EfW the answer to national waste problem, says report

A report released yesterday (16 July) by UK think tank Policy Connect argues that the UK’s energy-from-waste (EfW) plants are the answer to the country’s national waste crisis.

Supported by 13 cross-party MPs, the report calls for a more “Scandinavian” approach linking energy and waste policy. It finds that widespread deployment of EfW plants across UK regions is necessary to deliver a circular and sustainable waste policy that could power UK homes and avoid the expensive practice of shipping waste abroad or sending it to landfill.

Incinerator smokeThe report, entitled ‘No time to waste: Resources, recovery and the road to net-zero’, claims that EfW technology is the ‘safest, cheapest and most environmentally responsible solution to the UK’s residual waste problem’. The report urges the government to continue to shift residual waste policy away from landfill and export and towards domestic EfW heat networks and carbon capture. MPs claim that stronger policy signals from the government ‘could unlock billions of pounds of private investment’ and see EfW become the UK’s primary solution for non-recyclable waste, while generating low-carbon heat for half a million homes.

Building on Policy Connect’s plastic policy roadmap published last year, the report calls for the UK to halt plastic exports and boost UK recycling infrastructure, in order to avoid recyclable plastic being diverted towards EfW. In the aftermath of Covid-19 the report finds that ‘Energy-from-Waste plants can help cut emissions from local homes, energy intensive industries, aviation and transport’, and sees this as compatible with the UK’s 2035 recycling targets.

In a foreword to the report, 13 cross-party politicians say: ‘The need for safe and effective removal of our waste has never been more important. As the UK embarks on our Build Back Better movement, we must no longer simply bury or export the problem. Instead, we should, as other European economies do, treat residual waste as a valuable resource to produce lower carbon heat and energy, alongside a focus on achieving our important recycling targets and investing in innovative recycling technology.’

‘EfW is not the perfect long-term solution for residual waste. But accompanied by a drive to increase heat use and to decarbonise EfW further, it is the best available technology, and is an essential part of the net-zero transition ahead of us.’

Welcoming the report, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Now more than ever, it is crucial we move from a ‘throw away’ society to one that always looks at waste as a valuable resource. We want to be a world leader in tackling this challenge, which is why we’re transforming our waste system to ensure products are built to last and easier to recycle or repair. We will consider the recommendations in this report as we drive forward our ambitious waste reforms and meet our net zero emissions goals.”

Jonathan Shaw, Chief Executive of Policy Connect, added: “To hit our Net Zero emissions targets we cannot afford to let the rubbish in our wheelie bins go to waste. A more ‘Scandinavian’ approach is needed to remove waste plastics and roll-out the next generation of EfW plants, heat recovery networks for factories, homes and horticulture with carbon capture technologies. This will save local authorities and taxpayers’ money, cut emissions and boost UK jobs and economic recovery, post-Covid-19. Harnessing the low-carbon energy potential of ‘non-recyclable’ waste benefits consumers, the planet and the economy.”

Oliver Feaver, Policy Manager, Policy Connect, and author of the report said: “Non-recyclable waste will be with us long into the future. EfW is the cheapest, safest and lowest carbon solution to this problem and could provide green heat, equivalent to the needs of half a million homes, or a city the size of Birmingham. This next generation of EfW plants will likely be among the last, so without clearer policy signals as we reboot our economy, the UK will waste this valuable opportunity to build back better.”

‘A more “Scandinavian” approach’

According to the report, a more “Scandinavian” approach to UK domestic waste management policy could see the UK on track for its 2030 recycling targets, with ‘green heat’ for half a million UK homes, and billions of pounds of investment in infrastructure and green jobs. By 2050, the UK could also see a significant reduction in emissions, the report claims.

Currently, 67 per cent of the UK’s plastic packaging is exported overseas as refuse derived fuel (RDF) as a result of government subsidies. Since 2010, the UK has exported 4.15 million metric tonnes of disposed post-consumer plastic, however, China’s recent bans on plastic waste exports pose a threat to this practice.

The report urges UK policy to prioritise the removal of plastic from the waste stream in order to boost recycling and reprocessing. Only 45 per cent of household waste is currently being recycled, according to the latest government figures.

According to the report, less than a quarter of the current 48 EfW plants in the UK are connected to an external off-take to use the heat generated. Three tonnes of waste generates the same energy value as a tonne of fossil fuel, offering an effective source of power for the grid. The resulting ash (10 per cent) of the original waste is sent for reprocessing where any metals are recovered and substrate can be used for road surfacing and aggregates for construction.

‘Green’ energy?

Concerns over the ability of the UK to treat all its residual waste have risen in recent years. A SUEZ recycling and recovery UK report in 2017 claimed that, despite a predicted fall in the UK’s capacity gap as recycling and energy recovery rates increase, the nation would still be facing a capacity gap of 2.4 million tonnes by 2030 – the equivalent of 10 EfW plants at a value of £2 billion.

However, In 2018, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) warned against further investment in EfW capacity in the UK, stating that this would ‘extinguish the value’ of materials and limit innovation in recycling infrastructure, while a 2017 report from Eunomia saw the environmental consultancy claim that a reliance on EfW could see a limit placed on recycling figures, fearing that recyclable waste could be diverted into residual waste streams to make up for shortfalls in residual waste. These findings were criticised by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), who argued that the Eunomia’s recommendations could see the UK government ‘sleep-walking into a crisis’, instead welcoming calls to increase EfW capacity.

Furthermore, anti-incineration campaign group UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) has been vocal in its criticism of future investment in EfW in the UK, warning that harmful emissions from incinerators are going unreported, and pose a significant risk to public health. Research conducted by the group also claimed that incinerators release vast amounts of CO2, finding that plants released 11 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017.

Meanwhile, a 2019 study carried out by Imperial College London found “no conclusive links” between incinerators and negative health impacts in new-born children, though it stated that further research is ‘warranted’.

Earlier this year, MPs from across the House of Commons called for an ‘incineration tax’ and opposed future investment in EfW plants, in light of stagnating recycling rates and concerns of public health.

Whilst UKWIN has labelled EfW as a ‘relic of the linear economy’, the ESA has expressed continued support for the investment, claiming that diverting residual waste towards EfW would uphold ‘circular economy values’.

Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the ESA, which represents the UK’s waste management sector and many of whose members have invested in EfW, said: “As Policy Connect’s timely report concludes, energy recovery has an important role to play in the transition to a stronger, more sustainable, low-carbon economy and can help Britain Build Back Better in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

"The report shows that EfW infrastructure provides the most cost-effective and lowest carbon solution for household and municipal waste as the UK transitions to decarbonised heat and power by 2050. Our sector will continue in our efforts to drive up recycling and to remove as much plastic from the residual waste stream as possible, but we must stop sending non-recyclable waste abroad and instead make better domestic use of this source of heat and power domestically.

"ESA members have already invested billions to build Britain’s current EfW infrastructure, but there is still a capacity-gap, which is why millions of tonnes of rubbish is still sent to landfill or exported as refuse derived fuel. To support the industry in making this further investment, we agree with the report’s recommendations that government should publish a clear policy position outlining the future role of EfW as the best available treatment technology for residual waste, as well as a clear roadmap showing a pragmatic and carefully-managed transition to a net-zero circular economy.

"Making the most of EfW heat is also critical to maximising the benefit of this technology and we support Policy Connect’s recommendations for the government to join the sector in our efforts to remove the current barriers to successful heat offtake."

You can read Policy Connect’s report, “No time to waste: Resources, recovery and the road to net-zero’, on the Policy Connect website.

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