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Plastics turns heat on

This May, after the referendum and local elections, the Government will publish its long-awaited Waste Review. A hint of things to come on energy from waste (EfW) is in the Carbon Plan, published on 8 March. It states that “for waste that cannot be prevented, re-used or recycled, EfW technologies can provide a valuable resource through heat, electricity and transport fuels”.

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) and its colleagues in the Packaging and Films Association and Plastics Europe formed the ‘Plastics 2020 Challenge’ in 2009 to work with stakeholders to prevent used plastics being landfilled by 2020. The group believes that waste plastic is a valuable resource and first and foremost should be recycled.

Recycling of plastics is rising fast in the UK: 40% of all plastic bottles are recycled despite only 78% of local authorities collecting them; 72% of HDPE milk bottles were recycled in 2009; 34,000 tonnes of construction-use PVC was recycled; and 33% of expanded polystyrene packaging recycled.

It is pleasing to see that many of the BPF’s recycler members have significant capital investment plans for 2011, indicating further rapid progress in recycling plastics. What is holding back increased collection and recycling is a quality problem and there being no standardisation of what and how councils should deal with waste plastics. The two are linked.

The UK has been the biggest landfiller of any EU country by far, but in 2009/10 landfilling of municipal waste dropped below 50% for the first time. There will always be a fraction of plastics which, despite improving mixed plastics technology, will be uneconomic to recycle and have few environmental benefits.

Non-recyclable waste can provide a valuable source of local heat and power through EfW combustion. The UK lags far behind the greenest western European countries in EfW capacity because of its legacy of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant landfill. But this is now at an end. Since 2005, the UK has been a net importer of energy, while the National Audit Office says England and Wales has only five years of landfill capacity left. The landfills used by London are almost full.

Being half Danish, I have always known how efficiently the Danes use non-recyclable waste to provide EfW local community heat and power, without affecting rising recycling rates. From waste arisings of 13.4 million tonnes, the Danes recycle 65%, landfill 8% and send 26% to EfW. Danish EfW plants provide the electricity and heat for 430,000 households - about 16% of the population. The city of Copenhagen landfills only 4% of waste, recycles 61% and sends 35% to EfW, which saves the city 36 road tankers of fossil fuel a day.

The greenest countries in Europe have substantial EfW capacity with high energy efficiency. The annual amount of energy generated from EfW in Europe is equivalent to the electricity demand of Switzerland. Just 10% of pre-sorted EU municipal waste would cover 5% of EU energy needs, saving up to 14 million tonnes of oil a year.

  • The German federal environment agency said in 2008 that EfW saved it four million tonnes of CO² a year.
  • The Amsterdam EfW plant provides heat and power to all the city’s municipal buildings, the concert hall and the tram system, as well as to 25,000 households.
  • The Vienna Spittelau EfW plant, with its unique mosque-style architecture, is only 3km from St Stephen’s cathedral. With other EfW plants, it provides district heating to one-third of Viennese homes.
  • The Isséanne Paris EfW plant is two-thirds constructed underground, and provides heating and hot water for 182,000 residents, as well as hospitals, schools, businesses and the Musée D’Orsay.

There are real concerns about the UK’s security of energy supply and whether supply will equal demand in just a few years’ time. We can store only 13 days gas supply compared with 99 days in Germany and 122 days in France.

The closure of nine oil- and coal-fired power stations are scheduled in the UK by 2015 following an EU Directive on preventing pollution. And four Out of 10 of our ageing nuclear reactors must be decommissioned within five years. Successive Governments have been too slow in planning for The replacement of this capacity and for more gas storage. The energy regulator Ofgen predicts power cuts from 2016 - but this may be sooner.

EfW is well placed to meet part of this energy deficit in a number of ways. The source fuel, non-recyclable waste, is available all year round and is not dependent on imports. Nor is it dependent on the weather, like other renewable technologies.It fits the Government’s localism agenda, with local communities’ non-recyclable waste providing much-needed local heat and power, for which they ought to get a discount on their power bills.

You may be astonished to learn that there are some NGOs and Government and quango officials who would prefer the UK’s non-recyclable used plastics to be landfilled rather than have their energy recovered. They try to frighten consumers with the double- negative description ‘mass burn incineration’, with no mention of the energy that is produced. EfW emissions are strictly controlled, and UK EfW plants contributed to only 0.8% of the total regulated dioxin emissions, compared with domestic heating at 19.4%.

To overcome the myth and misunderstanding about the technology is why the plastics industry has joined the organisation Energy From Waste UK to finally promote the benefits of EfW and provide scientifically factual information on it.

We have joined a distinguished coalition of professional institutes, academics, waste management companies and universities. Our first task is to influence Government waste and energy policies, and engage in a dialogue with councils, politicians, the media and the public in areas where the full facts are needed.
Peter Davis is director-general of the British Plastics Federation


Energy from Waste UK was launched in February. It is due to meet Defra and environment minister Lord Henley later this month to discuss its plans. It hopes to influence Government waste and energy policy.

Its inaugural statement said: “While we welcome the coalition Government’s focus on expanding anaerobic digestion, it can only address a portion of the waste stream and is not sufficient on its own. Following a decade of delayed projects and a lack of clear policy, the Government
has an opportunity to show clear leadership in declaring its support for the full potential of energy from waste.”

The organisation puts forward five key points backing why EfW has great potential for the UK during the next decade:

  • it can help to prevent a UK energy deficit
  • is a cost-effective solution in challenging economic times
  • can contribute to the coalition Government’s localism agenda
  • is compatible with effective recycling
  • is not harmful to the environment or public health.

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