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Call for energy-from-waste boost in UK as landfill capacity falls ‘faster than anticipated’

Landfill capacity in the UK is falling faster than anticipated and the UK faces a severe shortage of waste treatment infrastructure over the next decade, according to new research from resource management company Suez.

The company unveiled its findings in its new report entitled Mind the Gap 2017-2030 at the RWM exhibition at the Birmingham NEC on 12 September, 2017.

The shortage relates primarily to a lack of energy-from-waste (EfW) power plants, which are replacing landfill sites as the preferred, more sustainable, waste disposal solution for non-recyclable “residual” waste, the company said in its report.

According to Suez, landfills are closing at a faster rate than anticipated, with some regions of the UK facing the “virtual elimination” of easily accessible landfill sites within the next five years, putting additional pressure on what it calls “scarce” alternative EfW treatment capacity.

The report stated: “The stand-out conclusion from our assessment of the UK’s future residual waste infrastructure requirements is that landfill capacity is declining faster than anticipated, so much so that trading zones such as the South East, incorporating Kent, and East and West Sussex, face virtual elimination of local landfill site access by 2025.”

Today, the UK currently throws away around 60-70m tonnes of household and non-hazardous commercial and industrial waste (according to forecast figures based on Suez modelling) each year, much of which still ends up in landfill. However, due to the closure of many landfill sites and what Suez calls “insufficient EfW capacity”, the UK now exports over 3m tonnes a year of waste to Europe for EfW treatment.

Suez stated that its research has identified a serious capacity deficit, or “gap”, between waste volumes needing non-landfill treatment and the available capacity to treat this waste in domestic and overseas EfW plants.

Domestic treatment capacity

Forecasting over a decade-long horizon, Suez maintained that its projections indicate a current national shortfall of nearly 14m tonnes of domestic treatment capacity, dropping to just under 8m tonnes by 2022 and approximately 3m in 2027.

The gap diminishes over this period as facilities in the planning pipeline are built and recycling increases – although Suez’s figures assume a modest combined national recycling rate increase to 55% over the next decade, which the UK may still struggle to achieve based on current household recycling performance (which remains stagnant at 45%), Suez stated.

An increase in recycling must also be accompanied by more recycling infrastructure, which Suez maintained its predictions show will require a further £1bn investment over the time period.

Even though the gap diminishes, the 3m tonne capacity shortfall in 2027 represents the equivalent capacity of 10 typically-sized EfW plants, which would together cost more than £2bn to build and have the combined electricity output to power half a million British homes, according to Suez.

Elsewhere, the report claimed that Brexit “is likely to alter the market dynamics for exported refuse derived fuel and solid recovered fuel, again requiring a re-appraisal of domestic thermal treatment capacity”. The Brexit vote also presaged a weaker pound, bringing adverse foreign exchange considerations into play in relation to export contracts.

In one of its recommendations, Suez called on the UK government to “recognise the contribution energy-from-waste makes to the UK’s energy mix and integrate it into spatial plans for energy delivery to accommodate the repatriation of exported refuse derived fuel and solid recovered fuel back to the UK”.

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