Resource Use

English recycling could be limited to 60 per cent


A new report issued by environmental consultancy Eunomia today (28 November) has warned that the collective recycling rates for English local authorities in 2020 will be limited to 60 per cent as a result of the long term commitments they are making to residual waste treatment.

The fifth issue of Eunomia’s ‘Residual Waste Infrastructure Review’ claims that recycling rates across England will be constrained by the commissioning of new residual waste treatment facilities such as incinerators, gasification plants, and biomass facilities, which require a constant flow of feedstock. The issue could be further exacerbated if local authorities are successful in reducing waste arisings, Eunomia warns.

The finding for England differs considerably to the upper limit recycling rates calculated for Scotland (82 per cent) and Wales (79 per cent) (However, the estimations for these two countries assume that zero tonnes of household waste is sent for energy recovery via the export market).

Eunomia highlights that although Scotland and Wales had previously ‘received criticism for not moving forward sufficiently quickly with new residual treatment capacity’, this might now prove to have been a ‘wise approach’. The firm continues: ‘Had they moved further and faster, they could have faced greater difficulties in meeting their policy objectives in terms of recycling and waste prevention, which are more ambitious than those that exist in England.’

Additional two million tonnes capacity

Image taken from Eunomia's fifth issue of the Residual Waste Infrastructure Review

Earlier this year it was reported that the UK is on track to see a 12 million tonne per annum (tpa) shortfall in the amount of waste needed to feed residual waste treatment facilities. Yet the latest report shows that in the six months since, 1.2 million tpa of further treatment capacity has progressed from being ‘consented’ to ‘operational or under construction’.

Further up the pipeline, an additional 1.3 tpa of treatment capacity has ‘received planning consent’ and 1.9 million tpa of additional capacity has ‘entered the consenting process’.

Most contracts for building new waste treatment infrastructure commit local authorities to a minimum guaranteed tonnage of feedstock. The 60 per cent recycling figure for England assumes that two million tonnes per annum (tpa) of additional residual waste treatment capacity commissioned by local authorities will reach financial close (of the three million tpa for which local authorities have reached ‘preferred bidder’ status).

According to Eunomia, this will be in addition to the 8.3 million tpa contracted capacity for treating local authority collected (LAC) residual waste, either already operational or under construction. Combining these figures with the assumption that LAC waste will grow by 0.5 per cent per annum, Eunomia finds the potential for an increase of only 17.6 per cent in England’s collective recycling rate on the 42.4 per cent achieved in 2012/13.

Overcapacity by 2020/21 could be 20.3 million tonnes

The report concludes: ‘Modelling of our central scenario [of likelihood of facilities gaining planning consent] suggests that the capacity gap between residual waste arisings and available treatment capacity will fall over time, decreasing from the current (based on 2012/13 arisings data) level of 12.9 million tonnes, and moving to a situation of potential overcapacity in the UK in 2017/18 of around 3.0 million tonnes, and rising to an overcapacity of 10.1 million tonnes in 2020/21...

‘As mentioned above, our model does not include potential future capacity, which has not yet entered the planning system, and which may result in earlier overcapacity. This is a situation broadly reflected in our ‘high’ infrastructure scenario in which the onset of overcapacity is in 2016/17, and potentially reaches around 20.3 million tonnes in 2020/21.’

However, Eunomia writes that it is ‘unlikely’ the UK would ever reach such a level of overcapacity, as each time a ‘merchant’ facility begins construction in a given locale, the likelihood of nearby merchant facilities reaching financial close ‘decreases significantly’.

Infrastructure for existing consumption patterns

Adam Baddeley, the report’s lead author said: “It’s worrying that we are already in danger of limiting how far we can go with recycling in England. If we genuinely aspire to develop a circular economy, then we must shift the focus of investment away from residual waste towards options further up the hierarchy.

“The residual waste treatment plants we have built, and are building, will be with us for many years to come. Rather than making production and consumption sustainable, we are putting in place infrastructure that needs existing consumption patterns to continue in order to sustain it.”

Certain waste materials, such as construction and demolition waste, are not suitable for treatment and so are not included within the report.

The ‘Residual Waste Infrastructure Review’ is updated every six months (in May and November). The report includes information on residual waste treatment sites across the UK as well as ‘scenario modelling’ of future residual waste treatment capacity gaps.