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Blog: RDF – to export or not to export…?

Date: 17/09/2013 | Author: Chris Oldfield

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UNTHA UK’s managing director Chris Oldfield was a panellist at last week’s RWM debate ‘RDF Export: An interim solution or long-term trend’. Here he shares some of his views.

Many people have now read the figures that last year the UK and Ireland exported almost 1 million tonnes of RDF to other European countries. This is quite astonishing, considering only three years ago the export level was relatively low.

But why have these statistics caused such industry debate?

We are faced with a situation whereby residual municipal solid waste is being processed in the UK to create a relatively crude, low-grade fuel, which is then utilised as a fossil fuel substitute in energy from waste plants across the continent. This production of refuse derived fuel (RDF) supports the UK’s landfill diversion strategy, which is crucial at a time when stringent targets are looming. However, it is the energy strategies of other European nations that benefit from this RDF production, not our own.

There is seemingly very little alignment between the UK’s resources and energy policies - otherwise we would be making more effective usage of RDF domestically. It has also been reported that approximately 50 per cent of the material within RDF can be classed as renewable, so it seems ludicrous that we are not better-harnessing this valuable energy source.

Of course there are a number of reasons why we’re not. The UK Government seemingly views RDF as a waste treatment technique, not an energy feedstock. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why our EfW infrastructure still lags behind that of our European neighbours. Progress is being made though, and we should welcome the efforts of companies like SITA, who are trying to make the best possible use of the ‘rubbish’ the UK generates.

Public opinion also plays an influential factor. In countries like Denmark, EfW plants are considered something to be proud of and a valued part of the community. These facilities even have education centres that teach local schoolchildren about the energy generation process and the importance of living a sustainable life.

In the UK however, plans to build new EfW plants are often met with great public protest. Some people also wrongfully claim that ‘dirty RDF production’ undermines the efforts that households undertake to recycle and support the waste hierarchy.

Nobody is disputing that the hierarchy places recovery just above landfill and of course the focus should be on reducing the amount of waste produced in the first place. However, the UK is faced with landfill diversion targets that it must achieve, and for as long as such volumes of waste continue to be generated, RDF supports diversion success.

Better education and communication surrounding RDF would illustrate that the industry does try to recycle as much as is economically and environmentally possible. However it is not feasible to recycle everything, especially contaminated recyclates. RDF therefore provides a next-step solution. Industry studies have also found that EfW does not have a detrimental effect on recycling rates, which is something very few households probably realise.

If attitudes towards RDF were to improve, the UK’s thermal treatment infrastructure may take shape more quickly. There are reportedly over 26 million tonnes of RDF/solid recovered fuel potential in the UK and Ireland, which we should be using in place of fossil fuels.

Until then, it makes sense for other European states to benefit from this energy source. As a fellow panellist pointed out last week, RDF export is not a panacea, but it is a helpful landfill diversion deliverable and an important component within the UK’s toolkit, for the time being.

Of course the UK could be exposed to more volatile export markets if other EU states increase their production of RDF. We therefore cannot and should not view RDF as something destined solely for overseas use.

What I would like to see is RDF production plants adopting a slightly more methodical approach to the manufacturing of this fuel. This is not because end user requirements are not being satisfied - on the contrary customers on the continent are happy with the quality of RDF being supplied. However, RDF producers need to remember there is wealth in waste, and at present, valuable revenue-generating recyclates such as metals are also being shipped abroad.

We may have agreed that exporting our energy is a helpful interim solution, but we should try not to export our profits too.

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