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SUEZ warns of residual infrastructure gap bringing ‘potential disaster scenario’

Resource management firm SUEZ has added to the heated debate over residual waste infrastructure capacity by announcing the headline findings from a study finding that the UK faces a residual waste treatment capacity shortfall over the next decade.

The research was due to be included in SUEZ’s upcoming ‘Mind the Gap 2017-2030’ report, set to be unveiled at the RWM conference in September, but was brought forward in light of Eunomia’s claim last week that the UK would reach overcapacity by 2020/21, which would impinge on the UK’s ability to increase recycling rates.

SUEZ warns of residual infrastructure gap bringing ‘potential disaster scenario’
Several major incinerator projects are already in development, including the £135m facility in Keighley
Responding to the Eunomia research, which has also been questioned by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), SUEZ claimed that a capacity shortfall is imminent due to the shortage of energy-from-waste (EfW) incineration plants and the faster than anticipated closure of landfill sites, placing pressure on existing EfW capacity. Due to this lack of capacity, the UK exports some three million tonnes of waste to Europe every year for EfW treatment.

SUEZ predicts that, over the next ten years, the shortfall of residual waste treatment capacity will decrease from 14 million tonnes of treatment capacity, dropping to around eight million tonnes by 2022 and down to around three million tonnes in 2027, equivalent to the capacity of ten EfW plants at a value of £2 billion.

While the shortfall declines over that time, the three-million-tonne figure is significant and assumes an increased recycling rate of 55 per cent, which is quite an increase on the current 45 per cent figure.

SUEZ states that capacity is likely to be further impacted by Brexit in the event of tariffs and European waste policy or border restrictions make waste export politically or financially unviable. Furthermore, even if investment were made in EfW facilities, these usually take five years to build and much additional waste would need to be sent to rapidly vanishing landfill sites, with the South East and London affected the most.

SUEZ is calling on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to step up and address the issue and will make the following recommendations to the government:

  • Admit that there is a capacity gap;
  • Present a clear ambition for UK recycling and waste policy outside of the EU, backed up with hard policy measures;
  • Recognise the contribution EfW makes to the UK’s energy mix and integrate it into spatial plans for energy delivery;
  • Put sustainability targets in place for industrial and commercial waste, and implement a reliable data-collection system to measure performance; and
  • Create and maintain a stable long-term policy framework.

Contrasting views

In complete contrast, Eunomia stated in its report last week that if current trends in residual waste treatment capacity and residual waste arising continue – with UK residual waste treatment capacity increasing from 6.3 million tonnes to 13.5 million tonnes and residual waste suitable for treatment falling from 30 million tonnes per year to 26 million tonnes per year – the UK would reach overcapacity by 2020/21, with excess capacity increasing to 9.5 million tonnes by 2030/31.

The environmental consultancy stated that this would lead to a limit on how far the UK would be able to increase recycling rates.

ESA Executive Director Jacob Hayler branded Eunomia’s report “flawed”, saying it had “been contradicted by report after report from everyone else” and risked allowing the UK to “sleepwalk” into a capacity shortfall. But yesterday (16 August), Eunomia sought to reinforce its stance by releasing further figures backing up its original claims, provoking the intervention by SUEZ.

Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator of the UK Without Incineration Network, backed the Eunomia report, pointing out: “Most reports on residual waste treatment capacity are commissioned by companies with a financial stake in investment in new waste incineration capacity, whereas Eunomia's reports are more independent.”

Defra figures show dip in English recycling
David Palmer-Jones
‘Potential disaster scenario’

Commenting on the early release of SUEZ’s findings, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK David Palmer-Jones, said: “Our projections show that there is a serious long-term shortfall in the UK’s vital waste management infrastructure and a potential disaster scenario now looming in the event of a hard Brexit.

“Back in 2014 SUEZ warned government that the UK has, and will continue to have, a structural waste treatment capacity gap. Brexit will now exacerbate the problem.

“Hard borders, import tariffs and a weakening sterling will make waste exports to Europe, which the UK continues to rely upon, financially unviable. Instead, the waste we currently export in the absence of sufficient domestic energy from waste capacity, will be re-shored into remaining, expensive, UK landfill – at a high cost to British businesses, taxpayers and the environment.

“As a result of non-existent regional planning and the lack of a forward-looking national waste strategy, there are big regional gaps emerging in waste treatment infrastructure so we will see waste being hauled around the country at an increased cost to those living and working in regions without landfill or spare EfW capacity.

“SUEZ is not alone in making these projections. There is unanimous agreement among the recycling and waste industry that a domestic capacity gap exists. This is a chance for the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to listen to the warnings of those at the coalface and encourage his officials to take heed. The private sector cannot continue to take sole responsibility for an issue that should be one of Defra’s top priorities.

“Mr Gove and his colleagues at Defra have a real opportunity to work hand-in-hand with colleagues at BEIS and help us deliver the necessary infrastructure to produce sufficient energy to power 1.2 million households - the equivalent of three Birminghams - or risk of doing nothing and allow the UK to take a giant step backwards by having to revert to landfill as a primary treatment for residual waste.

“We have released these projections prior to the formal launch of the study because there is no time to waste. We urge government to take note of our recommendations.”

Suez’s ‘Mind the Gap 2017-2030’ report will be published in the next few weeks.

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