Will Defra’s recent “response to the call for evidence” on the RDF fuel market move things the right way? Luke Prazsky, waste resource management specialist at Wardell Armstrong, argues for much deeper consultation with the industry – and against more red tape. CIWM Journal Online Exclusive
Most of us would applaud the idea of tightening up regulation and enforcement to prevent RDF waste being stored in ways that cause environmental health hazards. Defra’s decision to reject calls to ban or tax RDF waste exports also makes good sense. Diminishing the important principle of the free movement of goods could have unwanted consequences.
But what about Defra’s ambition to develop a definition and treatment standard for RDF – especially one “where we can be confident that all practicably recyclable materials have been removed”? I would agree that loosely shredding residual waste without recovering any materials and then classifying it as RDF is not appropriate. But how would any definition deal with contaminated material recovered that reprocessors do not want? When does a material cease to be a recyclate? And what exactly does “practicably” mean?
Waste, as we all know, is complex. Its management as a reusable resource is driven by the market. Some materials such as plastics lose their value if the cost of decontaminating them makes them economically unviable depending on the cost and availability of raw materials. Who would have thought ten years ago that the rare earth metals used in mobile phones would have the value they do today?
The bottom line is that recyclable materials can only be seen as such if there’s a market for them. That market is not a constant. If operators are forced to recover uneconomical contaminated materials, they’ll simply be rejected by the market and will still end up as fuel for thermal treatment. Only tax incentives can really stimulate demand for recovered recyclate and create a short term market.
Waiting For TEEP
On the issue of RDF quality, Defra is waiting to see if TEEP has an impact on residual waste composition. But TEEP may not fundamentally alter the quantities of recyclates that end up in the household waste bin. It forces local authorities to collect separately, but doesn’t stop householders putting everything in a black bag. It’s also likely to be a couple of years before we can start to spot any discernible change in trends.
Northern Ireland is mentioned as an example that England might want to follow. But the NI definition of RDF requires its calorific value to be higher than the residual waste it was produced from. This totally ignores any recycling opportunities that reduce the CV of the RDF – for example hard plastics. And who’s to say that a lower CV RDF is any less a fuel than a high CV RDF? Surely the test is whether the EfW plant to which it’s supplied can thermally treat it to produce electricity (and ideally heat). Maybe the answer is only to permit EfW facilities that can meet R1 status – and challenge industry that way.
In the area of regulation, enforcement and the assessment of operator competence, one option being considered is for operators to have to show they have a suitable end user contract in place as part of their application for an environmental permit. But would the Environment Agency really refuse to permit a large scale state-of-the-art facility for one of the big operators because they hadn’t confirmed which specific site the RDF waste was going to? If not, would they then have one rule for the big boys and another for smaller operators looking to expand into new sites? Would the new rules be applied only to new facilities or retrospectively as well? And how long would an RDF supply contract have to be in place for?
It’s Not Black & White
The waste world really isn’t that black and white. Environmental Permit (and planning) applications are made as part of a wider process and often as a necessary step on the funding ladder. So it could become a chicken and egg problem. An operator might not get funding to build a plant without a permit in place, but the Environment Agency might not give a permit before the operator has someone to take RDF waste that’s not yet being produced! The design and development of waste treatment plants can run into years, especially where funding is the challenge, and this idea will risk making the hurdles bigger.
That brings us on to the consideration of financial guarantees that would only be released when the waste was recovered. It would work much like the trans-frontier shipment of waste regulations do for wastes exported from the UK. But is this extra red tape and financial pressure really necessary? Despite lurid stories in the national press, the vast majority of RDF waste is produced, stored and treated appropriately without adverse environmental impact. True, there are some unfortunate incidents – but most are dealt with quickly and efficiently by law-abiding operators who didn’t set out to do anything wrong.
I would urge Defra to keep things simple. Talk more and in detail to the industry rather than relying on 47 written responses. Prosecute those who deliberately break the law, but don’t get sucked in to trying to define what RDF is or what materials have to come out for it to qualify.
And I’d ask the Environment Agency to think very carefully before creating more costly red tape or inconsistency. The waste industry needs a level playing field – and there are better ways of tackling a small number of rogue operators.