July 12th, 2013
by Peter Jones
With so much of our environmental legislation having its roots in Europe, it surprises me that there is so little discussion, even in the trade press, of the direction that European waste policy seems to be taking. Perhaps the view is that, what matters are concrete proposals that have been through the Parliament and are backed by the European Council. Until we have them, speeches of Commissioners like Janez Potočnik are just so much hot air and documents like the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe destined for the recycling bin.
One can have some sympathy with that view – the parliamentary and council process certainly can have a substantial impact on the detail of legislation. But academic studies of the European legislative process highlight that it is the Commission that has the most influence on the agenda, and that it has a number of levers to influence member states and MEPs to back its proposals. By ignoring what the Commission is talking about, perhaps in the hope that it might never happen, local authorities and private waste companies surely risk burying their heads in the landfill…
Given the hundreds of millions being invested in waste infrastructure, the occasional glance towards the horizon is surely worthwhile. You don’t have to look very far to get a sense of where the Commission’s thinking is headed. Potočnik gave a key speech to the ‘Zero Waste Europe’ Conference in March. He noted that incineration had been adopted widely by member states as a way to divert waste from landfill, with eight now burning more than a third of municipal waste:
“But energy recovery remains far from the top of the waste hierarchy. That is why we are clear that we must continue to work towards burning only that waste which cannot be re-used or recycled. Incineration can be one element of a waste management strategy, but it is not optimal, particularly in the medium term. Member States seeking to move from the bottom of the waste hierarchy should be careful not to create over-capacity in incineration by investing heavily in such infrastructure without creating the conditions for waste reduction, recycling and composting.”
In order to address this, we should expect to see policy action from the Commission:
“the 7th Environmental Action Plan now under discussion in the Parliament and Council – we propose to phase out landfilling by 2020 and to limit energy recovery to residual waste – that means only those materials that cannot be re-used or recycled.”
One of the major fractions of the waste stream that is currently incinerated in large quantities is plastic. The Commission’s recent Green Paper On a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment reports that just over 20% of plastics used in Europe are recycled, while almost half goes to landfill and 30% to energy recovery. Potočnik’s Zero Waste Europe speech also called for a 100% collection rate for plastic waste, alongside efforts by manufacturers to use plastics more sustainably and to change product design so as to make recycling and reuse easier.
Mind the gap
It’s interesting to look at what the UK’s situation might be if this approach becomes a reality. According to Eunomia’s latest Residual Waste Infrastructure Review, the UK has around 18.2 million tonnes of residual waste treatment capacity either ‘operating’ or ‘under construction’. This compares with some 27.5 million tonnes of residual waste, around 15 million tonnes from households in England and Wales and the remainder from Scotland and from commercial/industrial sources. We therefore have a treatment capacity gap of around 9 million tonnes, material that currently goes to landfill.
Defra composition data on household waste shows that nearly 50% is made up of dry recyclables: paper, plastics, glass, card, metals and textiles. A further 18% is food waste and 14% garden waste. All of this material should reasonably be regarded as recyclable or compostable.
Let’s suppose that the government and devolved administrations successfully achieve what Potočnik has in mind and diverts these materials away from landfill and energy from waste. Looking just at household waste, the implied increase from less than 42% recycling to over 78% would take out 9 million tonnes of residual waste – all of the current “capacity gap” taken care of. With Wales and Scotland already targeting 70% recycling, this goal isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. And this closure of the capacity gap is achieved without assuming any increase in recycling of commercial and industrial waste, or any reduction in arisings due to the UK’s forthcoming waste prevention programme.
The rise in recycling and energy from waste (EfW) is already leading to change in the waste disposal market. For example, there is less demand for landfill, and sites are now closing far faster than new ones are opening. There were 30 closures in 2012, while just 8 opened or re-opened. Current landfill operators should certainly plan to take in waste at an ever decreasing rate, and for it to be increasingly – indeed from 2020, perhaps almost exclusively – incinerator bottom ash.
If the EC’s agenda goes through, the need for EfW capacity can also be expected to decline. Anyone producing a business case for an EfW facility should think carefully about:
- Whether it is safe to rely on estimates of residual waste arisings that assume a static or increasing trend
- How the policy measures that are likely to be needed to achieve the required level of diversion might affect their business plans – for example, how would they react to material-specific incineration bans, or a tax on incineration?
- What the impact of EC policies might be on the demand for waste from other European countries that already have incinerators as an integral part of their heat and energy production.
Meanwhile, those with a long-term commitment to an EfW facility may want to consider the shape that a post-2020 market may take, and how they might respond to it. A market in which there may be increasing competition between facilities for feedstock both within the UK and against continental plant will look very different from today’s.
Defra and local authorities facing significant cuts in their funding would be particularly well advised to think about the implications of the European policy horizon. Building new incinerators now, particularly under PFI terms which leave substantial risk with the public sector in the event that there is less waste to burn than expected, could turn out to be the least resource-efficient approach of all.