EfW can get a bad press: it’s too big, too hungry, too expensive, too restrictive of recycling, not a priority on the waste hierarchy, and so on.
All are fair points, historically, but we must learn from our mistakes and from the experiences of our peers across the North Sea, and determine a sustainable, suitable and beneficial role for energy recovery technologies in the UK waste sector.
Some might say that I am pro-incineration. It is true that I have been involved in the procurement of AD, EfW, mechanical biological treatment and advanced thermal treatment solutions for a number of UK councils in the past decade or so. But I have also supported high recycling authorities in their design of a range of innovative collection schemes, and have led consumer engagement programmes to change behaviours and support new collection regimes, so clearly I am not pro-incineration.
What I am is a realist, and someone who recognises that a true circular economy at the heart of the UK requires more than just closed loops and high levels of recycling.
We must recognise that our energy supplies remain at risk, especially with political unrest in Russia and the Ukraine. Our energy prices are rising and nuclear options remain as unpopular as any incinerator, while renewable options such as fracking, wind and waves all have limitations and concerns. So why not exploit the energy content in our residual waste streams, both commercial and industrial (C&I) and municipal solid waste (MSW)?
AD has a role to play, but so does composting. We need both to be effective, with local circumstances helping to determine what is right from one place to the next.
The same is true of thermal technologies. The MSW market may have reached saturation levels in terms of EfW plants, with most now online. But C&I wastes offer great potential for increased recycling and recovery, so let us not over-simplify the debate to a question of ‘recycling is better than recovery’.
Recycling may be better in most cases for most materials, but not always, and with increasing attention on the development of remanufacturing and new tech industries, a reliable energy source from a ‘renewable’ feedstock would be welcomed. So why not utilise residual C&I wastes that have been generated locally and failed to be recycled?
Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating building EfW plants instead of the facilities for segregation, processing and remanufacturing. I am arguing that, for our future green cities, eco parks and urban hubs, we need the right energy recovery system to help underpin economic and industrial growth – and why wouldn’t the public want their energy coming from local wastes rather than overseas?
It is a complex debate, but the direction of travel is clear. We will have smaller facilities, working at high efficiencies, many producing both heat and power to support local industry, schools, leisure centres, hospitals and malls. We will have an uptake of more advanced technologies that can work at smaller scales and are less polluting, once we can address the need for consistent feedstocks – but that time will soon come. And with the Government continuing to support renewable energy production, and with increasing concerns about resources and energy supplies, there will clearly always be a role for EfW in a modern UK economy.
But it will no longer be as a waste treatment system in isolation, with problems of pollution, public concern and traffic congestion. Instead, they will be appropriately sized, modern, clean and at the heart of sustainable cities, neighbourhood and industrial zones. Sounds good to me, but do you agree? Come and debate the topic at RWM.
Dr Adam Read is practice director for resource efficiency and waste management at Ricardo-AEA