The UK is likely to face an unbridgeable gap in energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity despite the Government’s objective of sharply increasing recycling set out in its resources and waste strategy.
Consultancy Tolvik has modelled the various recommendations in the strategy and concluded that there is a gap of up to around six million tonnes a year in the ability of incinerators to handle residual waste.
Its report Filling the Gap: the Future for Residual Waste in the UK noted: “It is difficult not to conclude that the [gap] between political aspirations (as measured by indicative ‘goals’ and generally soft targets) and the overall ability to deliver them has potentially never been so great.”
Tolvik director Adrian Judge said: “The amount of residual waste is projected to become a little larger than before by around 2-2.5 million tonnes by 2035.”
This was because there had not previously been any clarity on how the Government proposed to hit the EU Circular Economy target of 65% recycling.
The strategy set that out with proposals that could be modelled, “but it will be less effective than it could be as there seems to be little understanding among politicians of the magnitude of the changes needed to make it happen”, Judge said.
He explained: “We think there will be more residual waste than previously projected because we can now see how much by modelling the strategy.”
Its modelling showed that, by 2035, if there were no change in policy, residual waste would increase from around 28 million tonnes a year to almost 31 million. Under Defra’s projection in the strategy, this would decrease to some 20 million tonnes, but Tolvik said it considered its estimate of a fall to 27 million tonnes more realistic.
Tolvik for the first time modelled the impact of bulky waste, outages on EfW capacity and geographical remoteness from EfW sites – which it collectively termed BOG – material which must be landfilled.
Judge said: “If you take the increased tonnage of residual waste and the effect of BOG, you get to a seven million tonnes a year shortfall in EfW capacity.”
Tolvik found 16.2 million tonnes of potential EfW capacity at various stages, from proposal to construction.
But it estimated that only 3-3.5 million tonnes of capacity could be built in the next few years, with at least half of the remainder “will never be built as it is too unrealistic in location or scale, so we will inevitably still need landfill capacity for a long time”.
The report also said there would be sharply increased demand for transport of residual waste around the country because the location of existing and proposed EfW plants was biased towards northern England while most of the waste was in the south.
It said: “While 30% of the UK’s capacity gap is in southern England, only 15% of EfW development projects are located [there]. On the other hand, just 10% of UK capacity gap is located in northern England, but it accounts for 37% of EfW capacity under development.”
If left unchanged, this imbalance would lead to “a near doubling in the bulk haulage requirement for residual waste by 2025”, Tolvik concluded.
A report by the consultancy last year identified a slowdown in the growth of the EfW sector, with 10.9 million tonnes of residual waste processed in 2017. This was a 7.7% increase from the previous year, but slower growth than the 20% seen in 2016.