Has Defra delivered a guiding light on EfW?

The Government's recent energy-from-waste guide aims to offer some clarity on the energy recovery debate, but how helpful is it? Rebecca Eatwell attempts to find out

Earlier this month Defra published its long-awaited Energy from Waste: A guide to the debate which is designed to be a ‘credible reference document to inform discussions and decisions relating to energy from waste’. It forms part of a government commitment set out in the 2011 Waste Review, of ensuring that recovery of energy-from-waste (EfW) – and its place in the waste hierarchy – is understood and valued by households, businesses and the public sector in the same way as reuse and recycling.

This is clearly an ominous task and will take more than a guidance document to achieve, particularly in light of the existing localised opposition to proposed EfW solutions across the country and surrounding complex politics that accompanies this. The main problem with communication around EfW is that the majority of those taking an interest are people with an already established agenda, such as those promoting the technology, or individuals and communities that perceive themselves to be impacted by a proposed facility.

One of the major factors shaping this document is its attempt to be all things to everyone, describing itself as being intended for use by: members of the public; local government officers and members; the waste management industry; developers and technology providers; and non-governmental organisations. In trying to meet the requirements of this wide range of audiences, the document could be argued to lack some of the succinctness and clarity that may help simplify the debate.

In addition, the need for the document to remain impartial in its nature also means that some of the key economic benefits of EfW, such as potential economic and wider community benefits are not included, so the document does not necessarily ‘sell’ EfW to its full potential.

However, the document clearly sets out to meet head-on many of the well-rehearsed arguments against EfW that developers and waste authorities have faced over the last few years. It also provides a detailed summary of how EfW fits with the wider policy and regulatory context of central government, which is no doubt a useful tool for those promoting a solution of this nature.

Therefore, used effectively, this document definitely can be used by those promoting EfW solutions to help reinforce key messages and arguments. However, it will be important to target specific aspects of the report at the relevant audiences.

For example, when it comes to engaging with local communities, our experience of undertaking community consultation around EfW facilities demonstrates that we deal with explaining the same key issues time and again: health, emissions, visual impact, and transport.

Therefore, when engaging with local communities, the document can be referenced to add weight to information and key arguments drawn out in relation to these issues. For example, the document acknowledges that health is as a key concern and sets out the role of the Health Protection Agency alongside its view that ‘well managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants’, and that ‘while it is possible such small additions could have an impact on health, such effects, if they exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable.’

A more effective use of this document, however, may well lie in the process of engagement with local councillors, officers and non-governmental organisations, which need to have a broader understanding of all the issues surrounding this type of waste solution. It helpfully sets out in an accessible way some of the policy and commercial arguments that set the wider context of a scheme, such as: why EfW is a more sustainable solution than landfill; the challenges associated with financing an EfW facility and the need for proven technology solutions; and the potential for generating renewables energy.

Overall, the guide provides a useful overview for anyone looking to understand the issues surrounding EfW and provides a positive endorsement of the role EfW can play in meeting both landfill and renewable energy targets. However, it’s unlikely to overcome some of the real barriers facing the industry.

Rebecca Eatwell is a director at PPS Group

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