Resource Use

Exports of RDF reach 215,000 tonnes

The Environment Agency (EA) has identified that exports of refuse derived fuel (RDF) went from zero in June 2010 to 215,000 tonnes in January 2015, with the ‘sudden emergence’ of the market partly due to the rising cost of landfill disposal in England.

Although it is illegal to export waste for disposal, it is legal for businesses to export ‘material that is produced from waste, has undergone some sort of treatment process, and is intended for use as a fuel’, otherwise known as RDF.

In ‘Reasons for trends in English refuse derived fuel exports since 2010’, released today (6 July), the EA seeks to identify why the RDF export market has developed in the way it has, in the hopes of providing ‘an outline of where it might go in the future… which would inform policy development and the allocation of regulatory resources’.

Five companies account for half of all English RDF exports

Exports of RDF reach 215,000 tonnes
Graph from ‘Reasons for trends in English refuse derived fuel exports since 2010’

By taking evidence from industry contacts and analysing quantitative data of the English RDF export market (which makes up around 85 per cent of the total UK RDF export market), the EA found that around 40 companies in England were exporting RDF in January 2015, with waste management companies SITA UK Ltd (now operating under the brand SUEZ Environnement), FCC Recycling, New Earth Solutions, Seneca Environmental Solutions, and Shanks Waste Management accounting for 50 per cent of all RDF exports between July 2010 and January 2015.

It found that there has been a ‘sudden emergence’ of the market due to a range of reasons. These include:

  • a ‘regulatory decision’, based on the UK Plan for Shipments of Waste, which allowed businesses to export RDF;
  • rising landfill tax and increasing landfill diversion targets in England making waste disposal more expensive than exporting RDF (with some countries specifically setting gate fees to undercut UK landfill disposal routes); and
  • greater demand for energy-from-waste (EfW) feedstock than currently exists in England (especially in countries heavily-reliant on EfW, for example, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany).

In terms of the economic incentive to export RDF, the EA estimated that in 2014 to 2015, it cost between £94 and £134 to send a tonne of waste to landfill in England, whereas the cost of exporting it as RDF to an EfW facility in the Netherlands, Sweden, or Germany cost between £58 and £139, making it more attractive.  

‘Not possible to agree what the future of this market might be’

However, the EA notes that there has been a ‘apparent levelling off of the market’ due to some RDF export routes ‘becoming as expensive as English landfills’. This has been attributed to a range of factors, including saturation of some markets.

As such, it states that it is ‘not possible to agree what the future of this market might be’.

The report reads: ‘The evidence presented in this report suggests that, provided there is more English waste than there is English EfW capacity, landfill will remain the disposal method of last resort and therefore the fundamentals of the market will not change significantly. If English waste generation falls to the point where there is enough EfW capacity to handle it all, or conversely if the amount of English EfW capacity rises to achieve the same result, then the functioning of the market will change.’

The EA concludes: ‘There are so many factors that it is not possible to agree what the future of this market might be… better data should be sought. This exercise should focus on English and key continental European country gate fees, sea transport costs and sea transport futures.’

Read the ‘Reasons for trends in English refuse derived fuel exports since 2010’ report.

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