Eunomia study identifies role for carbon capture in waste sector

A new study from Eunomia Research and Consulting has recommended that the resource management sector utilise carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology across Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities.

The report, titled ‘CCUS Development Pathway for the EfW Sector’, suggests that the use of such technologies could underpin the UK’s Net Zero strategy, claiming that it will facilitate the decarbonisation of non-recyclable waste in line with the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) calls for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Incinerator carbon captureThe assessment of CCUS mechanisms was commissioned by recycling and waste management company Viridor. Viridor currently holds investments in seven Energy Recovery Facilities (ERFs); one Resource Recovery Centre (RRC); one Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre (RREC); and one EfW.

At present, there are 48 operational EfW facilities across the country, with an additional 16 under construction. Eunomia states that these are ‘ideally placed’ to underpin the development of industrial CCS clusters. According to the waste management company, 15 facilities (10 operational, five under construction) are within a 30-kilometre radius of a potential CCUS cluster, with a further 14 (12 operational, two under construction) within a 30-kilometre radius of a potentially suitable port, offering offshore storage.

The report states that the costs of implementing CCUS on EfW facilities are estimated to vary between £66 and £110 per tonne of carbon dioxide produced, with the lower limit being attributed to the facilities in closer proximity to CCUS clusters, due to shared infrastructure. The roll-out of this framework is slated to develop in three distinct phases: in the 2020s, EfW within close proximity to CCUS clusters (15 EfW facilities); in the 2030s, EfW with close proximity to port hubs (14 EfW facilities); and in the 2040s, dispersed EfW (35 EfW facilities).

According to Eunomia, in total, the UK’s EfW facilities processed approximately 14 million tonnes of waste in 2020. If, as the report’s analysis states, one tonne of carbon dioxide is emitted per tonne of combusted waste, the use of CCUS technology is necessary to assuage the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated through incineration, the consultancy asserts. The report goes on to claim that CCUS technology has the capacity to capture and ‘permanently store’ 9.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum from EfW facilities by 2040, of which 50 per cent is comprised of non-fossil carbon.

Opposition to EfW and CCUS technology

In spite of these claims, CCUS technology is not without its critics. Yesterday, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) published a report stating that CCUS acts as a distraction in the resource sector’s progress towards a circular economy. It denounces incineration as a method of waste management, asserting that the combustion of material that could otherwise be reused or recycled is at odds with the principles of circularity, fearing that the expansion of carbon capture would only reinforce the practice of burning refuse.

ZWE warns of the potential for CCUS technology to contribute to the lock-in effect of EfW facilities, as such. The paper states that introducing the technology could see the number of incinerators increase, as contractors consider emissions to be offset, with these facilities often being constrained to long-term contracts. This could result in local authorities being committed to operating EfW units at capacity persistently, with the report recording instances of local authorities sending recyclables to incineration, so as to avoid incurring financial penalties from their contractors.

Rather than investing in CCUS technology, ZWE suggests that the route to circularity, and indeed achieving Net Zero goals, lies in waste prevention. It notes that products should be designed to ensure they do not end up in the waste stream in the first place, stressing a renewed focus on reusability and recyclability.

Additional measures beyond CCUS technology

The Eunomia report states that the potential reduction of GHG emissions through implementing CCUS within incinerators could be further supported by the removal of recyclables from the residual waste stream by making use of mixed waste sorting. By combining these processes, as well as incorporating measures to increase recycling and promote waste prevention, Eunomia claims that the waste sector should meet its Net Zero targets.

The paper concludes by presenting the barriers that the deployment of CCUS projects faces. It states that this obstruction is likely to be primarily commercial, rather than technical, with government support being advantageous if the development of technology within the EfW sector wishes to be furthered.

Andrew Coulthurst, Senior Consultant at Eunomia, commented: “The deployment of CCUS has the potential to form a key part of the waste sector’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, and our research demonstrates there is a credible development pathway for CCUS in the EfW sector.

“Many EfW facilities in the UK are ideally located within close proximity of potential CCUS clusters or port hubs that should make the deployment of CCUS on EfW at least as cost-effective as other sectors, which should provide confidence to industry and government that CCUS has a viable role to play in decarbonising the sector over the coming decades.

“To support the decarbonisation of the waste sector, the government must also deliver on its
commitments to increase recycling in order to reduce the amount of recyclable material,

particularly fossil-based plastic, that reaches EfW facilities by introducing target-based EPR, a wide-ranging DRS and improved mixed waste sorting.”

Dr Tim Rotheray, Viridor’s Director of ESG and external affairs, said: “The UK has a major
opportunity to become a world leader in CCUS but to date sources of stable, cost-effective carbon capture technology have been a key barrier. This latest research has revealed the until now unseen scale of opportunity that the UK’s waste sector could bring to CCUS.

“The number of sites processing non-recyclable waste, and the opportunity to capture 5 million tonnes of CO2 and potentially offer the lowest cost capture in the industrial sector, presents real hope for an accelerated rollout of CCUS across the economy, a technology the UK is dependent on to meet its Net Zero commitments.”

Olivia Powis, Head of UK office of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA), said: “CCUS has a significant role to play in decarbonising the UK’s industry on the road to Net Zero by 2050 by removing CO2 on an industrial scale from hard-to-decarbonise sectors. We welcome Eunomia’s report outlining a clear pathway for CCUS deployment in the EfW sector.

“EfW facilities are very well suited to CCUS given the long-term nature of the infrastructure and proximity to CCUS clusters, and what the sector now needs is clear government policy incentives to support investment in this technology. The technology is ready, but investors need confidence over the direction of travel for CCUS. The CCUS industry stands ready to support the waste sector in its decarbonisation efforts and pursuit of Net Zero.”