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Waste – it’s only a word, isn’t it?

waste

Is there a need to loosen the waste classification on alternative fuels, considers Chris Oldfield, managing director of UNTHA UK? And if the word ‘waste’ was dropped, what impact would this have on industry progress?

The English language is a wonderful thing. So many of us encounter new words on a daily basis, allowing our vocabulary to be ever-expanded. There are other occasions however, when we feel more comfortable using words that we’re familiar with. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Refused Derived Fuels (RDF) and Solid Recovered Fuels (SRF) are still referred to as waste.

Those in industry might question why this even matters. Waste is only a word after all. But I believe it does matter – a lot.

Defining waste

If we look to the online Collins dictionary, one of the definitions given for ‘waste’ is: garbage, rubbish, or trash’. And herein lies the problem. The word ‘waste’ conjures up images of filthy refuse rotting in a bin. It is quite an emotive word with negative connotations. And perhaps it explains why members of the public still consider Energy from Waste plants nothing but dirty incinerators. In terms of perceptions, I therefore think use of the word ‘waste’ is significantly important.

If we look at the online Cambridge dictionary, the noun waste is defined as: ‘unwanted matter or material of any type, especially what is left after useful substances or parts have been removed’.

Unwanted material

Of course the wastefulness of households and businesses, and poor utilisation of resources in the first instance, is ‘unwanted’ – we’d rather they’d have prevented matter from ever becoming waste. But that doesn’t mean RDF and SRF should be described in this way, especially when considering the latter part of the Cambridge definition.

Yes, in producing RDF or SRF, steps should have been taken to remove as many useful parts (valuable recyclates) as is technically, environmentally and economically practicable. But that doesn’t render RDF or SRF useless, as the definition implies. On the contrary, with clever and considered processing, we’re talking about highly important alternative fuels.

As fossil fuels become increasingly depleted, and the risk of future power cuts becomes a real problem, RDF and SRF provide the population with ever-more precious energy resource.  When considering that approximately 50 percent of SRF material is renewable too, I’d say this makes the fuels very useful indeed.

A different name

So what could RDF and SRF be called instead? To classify them as products is perhaps a step too far, especially for RDF which isn’t manufactured to the same defined specification as SRF. This is a shame because if we look to other markets such as biomass fuel, its simple A-D grading system and greater recognition as a product, has undoubtedly aided its acceptance as an environmentally-sound energy production process. We need to see the same progress with RDF and SRF, and concentrating on the word ‘fuel’ would go some way to gradually removing the stigma.

What then?

The fuels could be further categorised of course. Admittedly this would be no mean feat given end users of RDF are more concerned with tonnage and gate fees, than a quality standard. However, following the outcome of Defra’s call for evidence, my colleague Gary Moore suggested that the answer may lie in a recovery standard. Similar to an ISO accreditation, the standard could be granted only when an alternative fuel production company achieves a number of quality benchmarks regarding their approach to storage, degree of recyclate extraction, on-site health and safety standards, and so on.

Of course this would need policing but I don’t think this is a bad thing. None of this is intended to weaken regulatory compliance after all.

Could this help the market flourish?

Keen to obtain another viewpoint I spoke to well-respected Waste to Energy professional Linda Ovens, Associate Director at Amec Foster Wheeler who offered some additional thoughts: “By its very definition, the word waste implies RDF or SRF has no further purpose, which of course is highly untrue. In a true Circular Economy we wouldn’t even need the word ‘waste’ but there would still be materials that ‘leak’ from the system at the end of their useful lives that make good fuels, and a need for energy remains an essential element.

“In terms of altering perceptions, the declassification of RDF or SRF as waste could however act as a significant industry step change. It would be great if we could start thinking of WtE plants as simply Energy plants like they do in Northern Europe and think of the RDF or SRF input as just another fuel type.

“Declassification could bring added trade benefits too. In some parts of Asia, for example, certain grades of SRF are considered as products and are traded between Countries as simply alternative fuels that have a real value alongside the fossil fuels. .

“Of course I wouldn’t be in favour of declassification if the purpose was to avoid regulation – we see enough unscrupulous activity in this sector as it is. RDF and SRF need regulated processing that the Waste Incineration Directive provides but as Chris has suggested, if there was a way to make these fuels more acceptable and valuable without losing this control, the market could flourish as a result.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

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