Resource Use

UK recycling rate for 2030 ‘limited to 66 per cent’

The UK’s recycling rate in 2030 could be limited to 66 per cent if infrastructure construction and waste exports both proceed as expected, waste consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting has warned today (27 November).

The warning comes in Eunomia’s seventh biannual Residual Waste Infrastructure Review, which outlines that planned residual waste treatment facilities would be collectively capable of processing 17.7 million tonnes per annum (tpa) of residual waste, in addition to plants already operating in the UK. If all these planned plants are fully utilised, there would be more incineration capacity than residual waste arisings (‘overcapacity’), according to the report, and would make it unlikely that the country could hit the 70 per cent recycling target being proposed by the European Commission.

Eunomia argues that this would be because authorities would be bound to send high levels of material to these recovery plants (as long-term energy-from-waste contract often specify minimum feedstock), which would be further exacerbated if local authorities are successful in reducing waste arisings.

Report details

overcapacity report

The report focuses entirely on waste that is ‘suitable’ for treatment by residual treatment plant, but excludes construction and demolition and other ‘unsuitable wastes’ that are sometimes included in other estimates of national capacity requirements.

According to Eunomia’s review, the UK currently has around 21.2 million tpa of residual waste treatment capacity either ‘operating’ or ‘under construction’ (not taking into consideration the double-counting effect of pre-treatment capacity), comprising 47 incinerators, 34 pre-treatment facilities (using either mechanical biological treatment of autoclave technologies), 12 biomass facilities, eight cement kilns, and eight gasification plants.

Around 19.2 million tpa of waste treatment capacity has been granted planning consent (or more than 14 million tpa of capacity if excluding biomass and cement kilns), with a further 2.4 million tpa of treatment capacity seeking planning permission. Just under one million tpa (0.7mtpa) is currently in appeal following refusal of planning permission or is subject to judicial review.

Whilst it is unlikely that all of this capacity will come online, it is very likely that some will, further impacting the maximum possible recycling rate. For example, if just 20 per cent of the 14 million tpa capacity is brought online, Eunomia estimates that the highest achievable recycling rate would fall to 63 per cent in 2030.

Indeed, Eunomia argues that if infrastructure construction and waste exports both proceed as expected, the UK’s residual waste treatment capacity will exceed supply in 2017/18, moving to a situation of potential overcapacity in the UK in 2018/19 of around 2.5 million tonnes. It is estimated that this could eventually result in overcapacity of 16.4 million tonnes in 2030/31. (This builds on the previous issue of the report, which estimated that the UK would reach residual waste treatment infrastructure ‘overcapacity’ in the next four years, even if no new facilities reach financial close.)

The report adds that if export of residual waste is stopped altogether, and no further capacity is built other than that which is already in construction, overcapacity will be reached in 2023/24. (In both cases Eunomia assumes a 0.5 per cent per annum increase in the arisings of household and commercial waste, and a one per cent per annum reduction in industrial waste.)

The review warns that if the recycling rate is not to be affected, the UK would need to either take some of its infrastructure offline, or begin importing large amounts of waste to burn at these facilities.

‘No longer seems wise to commit to more incineration’

Adam Baddeley, the report’s lead author, said: “It is important that when investing in major infrastructure we think for the long term. We have already seen a number of northern European countries reach a position where they have more incineration capacity than residual waste. The UK is at risk of joining their ranks.

“Instead of committing further resources to expensive residual waste treatment, we should be looking at how to derive greater value from our waste through recycling. There are clearly investment opportunities in the waste sector, but it no longer seems wise to commit to more incineration that may not be needed for all of its working life.”

Find out more about Eunomia’s seventh biannual Residual Waste Infrastructure Review online.

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