Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of MRW, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The great divide

  • Keith Riley (right) is Veolia Environmental Services managing director for technology and a signatory of the newly formed Energy from Waste UK
  • Shlomo Dowen (below right) is the national co-ordinator for UKWIN, the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network

The UK is currently facing an energy crisis. Are energy-from-waste (EfW) technologies a feasible solution to this?
Keith Riley:
The energy in waste is an available resource and we need to take full advantage of it. The term ‘energy from waste’ encompasses a range of technologies: some are better than others at being able to get at that energy, extract it, and utilise it. Some are not appropriate in dealing with certain types of waste.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a good technology to extract energy from some organic wastes by converting part of the waste to methane. But it does not deal with wood very well and can do nothing with plastics. Incineration, which is really combustion, can extract energy from anything that will burn, but is less efficient when there is lots of wet organic waste in the waste stream.

The fact is that no single technology is optimal across the whole waste stream. But taken in combination, EfW can make a significant contribution to the UK’s energy requirements. It can provide energy in the form of either heat or electricity 24/7 and does not depend on the wind blowing or the sun shining.

A study carried out at Cranfield University estimated that the full range of EfW technologies could supply as much as 50% of the UK’s renewable energy requirement by 2020. It can certainly be above 30% and the Government must take account of this in its energy and waste policies.

Putting the right policies in place to enable energy recovery from waste to be a normal part of the waste solution is essential. EfW will not solve the energy crisis, but it is reliable and always available, so can be treated as a base load that forms part of the UK’s strategic energy supply.

Shlomo Dowen: AD is part of the solution but incineration is part of the problem. Unlike AD, energy from incineration is neither renewable nor low carbon. After failing to win the argument that incineration was necessary to deal with waste, proponents now try to justify incinerators as energy generators. The truth is that incineration is very inefficient. Incineration technologies rely on burning readily recyclable material such as paper and plastic.

To be considered ‘low carbon’, energy would need to have below-average carbon intensity. By 2030 the carbon intensity of the UK’s energy mix is projected to fall to 50-100g/kWh, while incinerators are expected to emit more than 600g/kWh, making incineration by far the worst option in climate change terms.

In terms of deliverability and economic feasibility, incinerators are 10 times more expensive to operate than coal-fired power stations. Incinerators carry huge long-term risks regarding the availability of feedstock of the required calorific value. Incinerator applications struggle to secure planning permission and often face fierce public opposition. Newer forms of incineration may simply not work, and even old-school mass burn incinerators are known to burn themselves down.

To be environmentally feasible, an EfW technology must: ensure high rates of thermal efficiency, with heat gainfully used; avoid releasing toxic emissions to air or land; use renewable, not fossil-based, resources; and contribute to the decarbonisation of the energy mix. Incineration fails to meet these criteria.

In the context of the EfW debate, what does your organisation stand for and how does it view the role of incineration in UK waste infrastructure?
Veolia Environmental Services (VES) believes in providing the best waste management service available while recognising the need to protect the environment and be a responsible member of the community. This is no different whether we are talking about EfW or any other aspect of the job we do.

We take a holistic view on EfW and are open to the full range of technologies available. We will not, however, play games with the environment nor with the quality of service we provide to our customers. We spend a lot of time making sure that the solutions we put forward are the best under the circumstances and fit for purpose.

It is very easy for those who do not have the responsibility for the outcome to propose all sorts of methods and technologies. But from our point of view, we need to know that what we use is safe, robust and reliable. Incineration falls within this category. It is reliable and efficient, and if we connect it to a district heating network, it is more efficient than most of the UK’s power stations. Emission controls on incinerators are stricter than power stations and are monitored closely by the Environment Agency (EA).

Nowadays incineration treats only the waste that remains after recycling has been extracted and, in the case of food waste, after that has been extracted and treated by an anaerobic digester or composting plant. The incinerator’s role is to extract the energy and reduce the remaining residual waste into an inert form, such as ash, that can also be recycled and remove the pollutants from the resource stream in the form of a filter residue. The filter residue is only about 3% of the original waste mass and is sent to hazardous landfill.

Incineration cannot be taken in isolation from other waste management activities - especially recycling - and is not on its own a total waste management solution. However, I do believe that no urban waste management scheme can minimise its carbon footprint without having a thermal treatment somewhere in the process and, for VES, incineration meets the bill.

SD: The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) stands for a vision of a UK without the incineration of waste. UKWIN promotes sustainable waste management and sees incineration as being inherently unsustainable. Incineration is one of the biggest obstacles to a genuine zero-waste economy because it undermines reduction, re-use, recycling and composting.

Incineration is on its way out. There is no need for new capacity and even existing incinerators, such as Veolia’s Sheffield incinerator, experience difficulty in finding feedstock.

What more could the Government be doing to help you achieve your aims?
Government can play a role as a facilitator in areas where the end goal will not be reached by normal means. In the case of EfW, if we look back 20 years, there was virtually no waste treatment infrastructure in the UK. A good job has been done in getting public sector facilities in place for municipal waste, even against public opinion and free market failure. There is still need for infrastructure to address the significantly larger volumes of commercial and industrial waste. While the private sector is quite prepared to make the investment, it has to know that it will be repaid.

By recognising EfW as a strategic requirement and incorporating it into its energy, climate change as well as waste policies, the Government can go a long way to help the UK, not only VES, achieve its aims.

SD: The Government should level the playing field by ending incinerator subsidies such as PFI credits, tax breaks for incinerator bottom ash (IBA), and Renewables Obligation Certificates. Incineration should be taxed at £40+ per tonne. The EA should closely regulate the eco-toxicity of IBA, and the Government should abandon the ‘biogenic fudge’ whereby some incinerator greenhouse gas emissions are incorrectly discounted.

The Government should introduce a 70%+ recycling target, ban the construction of new waste incinerators, and progressively ban the incineration of material that can viably be recycled, including biowastes that should be composted or sent for AD. It should also ban the incineration of all plastics, including those to create fuel, and mandate progressive identification and collection quality standards for all types of plastic.

Plastics are better landfilled than incinerated because this avoids the release of greenhouse gases and allows for recycling in the future. Waste Strategy for England acknowledges that “burning plastics has a general net, adverse greenhouse gas impact due to the release of fossil carbon” which can “outweigh the returns of energy recovery”.

Are there difficulties in using the term ‘energy from waste?’
EfW is a term that applies to a range of technologies: incineration, pyrolysis, gasification and AD. There is nothing wrong with using the term, provided this is understood. There is need for better definition of the terms and expressions used by the industry and for greater education of the general public as to their meaning and context.

SD: The term EfW is generally unhelpful because it covers such a diverse range of technologies. Statements about the benefits of EfW often apply to AD but not incineration. EfW and other euphemisms should not be used to disguise the nature of facilities regulated under the Waste Incineration Directive.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.