A key alternative to landfill disposal is the production of refuse derived fuel (RDF) for energy generation via combustion.
However, with the current lack of available energy from waste (EfW) treatment capacity in the UK, Refuse Derived Fuel producers have taken advantage of spare capacity in the wider European market. This has seen exports of Refuse Derived Fuel from the UK grow rapidly from less than 300,000 tonnes in 2011 to over 2.3 million tonnes in 2014, and an increased figure expected for 2015 with every month showing record rises.
Two main factors are driving this overall refuse derived fuel market trend.
First, following the global economic downturn, decreases in waste arisings and an increase in recycling levels in many European countries have left EfW infrastructure with spare capacity which needs to be filled.
Second, the relatively high cost of waste disposal in the UK has made export an increasingly attractive option. Even with the additional costs of processing, baling, wrapping and associated logistics, the export of refuse derived fuel is price-competitive and less expensive than landfilling.
Quality requirements for RDF are generally set by the end-user.
If the final destination is a dedicated EfW facility, the input quality criteria may be low, with the waste not requiring pre-treatment as the plant will be operated under strict regulations and operate the necessary equipment for removing and cleaning emissions before release to atmosphere. This enables the plant to accept waste with more varied compositions while still achieving the strict emissions criteria as set out in the EC’s Industrial Emissions Directive.
However, if the RDF is to be used for co-incineration or as part of an industrial process such as cement production, then it is in the best interests of that plant to ensure that certain quality criteria are met to avoid technical problems such as corrosion, negative impacts on product or unwanted emissions to atmosphere.
Production and export has not been without its issues.
There have been numerous fires at RDF production and storage facilities in the UK, as well as complaints of odour and flies from local residents and logistics companies and receiving ports. In addition there has been an increase in waste crime associated with RDF production, such as storage of RDF being portrayed as agricultural bales or storage being undertaken illegally in warehouses. Many of these have been high-profile incidents that impact on the reputation of the sector as a whole. Despite these issues, the export of RDF seems set to remain, although the industry is divided on how long exports are expected to continue for.
Recent reports of long-term outages in some European EfW plants have had some impact, and may change the attractiveness of UK-derived RDF both in the short term and beyond. On the other hand, AEB’s EfW plant in Amsterdam temporarily suspended imports of RDF from the UK earlier this year when the facility was hit by a major fire. Elsewhere, the demand for RDF can be highly seasonal, for example in Sweden where the majority of RDF is needed to meet winter heat demand. Other unexpected barriers can also emerge; for example, following a ruling by the city’s environment department, the Swedish port of Malmo has recently introduced a ban on the import of baled and wrapped RDF unless it is in closed containers – this is understood to be due to instances of poorly wrapped bales splitting and the resulting litter and odour.
While the UK is part of a competitive market, RDF will continue to go where the best price can be achieved. It is therefore incumbent on developers and operators in the UK to develop and deliver affordable treatment solutions that help ensure long-term waste and energy/heat solutions. Addressing the concerns about the reliance on export markets and the real lack of available UK capacity presents an opportunity for the development, delivery and operation of new infrastructure and partnerships for the production, management, storage, transportation and ultimate treatment of RDF in the UK and wider afield.
Where RDF has been manufactured to a high quality, we have already seen its use exploited within the cement industry in the UK, Europe, and beyond as a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuel. The sector must look to identify, embrace and maximise these types of opportunities where RDF can become a more sustainable fuel source to support manufacturing and power generation. For example, the production of quality RDF will enable opportunities to be better exploited for the production of energy through more advanced, efficient and sustainable EfW plants.