Resource Use

‘Significant capacity gaps’ in regional waste infrastructure

There are ‘significant capacity gaps’ in waste infrastructure at a regional level in England, a new report commissioned by waste management company Veolia Environnement (Veolia) has found.

The ‘Waste Infrastructure Requirements for England’ report, undertaken by researchers at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, was commissioned by Veolia following a similar report published by the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) in February 2013.

That report looked at whether there was enough waste recovery infrastructure for England’s municipal waste as a whole, and found that while the level of net capacity is ‘uncertain’, the mean surplus of capacity in 2020 is estimated to be 2.4 million tonnes.

However, Veolia questioned the ‘framing of the overall Defra approach’, particularly in regards to ‘the limitations in the forecast model used… and assumptions made’, which it argues could be ‘misleading, particularly when used for the types of decisions for which they provided support’.                       

As such, Veolia commissioned its own report to ‘review the methodology used [by Defra] to estimate capacity needs across the UK’, as it argues that ‘the methodological approach is critical as the potential of the findings to support decision making will depend on the validity of the assumptions and the calculations used’.           

For calculating future infrastructure needs, the study considered:

  • the composition of different waste streams rather than aggregating them;
  • the regional significance of facilities (rather than taking an aggregate of all facilities across the UK); and
  • the technologies necessary to deliver the necessary infrastructure.           

Using this methodology, the report found that Defra’s findings were ‘rather misleading’ and that on the basis that ‘future infrastructure requirements need to be technology specific, appropriate to different waste streams and... that waste cannot generally be transported from one end of the UK to the other without long-term consequences', there exists 'significant capacity gaps' at a regional level.

Indeed, the report argued that Defra’s aggregation of waste composition and treatment capacity nationally, may ‘disguise regional variations and lead to the assumption that one region’s [capacity] surplus can meet another region’s deficit’. This, the report argues, may not be practical due to the cost and practicalities of transporting waste long-distances.

The researchers also argue that municipal waste should not have been aggregated in the Defra report, as different material streams may benefit from different energy-from-waste infrastructure (such as organic waste to anaerobic digestion facilities).

The report concludes that Defra’s decision to use its own findings to the withdrawal of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funding for several waste projects is ‘problematic’, as it did no assess the ‘performance of existing capacity of the viability of planned’ proposed capacity’.

'This is not a question of underestimating or overestimating treatment capacity'

It concludes: 'Ongoing discussion as to whether there will be sufficient waste treatment capacity in the UK in 2020 was the driver for this work, which aimed to evaluate infrastructure needs for resource management in the future. It is therefore worth restating that this is not about taking a position as to who is right or wrong in these discussions, in other words, this is not a question of underestimating or overestimating treatment capacity, but of understanding infrastructure needs in the future. It is important to understand such needs before strategies change any quantification (prediction) that takes place. In that respect the faming of the whole discussion is possibly rather mislead, as it seems that its main questions has focused on whether there will be theoretical overcapacity or undercapacity of residual waste treatment in the future rather than first understanding what the needs are now. Providing infrastructure for resource management is a much more complex issue.’

Richard Kirkman, Veolia’s Technical Director, commented: “[This] report by researchers at Imperial College London and commissioned by Veolia, reveals significant capacity gaps in regional infrastructure to treat valuable materials which arise as wastes and could be reused to create new materials and energy. 

“The report crystallises concerns that instead of being at the forefront of the circular economy, we will have insufficient resources recovery infrastructure in the future and hamper the growth of the green manufacturing sector – a twenty year mistake!

“By taking a regional approach focusing on individual waste streams not en masse, regional treatment facilities close to where they arise and the use of appropriate technologies, the flaws in a national aggregated methodology are revealed. 

“To make the dangerous assumption that we have sufficient waste infrastructure ‘on average’ means we could have too many of the wrong facilities in one place and too few of the right facilities in another. Only local planning can determine actual needs to avoid transporting waste long distances at considerable environmental and economic cost.”

He added that English local authorities will need to “fast track local decisions and starting buildin

Controversy and counter argument

The lack of a centralised database for waste data has thrown up differing accounts of the future energy-from-waste capacity. Waste consultants Eunomia found in July 2013 that there would be a 12 million tonne shortfall of waste to feed EfW plants in the near future, and that England would be limited to around 60 per cent recycling because of local authority commitments to feeding material to EfW facilities.

Read the ‘Waste Infrastructure Requirements for England’ report.