Spiraling corporate waste costs are becoming a growing concern for businesses in the UK. There are a number of factors at play and we’re seeing somewhat of a ‘perfect storm as the energy crisis bites, fuel costs spike, refuse center gate fees rise and the heavy goods vehicle driver shortage rolls on.
There’s long been chatter from successive governments about the drive towards a zero-waste society. But lofty targets and loose deadlines lead to inaction. While seeing waste as a resource helps to drive down the UK’s landfill usage thanks to Energy from Waste (EfW) plants popping up all over the country, it’s still not had the full trickle-down effect on turning rubbish to gold. As energy rates soar and EfW’s could pay more than ever for tonnage, why is waste still not the 4th utility? Let’s take a look at the elements within the waste economy to see where there might still be gaps we need to close.
As the UK government sets its sights on a zero-carbon future by 2050, emissions from key sectors such as waste need to be dramatically reduced. Sustainable waste management strategies are a crucial part of the transition to a greener and more circular economy. The circular economy is all about reducing waste by treating it as a resource that can be used.
The current focus is on ways to divert waste from landfill as this is associated with large C02 emissions, not to mention methane emissions. ‘Methane, generated from decomposing organic waste, is the solid waste sector’s largest contributor to GHG emissions. It is many times more potent than CO2’ (Eunomia, 2021) Disposal via landfill is the least sustainable and undesirable method to deal with waste and is at the very bottom of the waste hierarchy. To meet the government’s net zero targets, emissions from landfill need to be reduced and the waste sector decarbonized.
Recycling in the UK
The government has set a goal of 65% recycling of waste by 2035. In England, where the majority of the UK’s household waste is produced (85% in 2020, according to government statistics) the most recent figures put recycling rates at 43% in 2021. To achieve the goal of 65% of recycled waste there needs to be more investment in recycling technologies and infrastructure. Achieving higher recycling rates means more at-source separation of waste to prevent contamination. Also needed are technological improvements to process currently unrecyclable materials such as thin plastic film. The National Infrastructure Commission has set out a list of recommendations to achieve the 65% recycling goal. These include; separate food waste collection for households and businesses by 2025. A clearer labeling system that tells consumers whether the packaging is recyclable or not. Setting a national recycling standard to ensure consistency for both households and businesses and restricting hard-to-recycle plastic packaging by 2025. However, gaps are likely to remain until technology advances.
There are inefficiencies plaguing waste collection routes across the counties and boroughs of the UK. Duel-refuse collection trucks (trucks that hold recycling waste & mixed waste) look good on paper. One truck for one route right? The outcomes are not always as simple. A waste truck with a full load of recycling might be only 30% filled with mixed rubbish. That means the truck needs to stop it’s run while not being fully optimized.
Waste operators sending waste to EfWs will hunt out the highest bidder. This might mean slugging waste further from its original collection point just to receive a slightly more favorable fee at the gate when tipping.
If EfW plants were standardized on payments per tonne and the market rate was set to a dynamic pricing and payment solution could we see less carbon in the waste stream by trucks driving to their nearest EfW?
Waste from energy or incinerators is a method to deal with all residual waste unable to be recycled by current technology. Waste from energy is a preferred more environmentally friendly way of dealing with waste compared to sending it to landfill. Residual waste is a mix of different things such as waste from oil-derived materials like plastic and biodegradable materials like food, paper, and wood. While recycling and reuse are the best methods environmentally wise to deal with waste, there are still materials that are unable to be recycled.
Opportunities and challenges for EfW
Currently, 50% of the UK’s municipal and commercial and industrial residual waste is incinerated to produce energy. However, the majority of the UK’s EfW plants only produce electricity, compared to other European countries where EfW facilities provide combined heat and power (CHP). Today only 20% of plants in the UK have CHP facilities. CHP facilities are more energy efficient as they can provide surplus heat to residential and industrial consumers. According to a report by Eunomia (2021), heat networks are a way for EfW to maximise the benefits of energy generated at EfW plants. While EfW as a waste strategy provides significant benefits over landfill it is still considered a net CO2 emitter. This is because only part of the waste incinerated to produce energy is biogenic (from food/ paper/card) and these sources are usually disregarded in carbon analyses. If residual waste streams change as recycling rates increase, it is expected that emissions from EfW plants will increase as the composition of waste changes (more plastics). This had led to questions about the future of EfW as a sustainable method of waste management.
Can EfW co-exist alongside higher recycling?
Modeling carried out by consultancy Eunomia found that waste to energy can go from being a net contributor of emissions in 2035 to having net benefits if more plastic is removed from the waste stream and recycled. Improving the recycling captures of dense plastic and plastic film will reduce the carbon content of the waste stream. Mechanical pre-treatment technologies are market ready and are key to reducing the expected future emissions of EfW.
As energy prices continue their spike and EfWs can sell back to the grid with ever-increasing rates, will we finally see a shift in the way waste is valued? This factor alone has a great potential to heal a gap in the UK Waste economy.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology is one solution to reduce emissions from EfW. Installing CCS at energy-to-waste plants could potentially mitigate the carbon emissions from incineration. However, this is a more expensive option than pre-treating waste and there need to be more advances in technology to make it a viable option. Over time technology in this space has been rapidly advancing, and cheaper and greener solutions are on the horizon.
The waste economy isn’t perfect, but there remain a number of efficiencies at our disposal that could be further embraced. If the UK is serious about carbon emissions, zero-waste communities and if we all want to keep a lid on waste costs then these efficiencies need to be capitalized on.
At GPT Waste we’re proud of our commitment to expert waste-stream knowledge and optimization. We understand the factors at play and can help make improvements to waste streams that cost the earth and the balance sheet less.