The past eight months or so have seen waste and resources rise on the political agenda. The industrial strategy, the clean growth strategy and the 25-year environment plan all recognise the importance of properly valuing our resources.
The Environmental Services Association (ESA) believes that energy from waste (EfW) has a key role to play in the UK’s resources strategy. This is why in June, the ESA launched its report, Energy for the Circular Economy.
There is a danger that policy activity will be focused on isolated issues, targeting small but high-profile waste streams such as coffee cups, plastic bottles and straws. Even as we reach the ambitious target of 65% municipal recycling by 2030, there will still be 35% of waste left over.
This needs to be properly planned for. We need an holistic, integrated approach that puts each waste stream to the best use – environmentally and economically – and that includes residual waste left after recycling.
EfW is already diverting 10 million tonnes of waste from landfill in the UK, while powering the equivalent of 1.8 million homes with low-carbon electricity, and supplying industry and local communities with heat that would otherwise be wasted. And it has the potential to deliver more.
We are still sending 12 million tonnes of waste a year to landfill. Each tonne of waste diverted from landfill to EfW saves 200kg of CO2e and produces enough electricity to make 22,000 cups of tea.
But there appears to be complacency about the continued need to plan for residual waste, with the memory of 1960s polluting incinerators and fears about cannibalising recycling. This could lead to 3.5-6 million tonnes of waste without a home in 2030, for which the only option will be to open new landfills. Instead, this waste could be sent to EfW facilities to generate power for an extra million homes.
The ESA report provides an overview of EfW in the UK, addresses some of the concerns around the technology, looks to what the sector can achieve, and outlines a set of recommendations for how the Government can inject some energy back into residual waste policy.
The report does not ask for funding or complex policy measures; financial support and policy interventions should be targeted at stimulating high-quality recycling. Rather, we want the Government to unlock investment in EfW by creating a coherent, stable policy environment for resources and waste management that recognises the important role of EfW in supporting the other levels of the waste hierarchy.
Urgent action from the Government is required to deliver ambitious recycling targets while ensuring the UK has the necessary domestic treatment infrastructure to handle post-recycling waste, as landfill capacity continues to diminish. With the right policy support, the ESA estimates that up to £10bn of private sector capital will be unleashed across the sector, delivering 50,000 jobs, boosting GDP by £3bn a year and contributing to economic growth.
To read the full report, go to esauk.org/esa_reports
Libby Forrest is Policy and parliamentary affairs officer at Environmental Services Association