Waste management in the UK is driven by the waste hierarchy, which promotes the reuse, recycling and recovery of materials. This has mostly replaced the use of landfill sites for waste disposal, which had been prevalent over previous decades. While the ultimate aim is to minimise waste production in the first place, modern society continues to produce an excess of waste. The recycling processes used can only go so far and it is currently impossible to reuse or recycle all of the materials in the waste stream.
Most recycling processes recover a large proportion of the materials processed, however they still leave a residue of materials which are unsuitable for recycling (either through contamination or due to there being no practical method for recycling) and this material must be managed in an environmentally safe and efficient manner. The recovery of energy from these materials represents the next best option and a significant improvement over landfill disposal.
Recent reports by the consultancy Eunomia have suggested that the UK will have excess EfW capacity in the future. This conclusion has been reached by the presumption of very high recycling rates, and the provision of significant new waste infrastructure. This conclusion has been repeatedly disputed by the recycling industry (see letsrecycle.com articles here and here) as the recycling rates suggested are unlikely to come to fruition and would counteract recent trends in the industry, while the amount of capacity developed is likely to be significantly smaller than assumed in the reports. An additional factor is the effect of Brexit which may see the waste currently exported to Europe, often for use in their own EfW plants (approximately 3.5 million tonnes), requiring treatment in the UK.
Energy from waste plants support the recycling industry, providing a reliable, safe and efficient outlet for the residual waste created and for any contaminated materials. It is essential that sufficient Energy from Waste capacity is available in the UK in order to prevent a slide back to reliance on the landfill disposal of the past.