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Sharp words as experts debate waste capacity

A major disagreement over the future of the UK’s capacity to treat residual waste has developed within the sector, and billions of pounds of potential investment in energy-from-waste (EfW) plants is at stake.

The Eunomia consultancy put the cat among the pigeons after releasing its latest Residual Waste Infrastructure Review, which claimed that EfW busi­ness failures were “likely to increase” by 2030-31 because of an overcapacity in treatment facilities. It said that, at the current rate of development of EfW and other waste treatment facilities, and assuming that refuse-derived fuel exports cease, the UK could end up with up to 5.9 million tonnes of excess capac­ity. This would lead to intense competi­tion for feedstock.

But this view angered the Environ­mental Services Association (ESA), which has long campaigned for the Government to boost spending on EfW. Executive director Jacob Hayler said: “Eunomia’s findings are flawed and have been contradicted by report after report from everyone else who has looked at our residual waste treatment needs.”

Eunomia stuck to its guns. Chairman Dominic Hogg said: “The exact date when UK treatment capacity will exceed the available waste is debatable, because it depends on the rate at which facilities are built and progress on recy­cling. But in the context of 25-year investments, it is not the relevant issue.”

Eunomia’s review is now in its 12th edition and, since 2011, the prediction of treatment capacity by 2030 has gone up and up.

It now says the UK recycling rate will start to be choked by an excess of EfW capacity by 2020-21. By 2030-31, it says that a surplus of incineration, advanced conversion technology and mechanical biological treatment facilities will mean the maximum achievable recycling rate in the UK will be around 63%.

Not long after Eunomia’s report was published, Suez decided to release data from its own infrastructure review weeks early in order to rebuff the findings. The company said the UK in fact faces a shortfall of capacity of 2.4 million tonnes by 2030, with the south-east and London particularly affected.

The company called on environment secretary Michael Gove to back the industry in developing billions of pounds-worth of infrastructure.

Chief executive David Palmer-Jones said: “Our projections show that there is a serious long-term shortfall in the UK’s vital waste management infrastructure and a potential disaster scenario now looming in the event of a hard Brexit.”

Suez is to release the full report, Mind the Capacity Gap, at the RWM exhibition in September.

The two reports are at odds on just about every point. Eunomia says current residual waste arisings stand at 27.5 million tonnes and in 2030-31 it could be as low as 15.7 million tonnes. Suez says there is currently 32.3 million tonnes and that by 2030 it will stand at 30.3 million tonnes. The way these figures are calculated are clearly very different.

The argument is not a new one. In 2013, there was a conflict between Eunomia and a report commissioned by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management from Ricardo AEA, which predicted a shortfall of capacity (MRW.co.uk/8655073.article).

Around the same time, Defra chose Eunomia’s side of the fence and came up with an estimate that the UK was destined to be “over-equipped with waste infrastructure”. This backed up the then coalition Government’s deci­sion to withdraw the public funding of a number of planned incinerators, such as in Norfolk.

The fundamental discrepancies between these reports led to Veolia commissioning its own review. This concluded that there was a “high prob­ability of not having enough or not having enough of the right capacity where this is needed”.

So who are ministers going to believe this time? The industry clearly needs to know when and where to invest and what to invest in – if at all. We are now getting to the point where predictions made three, four and five years ago can be tested against the facts.

Some of Eunomia and Suez’s conclu­sions can be contrasted with figures outlined in a Tolvik Consulting report on current EfW capacity. This clearly shows the tonnage of residual waste being incinerated sharply increasing while landfill decreases and recycling rates flatline (MRW, August issue, page 10).

One thing that everyone agrees on is the lack of data on commercial and industrial waste, and Eunomia says the situation “remains stubbornly poor”.

RESIDUAL WASTE TREATMENT CAPACITY PREDICTIONS FOR 2030

+5.9 Million tonnes (surplus) – Eunomia

–2.4 Million tonnes (deficit) – Suez

THE EUNOMIA VIEW

  • Since 2009-10, residual waste treatment capacity in the UK has doubled, from 6.3 million to 13.5 million tonnes.
  • During the same period, the quantity of residual waste suitable for treatment has fallen from an estimated 30 million to 26 million tonnes a year.
  • There is a lack of clear, reliable data for commercial and industrial waste. As the gap closes between capacity and arisings, the need for better information becomes urgent.
  • With more facilities still in the construction pipeline, the UK’s supply of treatment capacity will exceed the available quantity of residual waste in 2020-21.

Refocus funding and activity

Eunomia’s latest report shows that the UK continues inexorably towards the point where we have more residual waste treatment capacity than we need.

If facilities already under construction are built, and only these, we think the UK could still recycle some 63% of waste. But if just 40% of what is in planning was also built, the recycling rate could be further limited to 57%.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has signalled a renewed strategy on waste and resources. It could hardly be more timely to commit England, and the UK, to developing a resource-efficient economy that focuses activity at the upper tiers of the waste hierarchy.

This would help clarify to investors and developers just how tough competition for residual waste is likely to be in the future, and signal a need to refocus funding and activity accordingly.

Harriet Parke is Eunomia senior consultant and report author

Network UK already in overcapacity

Most reports on residual waste treatment capacity are commissioned by companies with a financial stake in investment in new facilities, whereas Eunomia’s reports are more independent.

It confirms that we will soon have more capacity than residual waste. But it understates the problem because much of what is described as ‘residual waste’ can actually be recycled or composted.

The UK already has more incineration capacity than residual waste to burn, and so has already reached ‘overcapacity’. We need to be recycling our waste, not wasting millions building more incinerators that will be redundant in a circular economy.

Shlomo Dowen is national co-ordinator of the UK without incineration

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