Refuse-Derived Fuel and the UK’s Waste Management Woes

In 1996, landfill tax was introduced at a rate of £8 per tonne to encourage councils and businesses to develop more robust recycling programmes. The tariff has been on an upward trend ever since and from the 1st April it rose from £72 to £80 per tonne. It should come as no surprise therefore that UK Government and local authorities alike have at last started to question how the amount of material sent to landfill might be reduced or diverted for better use elsewhere.


Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group


So what are the options here? Well, most professionals working within the energy sector will know the mantra ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ with such familiarity that they can see it when they close their eyes, and the sequence has earned its place at the top of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s waste hierarchy. Once you’ve followed these three steps, however, there is still a lot of material left to be disposed of, and herein the problem lies. Traditionally, non-recyclable waste has been transported to landfill and left there to rot, produce methane, and generally be of little use to anyone. With landfill tax on the up, site capacity declining and a serious need to produce energy to meet our nation’s demands, what’s a council to do?

It’s simple. Local authorities need to undergo a strategic paradigm shift when it comes to waste, and stop seeing it as a burden. Instead it should be viewed as free fuel provided by communities on a weekly basis that can be converted into energy to pump back into the homes that consume the products! It seems such a logical step that one may wonder why it hasn’t been taken up with aplomb before now… well, as is the case with many bureaucratic industries, councils are often more concerned with ticking the box than thinking outside it. This means that even though the current way of doing things may be inefficient and costly, the sector is so bound up in regulation and rigid siloes of thought that it is virtually impossible for any one person to have that golden eureka moment and then follow it through.

Waste disposal has become to be seen as an unpleasant but inevitable issue, but this doesn’t have to be the case. A fundamental reconceptualization of the entire process, right the way through from individual mindsets to procurement methods when sending contracts out to tender, could provide all the answers we are looking for, both financially and environmentally. What is currently seen as a problem, and an expensive one at that, should actually be an opportunity for reducing environmental impact, saving money, and providing cheaper energy. A waste to energy strategy powered by refuse-derived fuel (RDF) can connect whole communities through district heat and power schemes, alleviating strain on the National Grid and providing cleaner energy for residents. People need to come out of their segmented niches within organisations and work together to see the bigger picture.

Even within the energy from waste sector there are pitfalls to be avoided; old-fashioned incineration plants certainly do not pave the way for a cleaner future, and if cost is king there is a risk they will continue to be used as part of energy strategies. Clean gasification, whilst more expensive, offers a way to produce the same levels of energy but without the high carbon pricetag, and in order to meet our emission reduction targets these plants must be welcomed as part of a new, clean age of energy generation.

It becomes clearer by the day that energy garnered through the most traditional routes is soon to become a limiting factor in many people’s lives, as end-user costs continue to rise and spare capacity continues to shrink. It is also obvious that local government needs a way out of its waste management woes, and find alternatives to the dead-end that is landfill. It is imperative that we begin to join these dots, using resources intelligently to create networks that will power our homes, schools and hospitals with cleaner and more sustainable fuel.

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