Energy from waste: The burning issue

2nd October 2020

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Should the UK be ramping up its energy-from-waste capacity? David Burrows investigates

In July, the government published its circular economy package, committing the country to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035. This “paves the way for more recyclable materials to be kept in circulation [...] instead of being burned or buried“.

What do we do with the other 35%? No time to waste, a new report by think tank Policy Connect, suggests that burning it is the best option: “... energy-from-waste has an important role to play in the transition ahead of us: both as the lowest carbon solution for managing residual waste, but also by providing low carbon heat and supporting other sectors' decarbonisation efforts.“

The authors called for a “move towards a Scandinavian style approach to residual waste“, with more incinerators. The findings were backed by 13 cross-party MPs, but the issue is likely to divide opinion. “My heart sank a very long way as I read this report,“ Eunomia chairman Dominic Hogg wrote on LinkedIn. A Greenpeace spokesman told Transform that it doesn't support the report's recommendations and has asked Policy Connect to remove its name from the list of contributors. Others, like the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network, said they had not been able to contribute to an initial consultation.

Major savings?

Deciding what to do with the UK's residual waste – which could amount to 20m-30m tonnes per year by 2035 – is a tough gig. Campaigners, circular economy thinkers, policymakers and the waste industry have been arguing about it for years. Defra has welcomed the Policy Connect report as a “timely contribution“, but Tom Murray, the department's deputy head of resources and waste policy, sounded a warning at the launch webinar when he said: “We should not be making energy-from-waste a corner-piece on which we build the whole picture.“

Energy-from-waste (EfW) sits one step above landfill in the waste hierarchy – but how big is that step in terms of carbon emission savings? Policy Connect hangs its claims on a 2014 Green Investment Bank (GIB) report, which stated that EfW facilities “typically save up to 200kg CO2e per tonne of waste on a lifecycle basis compared to landfill“. This was based on the anticipated performance of GIB's portfolio of three conventional EfW plants.

Research carried out last year by Tolvik Consulting puts the difference between landfill and EfW at just 32kgCO2e per tonne. Work by Zero Waste Europe, a campaign group that has long criticised Europe's reliance on EfW, shows that because of the plastics they're burning, European incinerators have higher greenhouse gas emissions than electricity generated via conventional means such as fossil gas. As the grid is decarbonised, the gap could widen further.

Kimberley Pratt, environmental analyst at Zero Waste Scotland, has been working on figures for burning municipal solid waste in Scotland. The final results will be published in the next few weeks, but Pratt says the data she has “indicates the difference between EfW and landfill is smaller than 200kgCO2e per tonne and is dependent on a number of variable factors, particularly waste composition“.

Alternative options

There is a lot of plastic in residual waste, so the materials have high net-calorific value but release more fossil carbon. “Anything high in carbon needs to be removed before burning,“ says Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez, which operates a number of EfW plants.

Removing plastics from the waste stream “should be prioritised“, says Policy Connect, and the UK government has policies designed to achieve this: deposit return schemes, standardised collection systems and extended producer responsibility. However, even with all those in play, there will still be millions of tonnes of waste to deal with. Incineration isn't the only option.

Policy Connect considered advanced thermal treatments, but found little support for them on a large scale. Advanced material recovery biological treatment (MRBT) is also attracting interest among campaigners, who claim it has a lower carbon footprint than incineration and is much cheaper. The process involves 'pre-treating' mixed waste before landfilling; the remaining recyclables are captured along with 'inert residuals' that produce little to no landfill gas when buried. “Of the variants examined, the greatest environmental benefits occur when waste is treated at an MRBT plant and the stabilised waste is sent to landfill,“ noted government advisors at Wrap in a 2012 report on landfill bans that compared MRBT with incineration.

Closing the capacity gap

The other debate is how much residual waste there will be. In 2017, Suez and Eunomia produced conflicting reports on the UK's residual waste infrastructure. The latter suggested that planned capacity was more than enough – in fact, by 2020-21, if the plants were all working to capacity, it would limit the recycling rate to “no more than 63%“. Suez, on the other hand, insisted there would be a capacity gap for EfW and other non-landfill residual waste treatment facilities of 4.6m tonnes in 2025, and 2.4m tonnes in 2030. “Should you have enough capacity or not enough capacity?“ asked Paul James, chair of the Chartered Institution of Waste Management, at the webinar. “The bigger risk is not having enough.“

The UK also exports residual waste: in 2018, 3.1m tonnes of refuse-derived fuel were sent to feed EfW plants overseas. This is no bad thing: European facilities are efficient, generating electricity and making use of the heat. Of the UK's 60 plants, only 10 are thought to be successfully using the heat. Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association, says this is a “product of our planning system and a lack of strategic coordination for EfW infrastructure“.

The primary challenge is finding the right sites for plants, located near to a potential heat offtake. There are calls for clearer direction from government, and not just on using this wasted heat – carbon capture and storage technology should also be integrated into EfW, according to Policy Connect. “We need to guard against a proliferation of inefficient EfW plants that risk undermining rather than supporting government commitments,“ admitted Defra's Murray.

Recycling conflict

Could more EfW undermine recycling targets? Phil Williams, research analyst at Zero Waste Scotland, says long-term evidence suggests countries with high levels of EfW are not improving their municipal recycling rates in line with EU targets. Germany, in contrast, has already hit 68% recycling, with 31% incinerated (according to Eurostat figures in the Policy Connect report). The UK already has an EfW rate of 37%.

“Historical trends should be a good indicator that 'Scandinavian-style' incineration rates will make the EU 65% target unachievable,“ Williams explains. In response to the 65% recycling rate within the EU's circular economy package, the Nordic Council commissioned a study on waste policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland and concluded that the region will need “a significant shift away from incineration (and in Iceland, landfilling), towards recycling“.

With so many questions, calls in the Policy Connect report for a waste and resources roadmap have been welcomed. An assessment of the waste we generate and how we prevent and treat it is “beyond overdue“, says Libby Peake, head of resource policy at think tank Green Alliance. To date, the projections have a common flaw, she says. “They all take the baseline assumption that waste levels will stay the same or continue to rise, which means we are setting up infrastructure to deal with ever-growing levels of waste.“ Her thinking is that in a genuinely circular economy, the 35% of waste left over should amount to a much smaller pile, meaning less EfW. “Focusing on incineration versus recycling forgets the most important thing: reduction.“

David Burrows is a freelance journalist and researcher.

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