Resource Use

ESA calls for government support for EfW to promote circular economy

Investment in energy-from-waste (EfW) could boost UK GDP by £3 billion a year while diverting 60 million tonnes of waste from landfill and saving 12 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030, paving the way towards a circular economy, according to a new report by the Environmental Services Association (ESA).

Entitled ‘Energy for the Circular Economy: An overview of Energy from Waste in the UK’, the report calls for government policy interventions to help boost a sector that – with the right government support – could attract £10 billion of private sector capital and deliver 50,000 jobs. Policy certainty is also required in order to be able to reach the EU Circular Economy Package recycling target of 60 per cent by 2030, which the UK will need to reach regardless of Brexit.ESA calls for government support for EfW to promote circular economy

The ESA represents UK waste management companies, with its members making up 97 per cent of the UK’s current EfW capacity. This report reiterates claims made by ESA and ESA members in the summer of 2017 that the UK is heading for a capacity gap in residual waste infrastructure; the organisation stated that residual waste arising is set to exceed the UK’s capacity to deal with it by 3.5-6 million tonnes in 2030, even if waste generation per capita increases. These forecasts were made in response to a report released by Eunomia Research and Consulting in August 2017, which claims in contrast that residual waste infrastructure is actually set to outstrip the levels of available residual waste, sparking concerns that recyclable waste would then be diverted to EfW to fill incinerators.

In response to fears from stakeholders concerning this potential over-capacity, the ESA report states that since most EfW delivery is now privately funded, supply and demand dynamics would prevent over-capacity as residual waste volumes shrink, making investment in new facilities less attractive. The report also seeks to assuage fears relating to expensive and inflexible long-term local authority contracts with EfW plants, saying that new contracts are more likely to last around 7-10 years, according to the preference of local authorities.

The report makes the case that sending residual waste to EfW upholds circular economy values of ‘putting waste to further use and thereby replacing virgin fossil fuels’, reducing CO2 emissions: it is stated that EfW saves 200 kilogrammes of CO2e per tonne of waste diverted from landfill. In 2016, the report claims, ESA’s members diverted 9.6 million tonnes of waste from landfill to EfW, producing five terawatt hours of low-carbon electricity and 730 gigawatt hours of heat for district heating networks and industrial users.

Commenting on the release of the report, Jacob Hayler, ESA’s Executive Director, said: “Government must support us in unlocking domestic infrastructure investment in EfW by creating a coherent, stable policy environment for recycling and resource management, focusing on the material that simply cannot be recycled, that recognises our sector’s positive role in delivering even greater benefits to the economy, whilst supporting and delivering the UK’s recycling ambitions.

“Our sector, in cost-effective partnerships with local authorities, is already successfully generating clean, low-carbon energy from non-recyclable waste at world-class facilities across the UK, and its contribution could be even greater.”

In order to boost the sector, the ESA report makes three recommendations: develop a robust Resources and Waste Strategy and recycling plan; address the residual waste capacity gap; and enable combined heat and power (CHP) plants to help address the capacity gap.

Government policy

The ESA is calling for an ambitious Resources and Waste Strategy that provides a joined-up approach to resource and waste policy. Among the contents of the strategy that the ESA would like to see are a plan for high-quality recycling and secondary materials markets, recognition of EfW as a way of delivering resource efficiency, a revised packaging producer responsibility scheme that works in tandem with a levy on single-use items and possible deposit return schemes for beverage containers. The organisation also wants the government to explore the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) for some products, leveraging green public procurement and introducing eco-design rules to favour recycled materials.

EfW infrastructure

The report calls for the government to carry out a proper evaluation of the forecasts for residual waste arisings and treatment capacity, once it has set its recycling and reduction targets, in order to create a benevolent investment environment for EfW. The government should also send out positive signals to strengthen investor confidence, including providing long-term certainty on the landfill tax and other taxes, with all changes signalled well in advance, and ending the instability in policy direction, with the Department for Business, Enterprise and industrial Strategy (BEIS) working with the regulator to set long-term stable charging regimes for electricity and heat networks.

Enabling CHP

In order to maximise on the heat produced during EfW processes, ESA calls for the formulation and implementation of a heat sector plan, ensuring the building of infrastructure like heat pipes and end-users are located in the right place to benefit from the heat off-take from these processes. The report urges the government to link up heat providers with heat users during the planning phases and adopt more robust sustainability criteria in local plans, make more funding available to the Heat Networks Investment Project (there has already been £320 million set aside), provide a smoother planning application process to allow more EfW projects to come to fruition and enforce the determination period local planning authorities have to abide by to stabilise the planning process.

Read more: How much is enough residual waste infrastructure?

‘We can’t burn our way to a circular economy’

The place of EfW in the circular economy has been brought into question in recent times, with the Chief Scientist for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stating in February that more EfW infrastructure could harm recycling innovation, while the campaign group UK Without Incineration (UKWIN) launched its ‘Bin the Burners’ campaign in November last year, seeking a moratorium on new EfW infrastructure in the UK.

In response to the ESA report, Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator of UKWIN, said: “UKWIN is an enthusiastic advocate for the circular economy, which would see the UK mature into a recycling society where waste is at an absolute minimum and materials and nutrients are preserved for as long as possible through reuse, closed-loop recycling, composting and product redesign.

“Incineration is a relic of the linear economy, and a particularly unwelcome relic given its adverse impacts on climate change and resource productivity. The ESA's report fails to recognise that we can't burn our way to a circular economy and that much of what is currently incinerated is recyclable, with the remainder a focus for redesign and reduction efforts.

“Increased incineration capacity is incompatible with our move towards a more circular economy. Incineration capacity represents an expensive and unnecessary barrier to increased recycling and improved resource productivity that should be our priority for the coming decades. While the ESA focuses on 2030, any new incineration capacity could still be operational beyond 2050, representing a long-term threat to the circular economy.

“The ESA report fails to appropriately account for impacts of the UK's current trajectory towards increased recycling and recyclability. We have more incineration capacity than we anticipate having waste to burn given the recently adopted 65 per cent recycling target and the separate collection requirements for food waste and other materials, and so a top priority for removing barriers to the circular economy is to stop building new incinerators.”

Furthermore, the most recent compositional analyses of the household residual waste stream show that around half of what goes into the residual waste stream is recyclable waste. The merits of sending residual waste to EfW as a green alternative to fossil fuels, and to reduce CO2 emissions, have also been called into question by a recent report from resource consultants Material Economics on the circular economy and climate change, which draws attention to the persisting presence of plastics in the waste stream. The report states: ‘Plastics contain substantial embedded carbon in the material itself, which is released as CO2 when plastics are incinerated… the incineration of fossil-based plastics cannot continue in a low-carbon economy.’

You can read the report, ‘Energy for the Circular Economy: An overview of Energy from Waste in the UK’, in full on the ESA website.

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