Chris Edwards’ recipe for dealing with residual waste is superficially attractive. Discourage local authorities from opting for Energy from Waste (EfW) to deal with residual waste by pushing up their costs (through cancelling the remaining PFI credits for EfW plus an incineration tax), put the money raised into higher recycling and waste prevention and, hey presto, the 2020 landfill targets are met and residual waste is down to ‘near zero’ levels.
Or maybe not. There are several flaws in this approach. But let me start with where I would agree with Mr Edwards. He is right that we should be more ambitious about recycling, and have higher aspirations than the 50% target in the WFD. As he says, many EU countries are getting 60% recycling rates and we should be to match or beat this over time. But this still leaves 30-40% of waste that cannot easily be recycled.
Can waste prevention square the circle? Probably not, though it should help a little, and should certainly be a priority.
Historically, waste arisings have been driven by population growth and economic growth. Some decoupling from economic growth should be possible, but it is worth noting that the consultancy, Eunomia, have projected waste arisings still rising marginally over the next decade, even when factoring in waste prevention initiatives.
With more imagination from policymakers, the heat potential of EfW could really take off, boosting the contribution the technology could make to UK carbon targets
So even with waste prevention and higher recycling, we could still be facing close to 30MT of residual waste in 2020. Of course the figure could be lower, but Defra is well aware that the downside risk of finding we have insufficient waste treatment capacity is severe – as the infamous ‘fridge mountain’ showed.
That is why Defra’s assessment last Autumn concluded that Waste Infrastructure credits (formerly PFI Credits) were still needed for some projects (and not just EfW) if the 2020 targets were to be met, and why both the current and last Government’s have used the landfill tax escalator to deliver a clear fiscal steer to the market to move decisively away from landfill.
A further weakness in Mr Edwards’ argument is that it takes no account of whether EfW is a technology worth encouraging for residual waste because of its energy benefits. As the UK starts to rely heavily on gas imports (increasingly in the forms of liquefied natural gas or shale gas, both of which have significant environmental footprints) EfW provides an opportunity to maximize our indigenous energy resources.
Using EfW to produce electricity is already widespread, but we believe that with more imagination from policymakers, the heat potential of EfW could really take off, boosting the contribution the technology could make to UK carbon targets.
Matthew Farrow, ESA director of policy