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What factors are influencing waste to energy capacity requirements in the UK and Europe?

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What factors are influencing waste to energy capacity requirements in the UK and Europe? How can the EU balance its EFW capacity going forward?

As growth in municipal recycling has slowed to a crawl over the last five years, after racing from 11.2% in 2000/01 to 41.5% in 2010/11, the European target of 50% recycling by 2020 is beginning to look increasingly challenging. Let alone the 65% target by 2030.

So it should at lead us to question why whilst recycling growth has been slowing down, the government has effectively been lending (via the Green Investment Bank) increasing amounts of money towards building infrastructure to treat municipal waste via incineration or ‘energy from waste’ (EfW). It surely isn’t controversial to say that you can’t both recycle and get energy from waste; you have to choose.

In late 2011, Eunomia’s first Residual Waste Infrastructure Review (RWIR) found that the UK had 13.1 million tonnes per annum (tpa) of treatment capacity either operating or ‘in build’. Since then, capacity has almost doubled and continues to grow, meaning that the UK is still on course to exceed the waste infrastructure it will need in future. This is especially true if it is to achieve the higher levels of recycling envisaged in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package, but remains true even at lower recycling rates.

Eunomia’s ninth RIWR, published in December last year, found that facilities either currently operational, being built or having reached financial close and expected to be operational by 2020/21, combined with anticipated waste exports, are collectively capable of processing 23.1 million tpa of residual waste. Fully utilised, this will exceed the 22.7 million tonnes of residual waste expected to be produced in the year.

In worryingly oblique fashion, what this suggests is that the UK government has dwindling interest in meeting the 65% recycling target by 2030 that is proposed in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package. Partly this is down to the market – the recycling industry has been hit hard by the fall in oil prices, as primary raw materials have become increasingly cheaper than recycled materials. Nevertheless, other Member States seem not to be giving up; it is interesting to see that the Netherlands has recently mandated a municipal recycling target of 75% by 2020; albeit whilst incinerating increasing amounts of waste from the UK and Ireland.

If all EU member states are to achieve an EU 65% target by 2030, resources need to be channelled towards recycling infrastructure and away from residual treatment. Here in the UK, if we continue on our current course, the risk is that the growth in residual treatment capacity will lead to lower residual gate fees, as supply begins to outstrip demand. This, in turn, will undermine recycling as it competes on cost. The Government should therefore be considering measures to allow the UK to meet the 2030 targets, or at least to ensure that decisions are not made that would make meeting such a target harder to achieve.

Regulation is unlikely, but much else could be done. For example, as the targets are wider than just local authority collected waste, it could focus on supporting recycling amongst businesses to help make up for any potential local authority shortfall. It could also support those local authorities that are not yet constrained by residual treatment contracts to maximise their recycling.

We need to recognise – and soon – that if energy recovery remains the main focus of investment, then either the UK won’t meet its recycling targets or it will do so at the expense of wasted investment in EfW.

Mike will be chairing a panel on these issues at the upcoming World Waste to Energy City Summit in London on May 10-11 2016.

To join the debate, visit: www.worldwastetoenergy.com

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