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UK falls for Swedish model of energy recovery

It’s official – not only are local authorities recycling less than they used to, but they are sending an increasing amount of waste to be burnt at incinerators.

Last year we learned that the house­hold recycling rate dropped for the first time since targets were introduced. Now, a report by Tolvik Consulting has confirmed that nearly 10 million tonnes of residual waste was processed for energy from waste (EfW) in the UK in 2016, up from 8.45 million tonnes in the previous year. Around 85% of this was sourced from local authorities.

This means that residual waste pro­cessed through energy recovery plants in the UK in 2016 rose by 18% on the year before – and the upward trend is continuing. For the first time, the amount of residual waste sent to landfill fell below 50%, and this is due to EfW.

Wales is justifiably proud of its world-class recycling rate and Scotland is developing ambitious targets and poli­cies. But with widespread concern over lack of political leadership on resource management, could England be left sliding unawares into a Scandinavian-style dependence on EfW?

Sweden is often held up as a recycler’s paradise, a clean and efficient country with enlightened consumers and sophisticated deposit return schemes. But, as Eunomia’s founder and chair­man Dominic Hogg has pointed out, this masks the fact that the country’s recycling rate is stagnant and, at just under 50%, is not that far above the UK.

Instead, Sweden has a highly devel­oped network of EfW plants that are so hungry that residual waste from the UK and across Europe has to be imported in order to feed them. The country’s use of incineration for local heat networks has been in place for decades and reflects widespread community buy-in – something not reflected in the UK.

According to Tolvik, the UK has already pulled way ahead of Sweden in terms of residual waste going to EfW. In 2015, Sweden processed nearly six mil­lion tonnes of residual waste; the coun­try of course has a much smaller population, but it does give an indica­tion of the UK’s direction. Since 2013 there has been a sharp increase in our domestic capacity.

tonnage processed

tonnage processed

With recycling rates dropping in England, UK targets potentially chang­ing after Brexit and cheaper incineration options available, many councils are less likely to be concerned about meeting the EU recycling target of 50% by 2020.

Indeed, some seem to be doing just that. Dartford Borough Council is look­ing to get rid of its recycling perfor­mance indicator and measure only the percentage of household collected waste going to landfill. Dartford’s recycling rate dropped last year by two percent­age points to 25.6%. Its landfill rate on the other hand is negligible: by using EfW it would appear to be a success rather than a failure.

“We should hold on to a recycling target of between 50-60%, which I think is achievable without excessive cost, and recover the rest through EfW.”

Andrew Bird, chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Commit­tee (Larac), says that English councils have no option but to form their recy­cling strategies on purely financial grounds. This leads to a wide variation between councils.

“There is little political appetite at local level to increase levels of recycling, for instance, unless it creates a saving,” Bird said. “The same is true of separate food waste services [because] the short-term upfront costs are simply too high to contemplate when balancing other major financial pressures such as social care and education.”

efw operator share

efw operator share

Nor do English authorities face any financial penalties for missing targets. It is only the Government that can be fined if the UK misses the 2020 target.

The increase in EfW has been noticed at the highest level. At a debate in the House of Lords in early July, Defra min­ister Lord Gardiner was pressed by Baroness Jones, a Green peer who is no fan of EfW. She said: “Can the minister say, hand on heart, that for this Govern­ment, incineration is the absolutely last resort for waste of any kind?”

Gardiner’s response was telling. While admitting the need to recycle more, he added: “Whether it is anaerobic diges­tion of food waste or use of an incinera­tor, if we are clever about it, we can use those resources to our advantage.”

According to the Tolvik report, EfW capacity is certain to increase up to 2020. Ministers, it seems, are going to let things play out of their own accord rather than make any interventions.

number of efw plants

number of efw plants

Keith Riley, proprietor of Vismundi and partner in BH EnergyGap, is one of many within the waste and resources industry to be critical of the Govern­ment’s lack of leadership.

“I think it has got worse and it is why recycling is diminishing at an almost alarming rate,” he said. “It is a fact of life that anything relying on human behav­iour that is not the ‘easy way out’ has to be supported by education and rein­forced. With a policy void driving the education and reinforcement, and financial constrain acting against it, what we are seeing is inevitable.

“I think the future of EfW in the UK is with the private sector. If there is no political leadership or policy, everything will come down to cost and we may see a Scandinavian type of situation, but I think it will be a cop out. To my mind, we should hold on to a recycling target of between 50-60%, which I think is achievable without excessive cost, and recover the rest through EfW.”

England may not end up with a cul­ture of smorgasbord and saunas, but it could become accustomed to burning its waste rather than recycling it.


The Tolvik report says that operational capacity beyond 2020 will depend on the development of additional facilities.

“Recent trends suggest that the EfW plants most likely to be developed will either be advanced conversion technology (ACT) facilities benefitting from subsidy support or larger scale EfWs based on conventional technologies.

“In April, bids were submitted by developers of ACT projects seeking support under the Contracts for Difference mechanism. It is understood from several sources that there could have been as many as 30 such applications.

”With this level of competition, there is the potential that the level of support awarded to successful projects may not always be enough for them to be commercially viable.”

EfW is flourishing without subsidies

keith riley

keith riley

It will never outsell Harry Potter, but Tolvik’s UK Energy from Waste Statistics 2016 is just as enthralling a read for those of us who like this sort of thing. It tells a fascinating tale of discovery, unfurls some mysteries and even has a dash of wizardry.

Recording that in 2016 there were 37 operational EfW plants and four under construction, if nothing else the report demonstrates clearly that EfW is now well established and an important part of the country’s waste management solution. It shows how, in just a decade, the waste processed by thermal treatment has trebled while that going to landfill has nearly halved.

It anticipates an industry that will continue to grow, and it shows that, with more than 5.2GWh being generated in 2016, EfW is now making a significant contribution towards meeting the nation’s demand for electricity. But that’s not the case with heat, which still struggles to become established.

The report gives a good insight to the make–up of the industry. Despite Government incentives providing support to certain technologies, in 2016 the EfW industry was still highly consolidated, with smaller players holding less than 4% of market share. The giants of the industry – Veolia, Viridor, Suez and FCC – dominate the operator league table, with Cory able to make sixth place with just one plant.

Keith Riley is proprietor of Vismundi and partner in BH EnergyGap

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