Back energy-from-waste (EfW) or accept the landfilling of huge amounts of rubbish, leading figures from the waste industry have urged the Government. The roundtable, which was chaired by MRW acting editor Corin Williams, heard demands for explicit Government support for the process of producing power from residual refuse in the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy.
There was not universal agreement on every issue, but Javier Igartua, economic adviser at Defra, must have taken plenty of notes back to Whitehall.
Paul Taylor, chief executive of FCC Environment, said: “The Government needs to be more positive about the role energy can play with residual waste.
“The industry is hesitant. There are planning permissions out there but not many plants are being built because of uncertainty. The banks are very cautious.
“Everyone is hesitating and nothing is happening. There are 13 million tonnes of waste going to landfill and, if we don’t build the infrastructure, there will still be 10 million tonnes going to landfill in five or 10 years’ time.”
Attracting investment for EfW projects was challenging because of the sheer amount of cash required up front, added Taylor.
“It’s not like a landfill because you are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds, and not many companies have such amounts burning a hole in their pockets. If the Government was to say it supports producing energy from residual waste that would be really helpful.”
Margaret Bates, head of sustainable waste management at the University of Northampton, agreed: “It would be helpful if policy addressed the waste hierarchy – when recycling hasn’t happened, we will do this.”
Bates questioned the reasons for withholding wholehearted support for incineration of waste.
“I don’t understand why we’re worried about the impact on the environment. If we are that worried, we shouldn’t be exporting – we should be stopping, which would be ridiculous.”
Reports earlier this year suggested that the Government was considering a tax on burning plastic waste.
“We need to be careful,” warned Bates. “There is always discussion about an incineration tax, but do we want to be doing the same thing as we do with packaging – incentivising exports?
“The proximity principle is supposed to be fundamental. Why are we exporting waste and buying the energy back? It’s like filling your taxi driver’s car with fuel and then paying the taxi rate – it’s stupid.”
Mark Terrell, general manager at Andusia, which collects residual waste from the UK and exports it to EfW plants in Europe, said economics was already driving material away from the UK.
“It is only being exported because of landfill tax,” he said. “Before 2012, no-one really exported waste because they put it in landfill.”
He said more waste could be sent to UK facilities if the economics of EfW worked: “We could move into the UK market and do what we do in Europe. Yorkshire is the same distance from London as Amsterdam but it’s cheaper to go to Amsterdam in a truck.
“We haven’t got over the inertia to get the plants going and, unless we do, in five years’ time it will be the same conversation. I can’t see how it can be solved unless we have a policy to help secure local authorities to commit to longer term contracts.”
But Gemma Clinton, head of service at Dorset Waste Partnership, said that times were changing. The multi-council body’s residual waste contract expires in 2020-21 and it may look to do things differently next time.
“We have specified technology in the past, but with the economic climate and funding levels for councils, many are moving to a technology-neutral tendering process that is all about best value for money,” she said.
“The proximity principle was a big driver for us in days gone by and it is still there as a desire but, in reality, it is about value for money. Twenty-five-year contracts are not going to happen any more. The risk of locking into a long-term contract does not make sense for a local authority because things are changing so much.”
She called for more cash for councils to tackle waste: “There can be as many aspirational policies as you like but, without funding, it is not going to happen.”
Bates, University of Northampton: “The proximity principle is supposed to be fundamental. Why are we exporting waste and buying the energy back? It’s like filling your taxi driver’s car with fuel and then paying the taxi rate – it’s stupid.”
Taylor, FCC Environment: “In our view, gasification is not proven, none of the [plants] work properly yet. The advantage of traditional technology is it does what it says on the tin.”
Cooper, London Assembly: “You have to say to people…if the waste is not going to landfill or being turned into something else, what are we going to do?”
Rhodes, Biffa: “We need a balanced business plan recognising the need for a number of solutions for different levels of the waste hierarchy.”
