We all know that sending waste to landfill is a last resort for things that can’t be recycled. What’s the situation though with the second-worst option? This is currently agreed to be incinerating our rubbish, known as Energy from Waste or EfW.
DCW is the only Zero to Landfill operator in the regions in which we operate to process waste for recycling, rather than sending it all to EfW plants for incineration. We do this to save resources and energy, reduce our regions’ carbon footprint, and promote a sustainable business community.
Because not all waste can be recycled though, we do have to process (important word) some of it to go into the Energy from Waste system.
Energy from Waste is defined as ‘generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the primary treatment of waste, or the processing of waste into a fuel source’. Most processes generate electricity and/or heat directly through combustion, or produce a combustible fuel such as methane, methanol, ethanol or synthetic fuels. Incineration and other high-temperature waste treatment systems are described as ‘thermal treatment’.
To better appreciate where EfW fits into the waste story, it’s helpful to understand what’s known as the ‘waste hierarchy’. In 2008, the European Union parliament introduced a five-step scale of waste management options which must be applied by Member States in the priority of: waste prevention, the preferred option, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery (including energy recovery) and, as a last option, safe disposal.
So, EfW is certainly preferred to landfill – although inevitably there are no easy answers here either. Opponents argue, for example, that EfW keeps down recycling rates by removing financial incentives for recycling.
Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator for United Kingdom Without Incineration, says: “Things go around and around when they are recycled and composted. When they go to incineration, they are lost forever. As we move to an increasingly circular economy, there will be less of a role for incineration to play.”
Also, there’s good incineration – and there’s bad incineration. Not everyone has DCW’s good processes. A report earlier this year by the London Assembly’s Environment Committee noted that ‘waste is not sorted as part of the EfW process and EfW operators feel that recycling separation is the responsibility of households, businesses or local authorities. However, with separation so low in London, recyclable materials are unnecessarily going to incineration’.
The plastics issue
Bringing this right up to date, there is yet another aspect to consider now with the demise of markets for the plastics we all want to see recycled.
The Chinese have ceased the import of most plastics, a lot of paper and even now in recent weeks clean cardboard in an attempt to improve their own recycling industry by increasing recycling in China. Naturally, and rightly so, they no longer wish to be the dumping ground for low grade recycling that we produce in the West. New markets have been found in other countries such as India, Vietnam and Malaysia. However, it’s simply not acceptable to dump our recycling in other countries where there are little or no environmental standards to protect the environment or human health.
The plastics that are rejected in the process in these countries is simply dumped or burnt in the open which clearly cannot be allowed to continue.
Our industry is continuing to lobby the government to introduce a minimum requirement for any plastic produced or imported to have a percentage of recycled polymer ideally 30%. So far only a tax on plastic not containing 30% will be introduced in 2022 but it’s not enough to make a serious change.
The key points we believe need to be achieved are these:
1, A minimum of 30% recycled polymer on all plastic produced or imported into the UK or Europe ideally but we may no longer have a say there!
2, A reduction in polymer types to simplify recycling
3, A ban on mixed polymers
4, Investment into plastic production supporting businesses with grants from landfill tax receipts
The DCW perspective
As a company, DCW separates high quality recycling that has a sustainable market and the balance is processed into a fuel for industry as well as traditional waste to energy plants. Whilst burning some waste that has the potential to be recycled seems wrong, it is a far greater environmental solution when markets don’t exist than is exporting it to countries that have little protection for the environment. Of course, the other option for us is to reject packaging and buy local!
We can definitely say then that EfW is close to the bottom of the list of ‘good things to do with your company’s waste’. Burning waste takes materials out of the circular economy, releases carbon into the atmosphere and may have negative health effects.
But it also generates electricity, can provide heat for local homes and businesses, and reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill. So it’s not going away any time soon. Finally, having DCW process waste correctly for EfW is the best you can do in the circumstances.