by Peter Jones3 minute read
LetsRecycle published an article recently that left me fuming. It seems to quote approvingly the view that ‘any moves to send material to mainland Europe should be seen as a “short-term recovery fix”, and not a long term solution to diverting waste from landfill’.
But if there’s a ‘short term fix’ here, it is incineration itself. Dom Hogg’s recent blog article explained pretty clearly why energy from waste (EfW) at the wrong scale goes against the waste hierarchy, and my view is that we need to move more material up the waste hierarchy before incinerating it. This aim comes ahead of the “proximity principle” on waste – I don’t care whether the short term solution is UK-based or not. We should be investing in a UK infrastructure that will help us separate, recycle and compost more.
LetsRecycle are candid about the issue – exports, they say, ‘“discourage” the “considerable investment plans” that waste and recycling companies had put in place to increase the UK’s recovery capacity’. I don’t know about the ‘discouraging’ effect, but key UK waste companies have certainly spent a lot of money on UK incinerator developments, and can see the risk to their bottom lines.
I don’t like the word “recovery” in the context of EfW – if the AA said they’d recover your car, you might feel a little misled if it transpired they meant they’d incinerate it – but the really annoying thing is that EfW isn’t really renewable, and certainly isn’t green. As the UK decarbonises its energy generation, EfW plants built this decade will soon appear incredibly dirty – and may not even last their allotted span.
The underlying story here is that the economic downturn has reduced waste arisings, and left the Dutch with incinerator overcapacity. As a result, Dutch gate fees not much above €50 a tonne for EfW disposal are readily available, guaranteed for a year – effectively pricing at marginal cost so that even with cheaper haulage new UK plants will struggle to compete.
And I would argue that we shouldn’t try to. If there is plenty of EfW capacity in Holland, let’s use it for now, and invest the capital in moving material higher up the waste hierarchy. Vertically integrated firms like Viridor and SITA are the best placed to invest in technologies like anaerobic digestion (AD) without the need for contracts with large volume waste producers – helping overcome some of the AD investment issues Eunomia has analysed.
Separation not incineration
We could also invest more in source segregation. Only when different waste streams are mixed up does burning them start to seem like a good idea. Most separated materials will yield a decent income, and so it makes little sense to pay to burn them.
About as little sense, in fact, as investing heavily in incinerators given the prevailing policy direction. If we are successful in preventing, reducing and recycling more waste, these UK incinerators may in the future be searching as hard for feedstock as the Dutch are now. Instead of repeating their mistakes, we should learn from them and invest in infrastructure with a brighter future.