Demand for landfill remains strong while the high-profile failure of Air Products’ plants in the UK raises questions about the viability of some energy-from-waste (EfW) technologies.
The industry and local authorities were rocked in April when Air Products pulled the plug on its two plasma gasification sites in Tees Valley and announced its departure from the EfW sector.
Hull County Council, which was set to provide feedstock for the plants, was prepared for the withdrawal having already agreed a contract to export refuse-derived fuel (RDF) with Impetus Waste Management.
Now waste giant Biffa has said Air Products’ decision has prompted interesting debate about the commercial viability of large-scale gasification.
The firm’s head of external affairs Jeff Rhodes told MRW that councils have had to use landfill as a contingency measure when EfW contracts are delayed or failed to materialise.
“Biffa still receives a steady flow of enquiries from local authorities about extensions to current landfill disposal contracts, triggered by problems with affordability of alternatives, delays in mobilisation or even technology or contract failures,” he said.
The Environmental Services Association (ESA) said landfill and RDF exports were the two options when councils were left in the lurch by a failed EfW contract. For councils without good access to ports, RDF could be financially unattractive.
900 Jacob Hayler
“In those situations, I could see they might have to extend their landfill contracts on a short-term basis,” said ESA executive director Jacob Hayler (above).
The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (Larac) expressed a similar view but thought most councils would prefer a treatment solution.
The landfill tax escalator meant the standard rate increased by £8 per tonne each year from 2008 to 2014, but since then the rise has been linked to match inflation.
Larac chief executive Lee Marshall (below) said the current rate generally incentivised councils to find an alternative to landfill but it depended on how many alternatives were on offer. Councils are more likely to be attracted to a non-landfill disposal route if there are sufficient facilities available.
“If you’ve got quite a few facilities, the price will be lower because there is more competition. If you’ve only got one or two, the price may be higher because there’s a lack of competition,” he said.
Marshall said the price variation for RDF exports was even greater because it also depended on the level of competition for materials in the receiving country.
Hayler predicted that landfill gate fees would increase in the next few years because of a combination of landfill sites closing and insufficient EfW capacity.
“The investment conditions are not very strong for developing new EfW capacity where you haven’t got the certainty of a long-term local authority anchor contract,” he said.
“So we are anticipating a bit of a squeeze where landfill capacity is being reduced but replacement treatment capacity is not going to come on-stream quickly enough to replace it. That will create a squeeze for residual waste in the medium term.”
Low energy prices and uncertainty over policy both contributed to the poor EfW investment conditions, he added.
But confidence in EfW facilities generally has not waned, despite some high-profile delays and failures such as Air Products.
Marshall said: “There are plenty of EfW plants operating in the country. It is a proven technology. As with all tendering processes, there will be suitable checks and due diligence that will be taken.”
Hayler maintained that despite more EfWs coming online, landfill will always be necessary: ”There will always be a role for landfill and that will partly be from specialist waste streams, whether that is asbestos, hazardous waste or whatever.
“Landfill is quite flexible and so it is able to respond quickly.”