United Kingdom Waste Management in 2009: The Year Waste Became a Resource
The United Kingdom (UK) has traditionally used landfill disposal as the main method of waste management. However, it has long been recognised that landfilling is unsustainable due to its long term harmful effects on the environment and public health.
Landfill also places a high long term risk on groundwater quality, which could threaten the availability of clean water for future generations.
Under the European Union (EU) Landfill Directive, and starting in 2006, member nations were required to divert biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfills. The UK has also committed to the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which binds it to sourcing at least 15% of its energy mix from renewables by 2020.
Through the last decade the emphasis was on recycling, and this is still the case, but recycling will only achieve waste diversion up to a point. Therefore, to meet these targets, the UK is developing alternative waste management options as well as planning to achieve considerable deployment of renewables.
Throughout 2009 a number of aspects of UK waste management policy that have been in place for some time came together so that for the first time a genuine shift in the industry could be detected. Investors began to see the wisdom of those that have already anticipated this new vision and have committed to investment in the waste technologies, as many of the smaller more nimbly operators have begun to make profits. Where profit is to be made others will now follow to secure waste contracts for the resource that collected material provides them.
If asked what the single biggest influence on this was during 2009, I would say it as the governmentâ€™s Landfill Tax escalator policy which meant that for most waste disposers, for the first time, landfill disposal actually became more expensive than recycling. You can argue around the detail here, but I had not before the summer of 2009 witnessed recycling companies able to say they could offer price competitive disposal prices when head to head with the traditional landfill operators.
Another major driving force in UK waste management which is powering the evolution from a disposal problem to a resource optimisation opportunity are the high targets for waste diversion from landfill, and 20 year or longer integrated waste management contracts. These are public/private partnership projects which the UK government is pushing ahead with now in order to achieve those targets.
Here to, we saw a major milestone achieved while the recession was biting the hardest early in 2009. This was the successful planning application, and award of contract, for the Â£4 billion Greater Manchester Waste PFI Contract, the largest of its kind in Europe, and all built upon stakeholder involvement. However, the Greater Manchester PFI Contract is only the most high profile example of a procurement revolution which probably reached its peak of activity during 2009, and saw similar contracts either largely in place or planned throughout the nation.
The year also saw a number of these projects hit the headlines, and some Energy from Waste schemes being pushed back at planning (Cornwall and Edinburgh for example).
However, the trend continued and accelerated so that for all waste streams and/or locations where re-use or recycling of waste is not viable, energy recovery is being reinforced as the preferred option, with disposal used only as a last resort.
For a long while the major Energy from Waste producer has been from landfills, and it has been landfill gas (LFG) utilisation. However, the relative importance to LFG utilisation as a proportion of total energy from waste production will now be expected to decline.
Each month in the years to come we will see the rollout of new energy from waste (EfW) projects coming on-stream. However, while the adoption of new waste technologies is being supported in the UK by government departments, the perceived high risk for the PFI partnerships, has remained high. 2009 was not good for implementing the more innovative of these.
The increased cautiousness of the banks funding the private element of these projects has come at a very unfortunate time, as it has in my view severely detracted against the bankability of schemes using these new technologies. In fact, 2009 saw the shelving of quite a number of the more adventurous new waste technology options in favour of more traditional incineration technology.
During the year events also reinforced the wisdom of encouraging the use of EfW and other home grown renewable energy source, within the global scene. Most will remember that early in 2009 we saw the deep rationing of natural gas supplies to some European nations which were themselves unconnected with a producer country dispute. This held up supplies during the coldest weather and in a completely arbitrary fashion.
Most now strongly support the benefits of renewable energy for its improved energy supply security, ability to provide climate change mitigation when combined with stiff recycling targets and the highest possible waste diversion, and not least its resource efficiency.
However, good though that may be for waste as an opportunity, the main event of the year was the new found security to the recyclers which came with the attainment of the economic tipping point, whereby landfilling has become more expensive than most forms of main stream recycling activity. From now on the markets in recyclates will operate on a progressively more stable and normal economic basis.
Recycling has always made sense for the environment, but from now on it will also become a natural economically favourable option as well We can also look forward to the future knowing that the landfill tax will rise again in April 2010, taking us further into the new UK era of waste as a resource of opportunity.