brought under control and the Brexit trade deal in place, it is quite likely that RDF exports from England will reach around 2 million tonnes in 2021.”

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