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The future's in the small print for EfW

At the beginning of this year, I shared my thoughts on energy from waste (EfW) and the role it can play in achieving a zero waste economy and meeting renewable energy targets. 

It goes without saying that waste prevention, reuse and recycling waste are our priorities. But for the waste left over, recovering energy from it can be preferable to sending it to landfill. This is particularly so for biodegradable residual waste. For example, we can save 600kg of CO2 equivalent by sending one tonne of food waste to anaerobic digestion (AD) instead of landfill.

The growth in AD in recent years is a huge success story and one to celebrate, as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson highlighted at the Conservative Party conference. From a handful of facilities in 2007, there are now 50 waste fed facilities processing over one million tonnes of food waste.

In recent weeks we have seen an AD plant planned by TEG Group become the first waste project to receive funding from the Green Investment Bank. Earlier in the year we saw a group of investors including the Duchy of Cornwall and Sainsbury’s invest £65m in Tamar Energy, a start-up company focused on producing energy from organic waste through AD. This is testament to the role the AD industry has to play in the growth of a green economy.

However, most of you will have noticed that WRAP is no longer just talking about AD when it refers to EfW. While we are still generating substantial quantities of residual waste, other smaller scale EfW facilities and advanced thermal treatment technologies (such as gasification and pyrolysis) can provide part of the solution to treating waste that cannot be recycled or reused. WRAP estimates that advanced thermal treatment technologies (such as gasification and pyrolysis) currently in operation in the UK have the capacity to process over 100,000 tonnes of material per year. Furthermore, if only half of the plants that currently have planning permission are built, we will have the potential to divert over ten times this amount of material from landfill.  

The rate of development in a number of EfW technologies has been rapid over the last five years. They are increasingly providing a viable, cost effective treatment option for waste that can’t be reused or recycled. It’s therefore no surprise that we have seen a flurry of businesses investing in these technologies in the UK in the last year. As news of more investment in the industry filters through, manufacturers, MRF operators, fuel users and local authorities are seeing the environmental and economic potential smaller scale EfW can offer.

Another good indicator of the hunger for growth and investment in this sector is the £5m Thermal Technologies Centre in Middlesbrough; a partnership between the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and Tata Steel which opened in May. The centre – one of only a few in the world – is providing world-leading expertise in thermal processing, particularly gasification and pyrolysis, to encourage further innovation and development in these technologies.

So why should the readers of MRW be considering these technologies as a waste treatment option? Some of the key benefits of smaller scale EfW are: avoided waste disposal costs via landfill diversion; lower electricity purchase costs; and the potential for revenue from the sale of electricity to the grid. With landfill tax at £64 per tonne, rising to £80 per tonne by 2020, this is an increasingly expensive route for waste disposal, and I have heard anecdotal evidence that the gate fees for smaller scale EfW facilities can be more attractive. Businesses that can use the waste that they produce as fuel may also make savings because of the reduced volumes of waste they need to transport. That’s not to mention the potential for savings from heat generated during the process – for which we need to find more uses.

We’re supporting businesses that are looking at these technologies by providing guidance and evidence to build knowledge and understanding in the sector. We have made good progress in this area. The culmination of much of this work was the launch of new guidance on EfW at this year’s RWM. The guidance provides practical, concise information for businesses looking at smaller scale EfW facilities as a waste treatment option (where waste prevention, recycling or re-use isn’t possible). The guidance focuses on key stages of the design and planning process, such as funding and financial incentives.

We are also working on a classification system to define the quality of waste derived fuels (WDF). This system will enable fuel producers to test their WDF against a number of attributes to see which ‘class’ it would fall in to. This will enable more efficient trading of WDF, because fuel producers will be able to adjust their production processes in order to produce WDF that matches the requirements of the markets they have identified. In turn, this also enables fuel producers to optimise the value of their WDF.

Going forward, we intend to build on this work by carrying out feasibility studies in order to further analyse the market potential for smaller scale technologies and WDF, as well as improving efficiencies and identifying markets for EfW outputs such as heat. We will shortly be publishing further information about submitting proposals for the feasibility studies on our website.

I believe that we are on the cusp of an exciting area of growth in smaller scale EfW. More and more businesses and local authorities are getting to grips with the technologies available and the opportunities they present. While it’s a new and growing industry, there are still lessons to be learned. We can draw on the experience of other countries in order to inform development in our own EfW infrastructure, and position the UK as a leader in the implementation of smaller scale EfW.
Marcus Gover, director for Closed Loop Economy, WRAP


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