Turning waste into energy will take advantage of Britain’s untapped potential post-Brexit

Paul Taylor – FCC Environment

As is well-known within our sector, UK waste policy has long been ignored by Westminster and Whitehall. This has meant that the sector’s ability to contribute to the UK’s growth and productivity has been limited, with other sectors edging ahead in the race for increasing competitiveness and resource productivity.

With the General Election just around the corner, we are calling for a step change from the next Government. Brexit provides an opportunity to have a frank conversation about boosting the country’s competiveness. How the UK unlocks the value in waste to help support the energy sector should be central to these discussions.

Waste is one of a number of policy areas which the UK has ceded almost all control to Brussels. In the past, this has meant that there have been limited opportunities for the UK to develop a waste framework that best reflects and addresses the needs of our country. It has also meant that waste has been viewed almost solely through an environmental lens, as oppose to one that is focused on economic competitiveness.

Theresa May has made resource efficiency an important part of her political agenda, with the UK’s future economic success reliant on our ability to adapt to a new economic model post-Brexit. This means we will have to become more competitive in order to remain a global leader and represents a significant economic opportunity for UK businesses.

The Waste Prevention Programme for England notes that inefficiency in the use of resources “results in increased costs to businesses for the purchase of unnecessary materials, and in the costs of disposing of those materials.” Along with this, research by Accenture has shown that there is potential to unlock $4.5 trillion of global growth through improvements in resource productivity. This research highlights that if the UK is to focus on resource efficiency, then there are major economic gains to be made, ones that the global economy has also been slow to capitalise on.

The Government has specifically identified energy as a key part of its burgeoning ‘Industrial Strategy’ and it also highlighted resource productivity (i.e. reducing the amount that we spend on raw materials and waste management) as a central pillar of the plan. To realise this ambition, innovative thinking will be required around resource efficient energy creation.  Prioritising investment in Energy from Waste (EfW) infrastructure here in the UK will be key to achieving this.

EfW – burning waste to create clean energy – is well-established within the global waste hierarchy. In northern continental Europe, Scandinavia and Germany in particular, EfW plays a crucial role in domestic energy supplies. However, the UK lacks and established market with EfW suffering from a poor historical image in this country – resulting in low levels of community acceptance; a limited number of plants being built and a lack of policy direction from central Government in this area.

The lack of a viable EfW market means that the UK is not making the best use of its resources. The current twisted logic means that as a country we are currently shipping our waste to other European countries, where it is used to meet their energy needs. According to a recent Policy Exchange report, published in March, waste management companies spent £280 million exporting our waste to Europe in 2016, which other countries used to produce energy which heated homes and businesses. This is both counter-intuitive and unsustainable.. The UK urgently needs home-grown infrastructure solutions geared towards high-efficiency energy technologies to help our country keep the lights on.

Increased investment from the UK government could enable the industry to deliver 50,000 new British jobs and boost UK GDP by an additional £3bn through additional infrastructure. It could also replace ageing infrastructure and address a waste capacity gap of around 20 million tonnes. If this was specifically diverted to EfW plants, it would significantly boost productivity and performance in both the energy and waste sectors.

We need a firm commitment from the next government to prioritise EfW as a viable option for our sector. The economic prospects of the country are dependent on new methods of resource efficiency, with Brexit necessitating new and innovative ways of enacting policy.  I sincerely hope that the Government will heed this advice, and boost investment in the high productivity energy technologies that the country desperately needs.