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Is the waste industry bombarded with too much information?

Change is one of the hardest things to do. The perception is always that change involves more risk than not changing. MRW is changing with new formats and content and our industry is changing with new treatment and management techniques. One of the key components of successful change is good data and market understanding.

In the waste industry we are bombarded with information, much of which is based on poor or old raw data sets and samples. Often we are being asked to make judgements and draw conclusions from very small sample sets.

Take for instance the recent debate on whether too much residual energy from waste treatment capacity is programmed to come on line and suggestions that we may go to a position of overcapacity in the foreseeable future. How quickly we have spun from a worry that we were running out of landfill space and had no alternative, through to having too much residual treatment capacity.

EA waste data flow for 2008 indicates that in excess of 44 million tonnes of waste collected by local authorities went to landfill. This excludes C&I waste not collected by local authorities. The EA considered that in excess of 56.7M tonnes of waste was landfilled in 2008. More recent HMRC data suggests that around 26.9Mt of active waste in the year is likely to have gone to landfill.

“How quickly we have spun from a worry that we were running out of landfill space and had no alternative”

The HMRC figures include the period when there was an impact from the recession on both C&I waste arisings and input to landfill of active waste. The figures indicated that a potential reduction in excess of 2.4Mt in the year was on the cards. One wonders if this is temporary or a permanent trend. We also know that recycling and re-use will continue to reduce the volume of residual waste arising.

However, when we log new or proposed facilities coming on board we need to remember that many produce residual waste as part of their process, sometimes comprising a large percentage of the input.

Many processes like MHT and MBT will generate significant proportions of waste conditioned to go to energy recovery solutions.  If we are not careful in how we treat the data, the 5.5Mtpa of capacity currently being tracked might be double counted against residual waste to energy facilities being proposed to take their output. In one study earlier this year, we estimated around 3Mtpa of capacity had been double counted in this way.

Finally, although Government is rightly targeting reductions in waste per head of population, we cannot ignore the projected increase in population over the next 20 years and its potential tonnage and mix impact on waste arising.

In the next five years, based on the projects we are tracking, we can see perhaps another 6.5Mtpa of residual EfW capacity coming into the market over the 6Mtpa likely to be operational early next year. This leaves perhaps 20Mtpa of capacity in known projects but which have significantly less certainty of coming into operation.  Assuming that the current rate of delivery (1.3Mtpa) continues, by 2020 around 19Mtpa of capacity would be expected to be engaged and operational.

However some 3.7Mtpa of capacity is at increased risk because it is completing against other new projects in the same local markets. Depending on your view of the likely planning and financing success, we could expect a capacity gap of between 4 and 9Mtpa to remain in 2020.

If that is the case, the industry will have achieved much and changed beyond all recognition. But do we plan to fill this capacity gap, assume that recession volumes will not return, that recycling will continue to grow at the same rate as recent years or that overseas capacity may influence our market?

All we do know is that we need better data and analysis to help manage the risk of change.

Stuart Hayward-Higham is technical director at Sita UK

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