WTE: Waste to Export for Europe or Waste to Energy in the UK?

Last month a House of Commons select committee again highlighted the concern surrounding the export of RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel). This is not surprising given that in the last year the UK exported over two million tonnes of the material – a figure which has gradually increased in the recent past to the extent that it is beginning to look like a trend.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee attributes this increase in no small way to the lack of domestic waste treatment facilities in the UK and Ireland, calling upon DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to provide guidance in establishing an optimal balance between exporting and local treatment – the inference being that a continuing rise in the former could affect the future development of the latter.

This forms part of an emotive and complex subject with debates over RDF quality and the distinction to be drawn between that and SRF (Solid Recovered Fuel) so it is not surprising that the report has provoked comment from interested parties.

Clearly, in terms of the waste hierarchy, exporting RDF is preferable to the waste from which it derives being sent to landfill and whilst it could be described as affordable diversion, the price we pay to dispose of waste should not just be considered in terms of immediate cost or monetary value. Shipping RDF abroad – where it is used to generate energy for our European neighbours – constitutes a missed opportunity for domestic use of a resource that could boost the UK’s energy security and have a more far-reaching beneficial effect on our own economy.

The expediency of a short-term solution should not be detracting from the aim of achieving a longer term goal.

Of course, the need to export RDF would be less of a consideration if there were sufficient and suitable EFW (Energy from Waste) facilities in the UK. Given the right pricing structure these would provide a viable economic alternative and, environmentally, would be a sounder proposition all round.

A report commissioned by CIWM (the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management) in July 2013 recognised that the absence of such facilities combined with rising landfill tax and high gate fees at the relatively few operating facilities were justifiable economic drivers for the UK to export RDF but that on a more strategic level the practice was not necessarily the most desired or straightforward waste management solution.

Commenting on the report, Steve Lee, the CIWM Chief Executive, highlighted the need to ensure that “the potential of residual waste as a domestic energy source is not squandered”. How we utilise our waste should not become a wasted opportunity.

Whilst any landfill diversion is seen as good on a global scale and the European Union continues to announce waste management and energy production targets for the community as a whole, the underlying intention is for its members to achieve individual self-sufficiency when it comes to waste management.

Many successful recycling programmes are driven at a local level with segregation and collection of household waste seen as the norm. Evidence suggests that EfW does not have a detrimental effect on recycling, yet against the background of the UK and Irish requirement for alternative energy production, post-recycling, UK-produced RDF is transported abroad as an alternative fuel for energy recovery instead of being able to be used in the locality from whence it came.

In the UK waste as an energy source is often set slightly aside from other technologies in the renewable camp. On the contrary, several of our European neighbours have recognised its potential by making major investment in thermal treatment and the resulting facilities have been more readily embraced and accepted by local communities where they provide energy for local industry and district heating. This is the proximity principle in action – waste being managed close to the point at which it is generated, thereby helping to minimise its environmental impact.

Although there is currently an undoubted lack of UK capacity to accommodate its domestic RDF production, exporting should only be seen as a short term measure. Unfortunately, establishing the infrastructure to alleviate this situation is proving to be a slow process not helped by policy uncertainty and a difficult funding environment.

In committing to building a plant at Tyseley, Birmingham, to be followed by other plants in the UK, Advanced Plasma Power (APP) intends to provide some much needed capacity to help the country hang on to this valuable resource. The facility will take in residual waste sourced from local waste companies and use it as fuel for its Gasplasma® process to produce renewable energy, with any resulting excess heat being made available to local heat users. The plant will provide local jobs, local power and local heat for local waste.

The plant will demonstrate that APP’s technology is a highly-efficient, cost-effective and a green option for power generation that can help keep the lights on, reduce carbon emissions, keep energy costs low for consumers, improve energy security and divert waste from landfill. Anyone heard of a “pentalemma”?

One Response to “WTE: Waste to Export for Europe or Waste to Energy in the UK?”

  1. Amelia Cole says:

    It would be great if we could use our waste to produce renewable energy. Looking forward to that new plant in Birmingham you are helping to be build with eagerness.

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