Terrell, Andusia: “The lack of EfW facilities? It’s about security of investment, not lack of material. We need to encourage investment with the Government backing it.”
Robert Edmondson, managing director at Amey Environmental Services, said there were ways around long-term waste supply contracts but they relied on a UK market for commercial waste. Amey has a planning application in at the moment for a 230,000-tonne mass-burn facility in Cambridgeshire.
“I can live without a local authority anchor, but we need some kind of commercial or industrial anchor with a calorific value. There are five million tonnes being exported – I could get a proportion of that for a period of time to satisfy an investor, but that will only happen if there is an incentive to keep the waste in the UK.”
Market forces were driving an exodus of the UK’s residual waste, Edmondson warned.
“One of the big challenges is dealing with waste that is exported, probably on a price point rather than environmental or other factors. The immediate change to the exchange rate after the Brexit vote altered behaviours of importers and exporters.”
Libby Forrest, policy and parliamentary affairs officer at the Environmental Services Association, questioned the Government’s approach to UK production of EfW.
“What we have at best is nothing and at worst negative comments floating around,” she said. “It is naïve to think that an incineration tax would have the same impact the landfill tax has had. It is irresponsible to be floating these ideas around because we may need more capacity.”
Asked why it was difficult to get a clear agreement on future levels of supply for EfW plants, Forrest said the inputs used by different parties led to different outputs.
“Why is it difficult to get a consensus? It depends on the assumptions you make,” she said.
Jeff Rhodes, head of environment and external affairs at Biffa, said there was “a very good degree of consensus” on supply: “We all have similar models. If you dial in high levels of recycling you get different answers, but the question is: what will happen to achieve those high levels of recycling?”
Biffa handles a lot of commercial and industrial waste that could be useful for EfW plants, Rhodes added: “A lot of focus is switching to that. Although we don’t currently operate any EfWs, we have two projects we are working up.”
He called for the Government to look at the big picture when it came to the country’s waste and resources. “We need a balanced business plan recognising the need for a number of solutions for different levels of the waste hierarchy.”
Leonie Cooper, chair of the London Assembly environment committee, said the public also needed to understand the hierarchy structure.
“There is a cognitive dissonance that happens where people say they don’t want anything going to landfill, it’s a complete waste of resources and they’re going to recycle everything. Then [no-one] does it and we don’t put enough money into making it happen,” she said.
“You have to say to people: there is a gap and, if the waste is not going to landfill or being turned into something else, what are we going to do?”
Cooper said that work was being done behind the scenes to persuade London mayor Sadiq Khan to bring heat networks into the capital, which would boost demand for EfW.
“The mayor has a lot of draft text about heat networks,” she said. “We want the mayor to enshrine a very strong opinion [in the London Plan] that networks should be part of the plan. Practically all 32 London boroughs would then have to change their plans if necessary to be in conformity with that.”
Hannah Dick, principal consultant at Anthesis Group, said the London waste sector struggled with demands on space.
“In London there is a high land value and a lot of priorities for the land, so waste facilities can be deprioritised,” she said. “We need certainty about recycling targets and the secondary commodity markets need quality initiatives. If there is nowhere for materials to go then recycling won’t happen, and we will have to fall back on EfW and landfill.”
“Blue Planet has helped people wake up to the consequences of acting like children and thinking if they can’t see something it doesn’t exist.”
Cooper added that the emotive BBC Blue Planet documentary showing the effects of plastic in the ocean had improved public understanding of mistreating waste: “Blue Planet has helped people wake up to the consequences of acting like children and thinking if they can’t see something it doesn’t exist.”
The mention of this documentary and the resulting movement against the use of plastic straws sparked further debate around the table.
“Plastic straws are litter,” said Rhodes. “There is a difference between tackling litter and boosting recycling.”
Dick stressed that money from the packaging recovery note system should make its way to councils to help them boost recycling. Bates took the idea further, looking at plastic carrier bags.
