Energy-from-waste and the Circular Economy
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Out with the old and in with the new. To the traditional linear economy of make, use and dispose, now, thankfully, we have the Circular Economy (CE). This is an alternative model in which we seek to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, and then recover and regenerate products at the end of each service life.

The European Union's CE package has a number of clear targets linked to discourage landfill and increase recycling. Whether this package is adopted in any form by the UK government will depend on how its relationship with the EU is defined and the strategy developed as part of the Brexit negotiations.

Whatever the final approach, energy from waste (EfW) – thermal treatment coupled with energy recovery - must be included and should play a central part to the development of the CE. It is a key method for taking the residual element of our waste stream and converting it via incineration into a form of energy, either electricity or heat. EfW also helps to provide low cost, sustainable and secure energy.

The use of EfW should be seen as complementary rather than competing with recycling.

Julio Garcia Burges, Head of Waste Division in Directorate-General of the European Commission said in February 2015: “The future holds a place for WtE (waste-to-energy) solutions…The experience in better performing (EU) Member States shows that high recycling rates above 60% can co-exist with waste-to-energy levels approaching 30% if recyclable and recoverable materials are diverted from landfill.”

This approach embodies the principle that contaminated waste or waste not suitable for ‘quality’ recycling is best used as part of the CE to generate local, affordable and secure energy. The gradual banning of recyclable and subsequently recoverable waste from landfill provides the foundation for the use of waste to generate energy as a key component of the CE and could represent 25-30% of the waste available.

Both Scotland and Wales have taken the first steps towards banning recyclable and recoverable waste from landfill. But even if the rest of the UK does not adopt the EU principle, the continued increase in Landfill Tax is an incentive to divert waste away from landfill to alternatives such as EfW. We have already seen a move in this direction with the creation of the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) market where waste once destined for landfill is now being used as a fuel for energy generation.

The RDF export market has grown from near zero to over 3 million tonnes per year within just four years. The changing relationship with Europe, (coupled with the recent fall in the pound against the euro) has created an opportunity to develop additional EfW infrastructure within the UK to take advantage of the RDF and use this resource locally to generate energy.

Including EfW as part of the CE, and not as an after thought or bolt on, will ensure that the correct focus is placed on generating quality recycling while ensuring the most effective use of the residue as a fuel for energy generation. It can act as a driver for quality recycling by providing a valuable method for the treatment of contaminated or non-suitable waste and by keeping harmful materials out of the recycling supply chain.

In addition, there are occasions when materials are bonded and can only be separated after thermal treatment such as the extraction of ferrous and non-ferrous materials from bottom ash. Bottom ash can also be used as a resource within the construction industry by following CE principles.

EfW also provides an opportunity to enhance energy security. Considering that in 2012 EU countries imported 106 billion m3 of natural gas from Russia (Eurostat), it is worth noting that the energy content of the waste treated by EfW plants in the EU equalled 19% of Russian gas imports that year. Given the stories that regularly appear about lights going out and shortage of generation capacity within the network, EfW provides a valuable source of consistent energy.

The inclusion of EfW within the CE is a must if the full principles are to be adopted, quality recycling increased and energy security enhanced. The wider question however still remains on how the UK will develop, adopt and implement a CE package? That is for another day…