UK waste policy: Burning away recycling ambitions or ‘sleepwalking’ to capacity crisis?

A report warning that UK waste treatment capacity will exceed the generation of residual waste by 2020 has been labelled as "flawed" by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which instead claimed that the Government is "sleepwalking" towards an energy-from-waste capacity crisis.

A new report released today (7 August) by consultants Eunomia suggests that UK recycling rates would be limited to a maximum of 63% by 2020, due to the planned residual waste treatment capacity in the construction pipeline.

Eunomia found that since 2010, the UK has more than doubled its residual waste treatment capacity from 6.3m tonnes to 13.5m tonnes. Over the same period, the quantity of residual waste that is suitable for treatment fell from 30m tonnes annually to 26m tonnes annually.

“An excess of residual waste treatment facilities has the potential to undermine resource efficiency, and the incentive to handle waste in more environmentally friendly ways in accordance with the legally binding waste hierarchy,” the report noted.

“As residual waste availability decreases, facilities will compete more intensely to receive that waste. For waste that is not governed by pre-existing contractual arrangements, the price of treatment will increasingly move towards the marginal cost of providing the service. In other words, residual waste treatment gate fees would fall, which would directly affect the economics of recycling.”

The study covers domestic infrastructure designed to handle residual waste, such as incineration and gasification, and excludes other facilities that would process the waste as a fuel source, such as Waste Incineration Directive (WID) biomass facilities.

It points out that if 100% of projected capacity projects were deployed, recycling rates could fall below 50%, as waste incinerators come online during a shrinking period for residual waste.

‘Astounding’ overstatement

Eunomia does point out that data on commercial and industrial waste is “stubbornly poor” and tweaked the findings from its previous Residual Waste Infrastructure Review report as a result.

In response to the report, the ESA criticised the “flawed” findings and claimed that repeating the overcapacity message could risk future investment into the energy-from-waste sector.

ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler said: “Eunomia’s findings are flawed and have been contradicted by report after report from everyone else who’s looked at our residual waste treatment needs.

“Year after year these consultants have claimed that the UK was heading for overcapacity – its earlier reports suggested that we would already have reached overcapacity today – and it is galling that they continue to repeat the message when we are crying out for more investment in our industry. Their abilities to overstate available capacity and under-predict residual waste arisings are astounding.”

Hayler claimed that energy-from-waste capacity would end up more than five million tonnes short on capacity by 2030, and the that Government needed to realise that if it is “not to sleepwalk into a capacity crisis”.

Brexit implications

The Eunomia report notes that the Government is developing its waste policy as part of the draft industrial strategy launched earlier this year. The UK is currently working towards a 50% target for household waste by 2020, established by the Waste Framework Directive (WID).

WID was launched in 2008 by the European Union (EU), and the majority of the UK’s waste management policy has been shaped by wider EU legislation.

The report claims that Defra is working on the assumption the UK will adopt the majority of these legislative approaches, including the Circular Economy Package, which could target municipal recycling rates of 70% for 2030.

Under Defra’s guidance current household recycling rates have increased from 11% to 44% between 2000 and 2015.

Last month, waste and resource management company FCC Environment’s chief executive Paul Taylor argued that Brexit could give the waste sector the coherent, long-term framework it desperately needs.

Matt Mace

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