Recycling benefits from combustible waste imports

The Dutch waste-to-energy plants are importing increasing quantities of combustible residual waste, at the moment mainly from the United Kingdom. This not only allows Dutch waste-to-energy plants to operate at full load, but also benefits the recycling industry. Another advantage is that by importing this waste the Netherlands facilitates the development of the circular economy in other EU countries. But will these imports become permanent? And how positive would that be?

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Rabobank predicts growth in combustible waste imports until around 2016

Recycling benefits from combustible waste imports

The Dutch waste-to-energy plants are importing increasing quantities of combustible residual waste, at the moment mainly from the United Kingdom. This not only allows Dutch waste-to-energy plants to operate at full load, but also benefits the recycling industry. Another advantage is that by importing this waste the Netherlands facilitates the development of the circular economy in other EU countries. But will these imports become permanent? And how positive would that be?

By Marieke Vos ©copyright

The considerable investments made in new waste-to-energy (WtE) capacity and the fall-off in the growth of Dutch waste arisings have left the Dutch WtE plants with a net overcapacity since 2010. The WtE plants have a combined capacity of 7.5 million tonnes of waste per year, while arisings of combustible waste in the Netherlands are much lower, at 6.5 million tonnes. These figures come from a recent Rabobank report on the waste sector. Rabobank invests in the waste sector and closely monitors developments in the industry. ‘We predict that Dutch waste arisings will decrease to 5.5 million tonnes in 2015, in part due to the increase in recycling and reuse’, says Ronald de Vries, industry analyst at Rabobank. Despite this overcapacity, the WtE plants are operating at full load. This is because waste collectors in other EU countries are keen to make use of the available capacity at Dutch WtE plants, which are among the most energy-efficient in Europe. All 12 Dutch WtE plants have R1 status, a European standard for high energy efficiency.

European market

Most of the combustible waste comes from the United Kingdom (UK), where the majority of waste export licences (57%) are for the transport to the Netherlands of waste of high calorific value remaining after mechanical biological separation. Waste is also imported from other countries, especially Italy, Denmark and Germany, but the volumes are much smaller. Total waste imports in 2011 (about 300 kilotonnes) were more than five times higher than in 2010 (55 kilotonnes) and continue to rise. At the end of the first half of 2012 imports were already as high as 350 kilotonnes. Supplies of combustible waste from the UK have grown so much because the UK still landfills much of its waste and is obliged to drastically reduce this under EU directives. ‘The UK has now introduced a landfill tax. Fines for landfill with discretionary permits can run to as much as £150 per tonne’, says De Vries. The UK cannot incinerate all this waste because it has insufficient WtE capacity, which is why it has chosen to export the waste to the Netherlands, where the required incineration capacity is available.

The UK still landfills much of its waste and is obliged to drastically reduce this under EU directives (photo: iStockphoto)

Dick Hoogendoorn, director of the Dutch Waste Management Association, says this is a logical solution to the problem. He takes a European rather than a national perspective on WtE capacity. ‘At the European scale there is no WtE overcapacity, but there is a large supply of combustible residual waste. In our opinion, waste processing is a normal industrial activity which does not stop at national borders. This has been the case for recycling for years. For example, used batteries collected in the Netherlands are sent to recycling facilities in France and Switzerland. Why should the same not apply to combustible residual waste? I think it is only logical to make use of the available capacity in one EU member state to meet the demand in another member state.’ Dutch policymakers endorse this view, he adds: ‘The previous government supported imports of combustible residual waste and the majority of the new House of Representatives hold the same view.’ Imports from non-West European countries, for example from Eastern Europe, are not a feasible option according to Hoogendoorn. ‘The transport costs would be too high for this to be cost-effective.’ Transporting this waste does not pose an environmental problem. Various studies have shown that the environmental benefits of processing the waste in clean, energy-efficient WtE plants outweigh the impacts of transport.

Long term

The temporary excess capacity within the Netherlands has led to falling incineration prices, which has had a negative effect on recycling. ‘The waste imports have reduced competition between the recycling sector and the WtE plants on the Dutch market’, says Rabobank in its report. ‘The consequences of importing waste have certainly helped the recycling industry’, confirms Max de Vries of industry association BRBS Recycling. He acknowledges that at the moment the imports provide a means to make full use of the available capacity, but also flags a number of risks. ‘Once the recession is over, waste streams will probably grow in volume again. If the WtE plants then still have import contracts, processing Dutch waste will become more expensive because supplies will outstrip capacity. De Vries argues that the major investments in WtE plants – with government support – were a mistake because they have held up the transition towards a sustainable society. ‘In recent years no new environmental and waste policy instruments have been introduced to speed up this transition. We are currently working on an SCBA study into recycling with CE Delft and Utrecht University which will clearly set out the economic advantages of recycling. We also want to propose new policy instruments for the new government to work with. In the long term the Netherlands can lead the way in recycling and turn a profit from it. But we have to start now.’

Structural

Even though importing waste has its benefits, Max de Vries still believes that structural imports of combustible waste are not desirable. According to Rabobank there is little prospect of long-term imports, even though the shortfall in incineration capacity in the UK will continue beyond 2015. Ronald de Vries (Rabobank) calculates that in the coming years the UK will have an excess of between 2 to 3 million tonnes of high calorific waste for export. ‘Eventually this amount will decline as prevention, reuse and recycling increase’, says Ronald de Vries. He estimates this will be the case around 2016 and expects that some Dutch WtE plants will then have to close. ‘In 2016 many of the contracts with Dutch incinerators will come to an end. I think that the most energy-efficient WtE plants will be in a better position to sign new contracts than the less efficient plants. The market will do its work and some of these plants will finally have to close. There is nothing wrong with this.’ Dick Hoogendoorn also thinks that there will be a shake-up in the industry. ‘I expect that waste imports will eventually be insufficient to fully utilise the available capacity. A reduction in capacity in the long term may well be unavoidable. However, I do think that imports are here to stay. This is both desirable and necessary for the European waste market.’

Ronald de Vries (Rabobank):"We will see some closures around 2016."
Dick Hoogendoorn (DWMA):"At the European scale there is no WtE overcapacity."
Max de Vries (BRBS Recycling):"The consequences of importing waste have certainly helped the recycling sector."

Vision DWMA

Landfill must be reduced right across Europe, and the Dutch waste sector is willing to lend other member states a helping hand. Dutch waste companies can help with the treatment of waste for recovery from other member states until they have developed sufficient treatment capacity for their residual waste.

The energy-efficient Dutch waste-to-energy (WtE) plants meet the highest European standards and have available capacity to process non-recyclable residual waste from other member states. This available Dutch WtE capacity is being used to treat waste from countries with insufficient processing capacity, mainly from the UK. In 2011 imports rose fivefold to about 300,000 tonnes and continue to rise. Research indicates that the environmental benefits of efficient WtE processing outweigh the impacts of transport.

The DWMA views WtE as a normal industrial activity and say efficient use should be made of capacity across Europe. The imports are benefiting recycling by reducing competition for waste in the Netherlands and facilitating the development of recycling infrastructure elsewhere. The DWMA expects that imports will remain a structural element in the development of a circular economy across Europe.