Industry figures have warned that rock-bottom prices for secondary materials could drive local authorities away from recycling non-mandatory materials in favour of energy recovery.
Oxfordshire County Council’s head of waste management Andrew Pau said that authorities were considering alternatives to recycling for each material stream because of ongoing market volatility.
Speaking at an event organised by the independent Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum, Pau said councils were facing “difficult decisions” as refuse-derived fuel (RDF) or energy recovery can be more cost-effective than recycling.
He told MRW: “The market for wood to be recycled now is very low, so it’s cheaper for some authorities to send this material to be processed either directly in a biowaste facility or to be turned into an RDF material and then exported into Europe to be burnt.
“I know some authorities that send 100% of their wood for RDF because it is cheaper. It does depend on local and national market conditions. There are some tough decisions to make.”
Oxfordshire collects around 10,000 tonnes of wood a year, not including garden waste, for recycling.
Pau said it is currently more cost-effective for Oxfordshire to recycle wood compared with sending it for RDF, but he added: “If it was cheaper to send it for RDF, I would probably suggest we do that.”
Phillip Ward, owner of the Falcutt consultancy and former director of local government services at WRAP, said net costs of collecting and sorting recycling had risen due to the fall in prices across a range of materials.
“Local authorities are between a rock and hard place,” he added. “It is not surprising that some of them are starting to ask whether there are cheaper options than recycling.
“Once the answer was unequivocally ‘no’, landfilling and new UK incinerators were significantly more expensive. But with the growth of RDF exports to cheaper European facilities, the answer is no longer clear-cut.”
Veolia recently acquired wood recycler and RDF export company Boomeco as part of an expansion into biomass and RDF.