During the past 10 years, the tonnage of waste exported from the UK has rocketed. This has led to heated debates about whether we should be doing more to keep potentially valuable materials within the home economy.
But the fact remains that exporting is big business for many waste management companies and it helps with the balance of payments.
In 2013, the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group published a report that called for ‘high-value’ exports of waste to maximise profits for UK plc, a debate on quality that was further pushed up the agenda by China’s Green Fence policy.
The report pointed out that the EU is the world’s biggest exporter of waste and, within that, the UK is a major player. The gap between the amount of waste collected and the amount recycled or incinerated within the country ends up being sold overseas.
As the waste infrastructure pipeline across the UK currently looks sparse, this gap is likely to continue. Ports are therefore investing in their recycling handling and logistics capabilities in conjunction with waste businesses. This goes hand-in-hand with expansion of facilities seen at a number of port companies.
In November, Peel Ports opened its Liverpool2 facility, the result of a £400m investment to accommodate large container vessels and boost haulage rates. Its link with China, which receives much of our waste exports, is strong – Chinese company Zhenhua Heavy Industries manufactured eight ship-to-shore megamax cranes for the development.
Metals recycler EMR uses the Port of Tilbury (pictured below) – part of the Forth Ports group – in Essex as an export hub, which receives more than a million tonnes of scrap collected by depots around London. The scrap is loaded on to ships that can carry up to 42,000 tonnes at a time, headed for destinations as far away as India and South Korea.
EMR communications director Gareth Williams said: “The company made a significant commitment to remaining at the site earlier this year by signing a new 25-year lease. It will also be upgrading its facilities and has recently completed the installation of a £3m state-of-the-art gantry crane with a total lifting capacity of 30 tonnes.”
Emr at tilbury
At more than 55m high, it is now the gantry crane with the longest reach at the site. Ports are increasingly competing for trade, and Tilbury hailed EMR’s investment.
Williams said: “Tilbury is one of four deep-sea export facilities that EMR operates in the UK. The investments being made to upgrade facilities will help to ensure that the site is competitive and has the capacity to meet the needs of the group for the next 10 years.”
Refuse-derived fuel (RDF) is third on the list of UK waste exports by tonnage. As most RDF goes to Scandinavian, Dutch and German energy-from-waste facilities, companies such as Biffa use ports mainly on the east coast.
Louis Calders, commercial director at Totus Environmental, points out that exports are only possible because the UK “is a significant net importer”.
“The result is that there is a lot of spare capacity on containers and lorries on their east-bound route as they return to collect more products and materials,” he said. “We look at these shipping routes and identify those that present a cost-effective way to get fuels from the UK to facilities in Europe and Scandinavia.”
Totus also provides a logistics management service to companies importing paper and packaging, white goods and bulk materials to the UK in order to access the reverse journey.
“We have in effect created a full circle logistical model that benefits both importers and exporters,” said Calders. “This model has enabled customers to save up to 15% on their export costs on the logistics element alone.”
RDF exporter Geminor works closely with Forth Ports group and is looking to expand this relationship at Grangemouth and Tilbury ports. The company, which has its head office in Norway, started in the UK in 2012 and won its first contracts in 2013. It now has deals with more than 70 plants in the UK processing RDF, solid recovered fuel, waste wood, biofuels from garden waste and hazardous waste.
Unlike EMR, the company does not own any real estate at UK ports but leases space instead.
“Peel Ports, Forth Ports, DFDS and RMS [both shipping companies]are our key contractual relationships in the UK with port operators and shipping companies,” said UK manager James Maiden. “We also have agreements with ports in Hull and sole rights to a shipping terminal in Sheerness in Kent.”
Last year Geminor shipped around 435,000 tonnes of baled material, largely RDF, to around 70 facilities across eight countries in bulk or roll-on, roll-off vessels via containers or direct trailers. Although it does not directly own facilities in UK ports, it does elsewhere.
In September the company opened its own ‘multimodal logistics terminal’ at Gothenburg, Sweden, to receive baled RDF.
