Don’t rubbish the power of waste

The Climate Change Act 2008 established a target for the UK to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. It’s a challenging target and one that requires all sectors, including the waste industry, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing methane from landfill sites is one of the waste sector’s biggest challenges in that regard. And with landfill tax becoming evermore expensive – from April it increases from £72 to £80 per tonne – the industry is seeking different treatment options.

One alternative is to use more of this active waste – the waste that remains after the recycling fraction has been taken out – as a feedstock for energy plants. Refuse-derived fuel (RDF), as it is known, can be used in a variety of treatment plants, including energy from waste (EFW), mechanical biological treatment, anaerobic digestion and increasingly gasification, to generate electricity and heat.

England and Wales currently use about 5-6m tonnes of waste materials for this purpose, but in the UK 19m tonnes is still landfilled, while just 1.5m tonnes (2013) is processed into RDF and exported to Europe where it is used as fuel in Dutch and Scandinavian energy plants.

Refuse-derived fuel can be used in a variety of treatment plants

So why are England and Wales only using a fraction of this valuable low-carbon feedstock, and landfilling and exporting the rest? The problem is one of capacity. Here in the UK there are simply not enough plants to deal with the amount of waste produced.

The reason for this, according to Biffa Waste Services’ chief executive Ian Wakelin, is the RDF market’s immaturity – everything from the lack of EFW infrastructure and planning delays for new plants, to a lack of confidence in the business case and hard-to-access finance for new plants.

“The economic case for both RDF production and energy production is unproven or at least in its infancy in the UK,” he says. “The challenge is then to secure finance for any facility either producing or using RDF.”

Planning delays don’t help, according to Jacob Hayler, an economist at the Environmental Services Association.

“The problem is one of uncertainty. Developers have no idea how long it’s going to take to get plants built and any delay adds tremendously to costs,” he says.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. We are exporting RDF because we don’t have the capacity to use it in this country, but we can’t build a business case for using it here because we’re currently exporting it.”

His solution to unlocking this conundrum is for the government to incentivise the use of heat generated by energy from waste more than it currently does. Energy from waste plants operate at about 20-30 per cent efficiency if they only generate electricity; if they use the heat generated as well, that rises to about 60-70 per cent.

This makes them more economically viable and able to compete with European energy-from-waste plants, which are often subsidised by governments and can thus charge a lower fee than their UK counterparts for taking RDF waste, ensuring a regular feedstock supply.

Within the increasingly competitive waste industry, the rewards, both economically and in terms of emissions reduction, could be substantial if these challenges within the energy-from-waste sector can be overcome.

“There is undoubtedly a strong commercial opportunity for RDF but, as ever in the waste industry, one that’s littered with challenges,” says Biffa’s Mr Wakelin. “It will be interesting to see who wins.”