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Future of incineration is a hot topic

Laura Tainsh

The capacity debate on energy from waste (EfW) rages on. There remain differing views as to whether, by 2020, the UK will have a lack or an excess of capacity in EfW infrastructure.

When asked in the House of Commons in July about the adequacy of capacity, re-sources minister Therese Coffey said: “EfW plays an important role in diverting waste from landfill but it must not compete with greater pre­vention, reuse and recycling … we have a high level of confidence that we will have suffi­cient capacity in place to meet the UK’s 2020 landfill diver­sion target.”

But is the analysis really that simple? There are many points to consider.

Reports concluding that there will be sufficient (or indeed an overcapacity) of EfW are criticised for assum­ing that all infrastructure with planning consent will actually materialise. Others in the industry recognise that plan­ning does not automatically result in projects being built.

ef w completion

ef w completion

Even where the significant amount of investment is achieved, problems can arise during the construction phase. If some of the major proposed projects do not come to frui­tion, the capacity picture could be very different.

Many people argue that pos­itively encouraging the growth of EfW undermines the circu­lar economy (CE) agenda, in particular recycling. The EU’s position is to de-incentivise further EfW development.

The UK now has a sizeable export market for refuse-derived fuel (RDF). Trade restrictions under a ‘hard Brexit’ could make such exportation prohibitively expen­sive and so EfW infrastructure could be required to deal with RDF domestically.

It cannot be ignored that EfW is not just a waste man­agement solution. It also has the potential to contribute to the UK’s energy demands as well as being a source of renewable heat (albeit not yet well developed). Does that bring EfW back into the CE model?

Scotland has an impending landfill ban for biodegradable residual waste from 2021 which, in its current form, could effectively mean a ban on all residual waste. So there is far more likely to be a deficit in the capacity to deal with non-recyclable waste.

The answer appears to be ‘no’, it is not that simple. Deter­mining extra EfW capacity during the next decade will re-quire a careful balancing exer­cise that takes into account all of the relevant factors in the different parts of the UK.

Laura Tainsh is partner at Davidson Chalmers

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