“Geminor owns facilities in 12 ports now, mainly in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. We’re just in the process of doing a deal in Holland,” added Maiden. “Once the material is received, we can do a quality inspection and break the bales to deliver the material straight into the bunkers of the energy plant, which is how they want it.”
“We have created a full circle logistical model which has enabled customers to save up to 15% on their export costs on the logistics element alone”
Booking a short-haul vessel, which typically takes around 2,500 tonnes of material, and getting the material delivered on time is a logistical challenge all exporters face. With waste, if this is not done correctly, the regulators will take notice. Before being taken over by Veolia in January 2016, Bristol-based RDF exporter Boomeco was penalised by the Environment Agency after officers found 10,000 tonnes of badly stored RDF bales, some containing flies and maggots. This was the cause of a serious fly infestation at the docks in 2014.
Where RDF exports are driven by the Scandinavian economy, paper exports are driven by China. Mark Lyndon Paper Enterprises is a Chinese-owned company and one of the largest exporters in the UK and Ireland. The company sends more than 1.5 million tonnes of recycled fibre a year to the Lee & Man paper mills in China.
As well as dealing with regulatory requirements of the UK, EU and Chinese authorities, it is a member of the Freight Transport Association and the Global Shippers Forum trade bodies. The company contracts ports and shipping lines to deal with containers on its behalf.
Managing director Colin Clarke said: “We use all shipping ports in the UK, depending on where the material is collected from – for instance in the middle of the country it would go to Felixstowe or Liverpool and if it were south of England maybe it would go to Southampton.
“You are dependent on shipping lines and you’ve got to think about road miles in the UK. We don’t have any environmental issues; it runs smoothly, considering the volume being shifted.”
Factbox: UK ports
- According to the UK Major Ports Group, there are around 120 commercial ports in the UK that handle around 500 million tonnes of freight a year. The biggest 20 ports account for 88% of the total.
- Ports owned by private companies account for around two-thirds of tonnages handled in the UK.
- Trust ports – such as the Port of London Authority and Belfast Harbour Commissioners – are independent statutory corporations managed by a board of trustees. They operate on a quasi-commercial basis, but they do not pay dividends because they have no shareholders. Some local authorities also own their own ports.
- In all, UK ports employ around 118,000 people. In 2013 the ports sector generated £7.7bn in gross value added for the UK economy.
- Ports are required to draw up waste management plans for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Ships must provide notification of the waste they will discharge. The port’s harbour master is responsible for administering the plan.
UK waste exports
Steel scrap: 7 million tonnes (2015)
Paper: 4.8 million tonnes (year to September 2016)
Refuse-derived fuel: 3.3 million tonnes (2015)
Plastic: 768,000 tonnes (year to August 2016)
Textiles: 352,000 tonnes (2014)
Sources: WRAP, HMRC, Environment Agencyand EEF
Comment Sam Taylor
The issue of non-compliance with regulations on transfrontier shipments of waste is one that has gained increased prominence in the past decade and has been a priority for UK and European environment regulators.
Waste shipment can be seen as a double-edged sword. For countries such as the UK, limited domestic waste treatment capacity and aspirations to build a more circular economy necessitates access to a robust single market for waste, where waste is able to move to where it is needed most.
But, if handled improperly, waste can also cause significant environment and health impacts, and adequate controls need to be in place to ensure that waste is only sent to desired locations.
Comprehensive data on the scale of illegal waste exports from the UK remains elusive. The closest estimate of the extent of illegal activity is the snapshot provided by Impel’s TFS Enforcement report, which indicates that, in 2014-15, roughly 20% of waste shipments inspected across the UK were found to be in violation of the regulations.
This figure is subject to regional variations, and does not reflect overall inspections or violations. But given that in 2014, the UK exported 13.5 million tonnes of scrap materials, worth more than £4bn, illegal activity is cause for serious concern.
The UK’s main challenge lies in the illegal shipment of materials that are subject to export bans. The recent Environment Agency raid in Essex, in which thousands of tonnes of illegal WEEE ready for export to Africa were recovered, is indicative of the fact that this kind of crime is highly lucrative and is becoming highly organised.
Far more attention to the problem is required.
Sam Taylor is principal consultant at Eunomia