Report: Burning UK’s non-recyclable waste could provide ‘green’ heat for half a million homes

There have been delays in the implementation of key Resources and Waste Strategy components due to Covid-19

Published today and backed by a total of 13 MPs from the APPG on sustainable resources, the ‘No Time To Waste’ report states that the UK’s waste footprint has grown steadily since 1990, despite action from policymakers and businesses around a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ framework. As such, the UK is currently producing 27.5 million tonnes of non-recyclable waste annually, excluding plastics.

The UK’s options for dealing with this waste are to either burn it to create energy-from-waste (EfW), landfill it domestically, or ship it overseas. The latter option is not compatible with the UK’s commitments on climate change or waste and resources, Policy Connect concludes, due to the fact that exported waste is often documented as recycled or sustainably managed, but is either burned in unregulated locations or left to pollute nature. Moreover, many nations are banning or limiting waste imports, which has pushed the cost of this option up in recent years.

Of the two remaining options, the report states that scaling up EfW is the better choice as the UK strives to recover from Covid-19 and to prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period, dubbing it “safer, cheaper and cleaner” than landfill. Policy Connect notably does not advocate using plastic waste for EfW, as the burning of plastics creates higher emissions and can release toxins such as mercury and furans.

Up to half a million homes – the number of properties in Birmingham – could be heated using EfW by 2030 if the Government works with the waste management industry to dramatically scale up capacity and related infrastructure.

Bringing this result to fruition would require 80% of non-recyclable, non-plastic waste to be sent to EfW facilities. This would require a multi-million-pound investment from central government, complemented by equally extensive investment from the private sector. The average cost of a new EfW plant is in the region of £500m.

To ensure that the scaling up of the UK’s EfW sector is compatible with the 2050 net-zero target and that it creates the maximum economic opportunity, the report calls for a “clear policy signal” to boost investment in low-carbon heat networks infrastructure and in carbon capture and storage (CCS). Many Scandinavian EfW facilities are already fitted with CCS arrays, it states. Should this model be replicated, the UK could mitigate four million tonnes of CO2e per year in the 2030s.

“This next generation of EfW plants will likely be among the last, so without clearer policy signals as we reboot our economy, the UK will waste this valuable opportunity to build back better,” Policy Connect’s policy manager Oliver Feaver said.

Industry reaction

The Policy Connect report does not shy away from the fact that EfW is not an emission-free alternative to landfilling. Previous analysis from Zero Waste Europe concluded that incinerating one tonne of waste would produce between 0.7 tonnes and 1.7 tonnes of CO2e.

However, it praises the UK waste management sector’s progress on decarbonisation to date, with emissions down 69% since 1990, noting that the heat sector could now replicate similar progress with sector coupling.

Responding to the Policy Connect report, the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA) executive director Jacob Hayler said: “ESA members have already invested billions to build Britain’s current EfW infrastructure, but there is still a capacity-gap, which is why millions of tonnes of rubbish is still sent to landfill or exported as Refuse Derived Fuel.

“To support the industry in making this further investment, we agree with the report’s recommendations that Government should publish a clear policy position outlining the future role of EfW as the best available treatment technology for residual waste, as well as a clear roadmap showing a pragmatic and carefully-managed transition to a net-zero circular economy. Making the most of EfW heat is also critical to maximising the benefit of this technology and we support Policy Connect’s recommendations for government to join the sector in our efforts to remove the current barriers to successful heat offtake.”

Ministers have faced repeated and scathing criticism for the Government’s efforts to decarbonise heat to date. BEIS is now working on a heat strategy, to be published this Autumn.

Sarah George

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