Speaking at a conference in Rome last week, Helmut Maurer of the European Commission’s waste and recycling division, was reported as saying that “energy recovery should be a last resort in preference to recycling plastics”, but FCC Environment’s Kristian Dales has spoken out in opposition to that stance, saying there is a “shortfall of reprocessing capacity in the UK to deal with greater volumes of recovered materials”.
Dales said: “It’s all very well and good arguing for plastics recycling over energy recovery but is there a commercially viable market for recycled plastics? Where is the certainty given the downturn in the global commodities market and the recent spiralling of oil prices, the impacts of which are already impacting on demand for recovered plastic polymers? Quality will continue to be a crucial price differentiator, but this is heavily reliant on influencing consumer behaviour to address issues of contamination. There is no sign yet of the scale of funding we saw back in the early 2000s to orchestrate new public education campaigns to tackle this.
“There is also a shortfall of reprocessing capacity in the UK to deal with greater volumes of recovered materials. In addition, national recycling rates appear to have plateaued – with no firm policy framework in place to help stimulate the secondary commodities market, developing a robust business case to invest in new materials recovery facilities remains challenging. Given the current state of play, are we entering an era of diminishing returns with regards to recycling?
“The thermal treatment of residual plastics through Energy from Waste (EfW) can act as a complementary technology choice. We currently have a buoyant UK export market for refuse derived fuels (RDF), driven by demand for feedstock from overseas EfW facilities, low shipping costs and the strength of sterling. RDF exports offer the industry a cost-effective treatment/disposal route for residual waste while helping to deliver against zero waste to landfill aspirations.
“But in exporting our RDF, we are also exporting huge value out of the UK as well as the fact that exporting RDF while importing energy in other forms also undermines domestic energy security. RDF has the potential to offer so much more if a domestic market can be built for it, both in terms of meeting the UK’s future energy requirements and offering businesses a closed loop solution to help power their logistics and production processes.
“Despite the current lack of spare capacity in domestic EfW facilities to take advantage of the amount of RDF being produced, there are enough EfW facilities either under construction or in the planning process across the UK to match future RDF capacity to demand. But it remains unclear as to how many of these plants will eventually become operational.
“It is difficult to gauge investor confidence with regard to large-scale EfW projects, especially in the wake of the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for a series of major PFI municipal waste contracts. This, coupled with the seemingly confusing mix of incentives and credits under the Feed-in Tariff, Renewables Obligation Certificates and Contracts for Difference regimes, has resulted in an inconsistent policy approach that is only creating more uncertainty for the sector. That said, EfW remains a proven and bankable technology. Recently we have seen a handful of new merchant facilities come on-stream in the UK and over the next five years we will inevitably see more, especially as EU 2020 landfill and renewable energy targets draw closer.”
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