End of the road or a phoenix from the ashes for EfW in the UK?

Dr Adam Read
by Dr Adam Read, Chief Sustainability and External Affairs Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK
This blog was originally posted by EfW Net.

It’s been a while since my last post where I was focused on decarbonisation and the opportunity for developing new skills and a new workforce for the energy from waste sector. Consultations have come and gone, and the lack of policy clarity has enabled quite a debate to develop around the long-term viability of energy recovery in a more carbon neutral and green economy, so what do I think about all this?

A Moratoria on new build EfW?

In recent weeks we have seen a policy paper from Biffa asking amongst a range of things for Government to implement a ban on the building of any new EfWs in England, citing sufficient capacity and its potential impact on stifling recycling innovation and effort as its rationale. This is very much in line with the policies adopted in recent years in both Wales and Scotland where the devolved governments have actively discouraged new sites, referencing over-capacity and the need to make investment in recycling and the circular economy a priority. The ‘needs analysis’ for Scotland and Wales may well show there is little or no obvious need for new sites to cover expected residual waste arisings for the next 20 years, but needs assessments are never really that simple are they? They make assumptions about the operational life of existing plants and the likely operation of sites that are in planning or commissioning phases (which is not simple even for the experts to predict) and about the success of a range of policy measures, some of which remain somewhat uncertain – EPR, DRS and future higher recycling targets to name but three.

England is a little less certain and the ongoing analysis done by the likes of Tolvik, ESA and others suggests there still is a capacity shortfall to cover off expected site closures, the lag in critical policy implementation, and the reduced focus on commercial waste streams in EPR etc. Even DEFRA’s re-appointed Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, seems to agree that a moratoria is the wrong thing right now.

So whether we need three, four or five new sites, that really depends on size and location more than anything else, and just where they should be must be a key debate for the EfW Conference in 2023, but a moratoria on any new build sounds perhaps a little too simplistic for a sector and economy that will be transitioning over the next 20 years.

If we stop building the plants that we need and provide us with sufficient capacity to cover maintenance shutdowns of existing facilities, in the locations we need them, the next 20 years of service transition could prove very difficult, even if our current political debates stop and the sector is given the green light to get on with delivery (I know, I’m forever the optimist!).

But things are changing

We already have a landfill ban in Scotland, albeit with a slightly delayed deadline, and it seems England will have a ban on organics going to landfill from 2027 (TBC) which will work hand in hand with mandatory collections of food waste being introduced to all homes and many businesses in England over the same time frame. This will undoubtedly remove some of the traditional feedstock going to EfWs in the black bag waste stream right now, but will also see significant tonnage being diverted from landfill to our sites (if they have the capacity) – so some change perhaps?

If we are honest, as operators, we aren’t sad about losing some of this tonnage, because burning wet organic material does little for our carbon footprint or our energy efficiency, so bring it on. However, as many local authorities look to implement food waste collections, we are pretty certain they will not all switch at the same time, so we could see a five or seven year transition period when target materials can’t go to landfill but aren’t being captured at the kerbside, so the role of EfW in this future mix of service provision is key. And there’s the upside for food (and green) waste processing opportunities and investment that is just around the corner – perhaps we can discuss this at the conference in 2023 too?

In parallel, the waste sector has committed in its Net Zero Strategy to work with its customers to reduce and remove plastics from its EfW feedstocks, which again is good news for the environment and will free up capacity for some of the other materials that won’t be going to landfill once the ban is in place and as landfill capacity continues to fall. But can we make EfW ‘greener’ in the eyes of the campaigners who want it stopped now?

The answer must be yes. We have progress being made on carbon capture and storage projects, along with funding from BEIS to look forward to, which should reduce the carbon footprint of these sites significantly or even make them carbon positive in the future. We have ongoing political discussions about enabling heat offtake and how to make the heat network more effective, driving up thermal efficiency and making sites better ‘neighbours’ in some cases. And of course if we reduce the plastics in the feedstock at these sites the carbon equation will look more favourable, so even in a sector like ours where for years there has been a lot of negative press about EfW technologies and sites there is still plenty of life left in the old dog.

Positive outlook?

Some of us have been talking about EfW as a ‘transition technology’ for many years, and perhaps this is the middle ground that we need to find, a future for our sites and technologies but one that isn’t framed as polluting and carbon intensive. It’s a technology that can cope with mixed and changing feedstocks, can provide outputs that are needed in the market (energy, heat and in the future molecules), and is bankable compared to many of the new solutions being proposed. So let’s not cast it aside just yet.

With landfill still under fire and with sites closing we need a safe and reliable end disposal point and that has to be EfW, at least for the next 20 years as we continue to upgrade and revolutionise the technologies, alter the feedstocks and suit the demands of society as it goes circular and greener.

I’m not saying that EfW is here to stay forever, and politically its value will shrink over the transition period already discussed, but let’s not demonise it either. It has a role to play in a modern sustainable resource management system, it provides value, jobs, community benefits and hygienic disposal for materials that are failing to be recycled and will continue to do so until all packaging is designed to be recycled, is segregated correctly by people and businesses, and isn’t contaminated or litter. That time is not today, but we can see it coming as part of the 2040 NetZero transition, and as professional waste and resource managers we must welcome it.