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Blog: RDF - not the magic answer but part of the solution

Date: 5/08/2014 | Author: Marcus Brew

Image for Blog: RDF - not the magic answer but part of the solutionMarcus Brew, sales director and WtE specialist at UNTHA UK, on why there is a future for Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF)

I read an industry article recently which asked if it is the end for refuse derived fuels. Admittedly the author made some incredibly valid points about the need for UK MRFs to better recover and recycle valuable commodities, because of the commercial and environmental benefits that can be achieved by doing so. And good on him for getting the industry’s cogs turning and encouraging change.

After all, is RDF ideal? No. Is it an indefinite solution? No. Would we rather the UK paid greater attention to the principles of the waste hierarchy? Yes.

But we must acknowledge the environmental landscape that we currently find ourselves in the midst of, and accept that things are much more complex than we would perhaps like.

Before even entering the ‘recycling vs energy recovery’ debate for example, there should be greater focus on reducing the amount of surplus material created, at source. Where this cannot be avoided, steps should be taken to encourage reuse. Every supply chain member has a part to play here, including product designers who can influence the longer-term usability, reusability and recyclability of an item.

After that, recycling certainly should be the next priority. This is the real revenue generator for MRFs after all, and environmental consciences remain gratified in the process. Indeed many of our shredding technologies have been purposefully engineered to enable companies to turn today’s waste into tomorrow’s resource, and profits.

However, in some instances, barriers exist which are restricting the UK’s recycling progress, and RDF shouldn’t take all the blame here.

Yes there are less scrupulous organisations which – as with many areas of business – cut corners to make a ‘quick buck’. And those that see RDF production as an easy option for managing untreated waste need to be stopped. Not only are they tarnishing the reputation of Waste to Energy (WtE) and skewing the public’s perception of RDF production; they are also failing to optimise the recovery of valuable material that could be recycled. However, the UK has further issues to contend with, which also need to be addressed.

The country’s approach to recycling is very fragmented. Local authority collection strategies, for instance, are inconsistent. Elsewhere organisations, particularly SMEs, struggle to adopt better workplace recycling because of the cost of doing so. And only recently a national newspaper claimed that supermarkets are deterred from sending unsold food to feed the hungry, because government subsidies make it cheaper for them to convert it into biofuel.

Such examples illustrate that the UK’s approach to waste, resource efficiency and the circular economy is far from perfect. Change is needed to spur recycling improvements, reduce recyclate contamination and enhance recyclate quality.

But this does not make RDF defunct; certainly not yet. Why? Because it is not currently possible or commercially viable to recycle all materials. Fibres can become contaminated with food waste in commingled collections, for example, which renders them unsuitable for recycling. In such an instance, when other hierarchical avenues have been exhausted, RDF does have a role to play.

I read in the aforementioned article that: ‘It is clear there is no long term future for RDF as a standalone solution for the UK’s C&I waste’. I doubt many people would have ever considered it a standalone solution. We have certainly always said that it is not a panacea – just an important part of a wider waste management toolkit. And as for the longer term role of RDF, findings from SITA UK’s Mind the Gap report, published in February 2014, would suggest it certainly does have a future.

Yes we should be making better use of RDF domestically instead of relying on export, for obvious environmental, commercial and moral reasons. But, at present, we still lack the infrastructure to wholly commit to RDF usage in the UK. RDF operators are therefore following the economics of supply and demand, and ensuring that the waste our country continues to produce is put to some good use, rather than being landfilled.

The fact that energy recovery is so popular on the continent, in countries much more environmentally advanced than ours, also indicates the role that RDF has to play, so long as the industry and wider community respect the parameters in which it should be utilised. Interestingly, a report published by CIWM and AMEC in July 2013, stated that the majority of EU Countries with high levels of energy recovery also have high levels of recycling. What’s more, they were said to have found no evidence from stakeholder discussions that the use of EfW prevents recycling.

Is the cost of RDF production ‘eye-wateringly high’, as the article stated? Perhaps this was the case some years ago, but such a viewpoint is perhaps now outdated. Baling and wrapping RDF is not ‘cheap’ by any means. However, RDF operators often have some useful processing equipment to hand. What’s more, acknowledging the significant environmental and commercial benefits that operators can achieve through responsible RDF and SRF production, industry leading technology providers are working hard to design ultra-efficient, energy saving equipment that can offset other costs associated with the WtE process and ensure system profitability.

Our new RDF shredder for example can produce fuel derived from C&I waste for less than a £1/tonne including power, wear and maintenance costs which is most definitely not a drain on profits. It has been suggested by some in industry that RDF is becoming commercially unviable, but by taking such steps to continually improve equipment, processes and plant designs, many suppliers are ensuring that this is not the case.

No effective waste management process is, in truth, low cost. However, as an industry, we survive, and thrive, by driving efficiencies. And, with the right investment, comes revenue and environmental gain.

In debating the most responsible avenues for ‘waste’ materials, we also cannot ignore landfill. For as long as some of the aforementioned obstacles exist, which are currently restricting the UK from making as much progress as we would like, we must concede that, in some instances landfill is the most carbon and cost neutral option. This will hopefully not be the case for much longer, but it is very much a matter of fact for now.

Of course we can all adopt an idealistic viewpoint and talk about what the UK should be doing. It would be great if we lived in a truly circular economy where neither landfill or energy recovery were even considered, and where emotive speeches prompted the progress we yearn for.

However, in reality, the UK’s attitude to waste is far from perfect.  The nation continues to produce far too much waste in the first place, and the fact that ‘waste’ is still such a commonly used term, perhaps speaks volumes.

We must accept that there is still an incredible amount of work to be done to get to the point where our aspirations become actuality. Until then, we need to realise the role that Waste to Energy methodologies such as RDF have to play, certainly for the interim. 

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