Recycling as much as possible and moving towards a circular economy is the future for the UK. This is certainly where Sita UK places its investment and business priorities.
However, over the next 20-30 years at least, there will remain a percentage of “residual” waste that cannot be viably recycled and it is up to the waste management sector to extract the maximum value from it, by finding viable alternatives to landfill wherever opportunities exist.
Processing this residual waste by turning it into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) for use as feedstock in continental energy plants with current spare capacity is one such opportunity – but in the dynamic, world of waste management, this window of opportunity is finite and, in this case, represents a medium-term solution to plug a gap in our national infrastructure.
Environment Agency figures show Sita UK to be the number one producer and exporter of RDF in the UK at present, with Biffa close by in terms of tonnages (see above)..
In an ideal world, the UK would have sufficient waste treatment infrastructure to recycle or recover all of the waste produced domestically without sending any (or as little as possible) to landfill or exporting it as fuel.
Unfortunately, that is not yet the case and over the next ten years, there is likely to be a substantial gap between the total amount of residual waste produced in the UK, after recycling, and the infrastructure needed to make best use of it.
Many in the industry, including ourselves, predict that this infrastructure gap will shrink by 2025 as more and more material is recycled and more residual waste treatment facilities, such as EfW plants, come online, but in the meantime we as a country will still rely on landfill to dispose of millions of tonnes of residual waste every year, even with the current rapid growth in the production and export of RDF to mainland Europe.
The UK RDF market is therefore no threat to investment in more domestic treatment infrastructure and is vital if we are to limit the amount of material landfilled in this country over the next 10 years – particularly given the time it can take for some major waste infrastructure projects to come to fruition in the UK.
To provide some commentary on our position as the largest exporter of RDF, this activity has been largely driven by our customers, who are keen to divert their waste material from landfill. We were quick to see RDF as an opportunity to help them achieve this goal and our contacts in Europe helped to secure supply deals.
As part of the Suez Environnement group, our sister waste management businesses across Europe enable us to take control of the whole RDF and SRF supply chain, which means that SITA has oversight and responsibility from the moment the material is collected, to the moment it combusts.
This assurance that the whole supply chain can be responsibly managed, along with a solid track record, helps us to secure export permits.
Finally, we have invested considerably in innovative logistics solutions which allow us to export RDF with maximum efficiency and reliability – a factor that is vital to our RDF customers.
The RDF market is unlikely to last forever, but we are proud to drive this market sector for the time being and to divert waste material from landfill while the opportunity exists.
Andy Hill, head of organics and alternative fuels at Sita UK