“If you’re going to put a tax on something, use the money to put in consistent on-the-go infrastructure across the country,” she urged.
Comparisons were made with waste performance in mainland Europe.
“The only reason they do it better in Denmark is they have a heat network,” said Terrell. “They get much more energy. All householders get a benefit. Rather than having a boiler in your house, you have a big one that burns the waste and you get your heat and hot water from that. But you need to put that in when you build the houses.”
Taylor gave an example of the benefits of heat from waste in the UK: “We have a plant in the centre of Nottingham that gives heat to the local authority and the local authority would like us to expand it. That’s unheard of, but the council sees the value in having heat.”
He added that stronger performance abroad was not always all it seemed.
“There is a lot of smoke and mirrors around definitions that can make a big change in the figures,” he said. “[Taking] how we measure recycling now, you could say you could get a 55% rate. With a change of definition, you will be able to show 65%. It still leaves the same residual waste.”
Cooper called for more work to be done with the public to reduce the volume of waste produced in the first place: “There needs to be a serious push on behaviour change. If you don’t get that you will not get an overall reduction in waste.”
Bates said small measures could create big change.
“There were a number of incentives to change from plastic bags, as there are now to reuse coffee cups, but it was a small financial amount that made the difference,” she said.
Clinton called for a different approach to waste collection: “Could you explore macerators for food waste? You would reduce the need for the collections. Look at it in the total and for best value.” She added that the Government could make it easier for councils to use planning levers to manage waste.
“It is difficult to collect different waste streams from communal properties without the right facilities [being] provided,” she said. “We try to influence plans but we can’t stop a development going ahead if they haven’t got the systems in place to allow us to collect. To be able to turn down an application on grounds of lack of waste sorting facilities would be very helpful for local authorities.”
Gasification was debated as an alternative to incineration that may be more politically acceptable in some cases. But Edmondson warned: “Gasification is relatively expensive – the biggest consideration is costs. There are other technologies that are proven to work in the UK and at a price point that makes them attractive to investors.”
Rhodes added: “Historic benefits from the subsidy regime are not going to be there going forward, with the changes to Contracts for Difference, and that will make it more difficult.”
Taylor said incineration was a better option: “In our view, gasification is not proven, none of the [plants] are working properly yet. The advantage of traditional technology is it does what it says on the tin – you put waste in, it handles a range of materials and produces power. It is less risky.”
Cooper again questioned the role of the mooted tax on burning waste.
“What is the purpose of an incinerator tax? If it is to drive down the use of incinerators, that’s ridiculous when we know there will be residual waste and something must be done with it. If it is to create a new income stream, then I would find that disgraceful.”
“There is five million tonnes of waste going out of the UK – an export tax would be a way of encouraging investment into facilities.”
Edmondson suggested a different fiscal approach: “There is five million tonnes of waste going out of the UK – an export tax would be a way of encouraging investment into facilities.”
Terrell disagreed. “That won’t solve any problems,” he said. “It would just mean the Government gets a bit more money and the waste goes to landfill.
“It would skew the market. EfW gate fees are not the problem; that’s not why people are not building more facilities. It’s about security of investment, not lack of material. We need to encourage investment with the Government backing it.”
Taylor also pressed home the plea for security of investment: “The person who puts the money in wants to know his investment is safe, and without the headline that EfW is positive, you create uncertainty.”
Defra’s Igartua listened intently throughout and offered some interesting insights for those eagerly awaiting the Government’s resources and waste strategy. He responded to criticism about the quality of official data on waste.
“You cannot wait for perfect data, which is why the strategy is happening this year,” he said. “There is a lot of recognition that there is scope to do more thinking about individual material targets or whether carbon [metrics] could be more interesting. We are just at the early stages – it does not mean you will see it in the strategy.”
Government policies were designed to work in harmony, he added. “Everything we are doing is for environmental and social outcomes. The strategy is going to be a package of measures and, if they seem piecemeal from the outside, they have been considered together.”