Defra has published long-awaited guidance on the role of energy from waste (EfW) in the waste management sector.
The guide was originally due to be released by autumn 2011, according to the Government’s waste policy action plan.
The Energy from Waste: a guide to the debate stresses that it is a “starting point for discussions” about environmental, technical and economic issues rather than a report that gives all the answers in what it states is a complex debate.
Key messages highlighted in the guide include:
- Mixed residual waste - the waste left over when all possible recycling has been done - is a partially renewable energy source because energy sources only count as renewable if they have been ‘recently grown’. Residual waste will include some renewable sources, such as wood, but also non-renewable sources such as plastics.
- The historical image of EfW is outdated. New facilities are designed to meet strict emissions standards and provide energy.
- Future aims to drive waste up the waste hierarchy will mean the amount of residual waste will do down. However, “EfW will remain important”, according to the guide. To maintain energy output from EfW in the future, more residual waste will need to be diverted from landfill, and technology that generates more energy on less fuel will be needed.
- EfW is better compared to landfilling in terms of its contribution to climate change - as long as the residual waste includes a high enough proportion of renewables and the EfW plant is efficient at turning waste to energy.
- Within the context of the waste hierarchy, EfW can be classified as ‘recovery’ or ‘disposal’ - but even if it is labelled disposal it may be better for the environment than landfill depending on the mix of the waste and efficiency of the plant.
- The risk of EfW plants reducing recycling can be avoided if plants and processes, as well as contracts, are able to adapt to changes in waste arisings and composition.
- EfW contributes to energy security. More and more plants in the UK are also seeking to use the heat generated, which adds to plant energy efficiency.
- The size and site of the facility will determine which technology - such as incineration and gasification or pyrolysis - is appropriate.
- EfW plants “only contribute a tiny fraction of both local and national particulate and other emissions”, and have to adhere to very tight EU legislation. The Health Protection Agency says impacts on health “if they exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable”.
A Defra spokesperson said: “In tough economic times dealing with waste and recycling properly not only makes environment sense – it makes good business sense too. But when waste can’t be reused or recycled, the Government’s aim is to get the most value from it by turning it in to energy, to power homes and businesses.”
Alex Young, chair of the Renewable Energy Association bioenergy group, said: “Waste-to-energy solutions can provide an important contribution to security of energy supplies, but the UK policy framework has not yet proven sufficient to drive a significant expansion in waste-to-energy infrastructure.
“This means an increasing amount of refuse derived fuel (RDF) is being sent overseas to countries which have fully embraced waste-to-energy. The REA continues to work with Government on dealing with the barriers to deployment of the right technology for the right feedstock in the right location.”