The parallel legislative progress of the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP) and Brexit marks a pivotal moment for the future of UK waste policy. Whichever concludes first will signal the direction of travel for the UK’s trade in waste – in the short term at least.
Within these overarching drivers, the UK’s trade in waste is governed by multiple dimensions. There is the regulatory dimension, recognising the European Directives that frame waste policy, such as the Waste Framework Directive (2008) and the Landfill Directive (1999). This is overlaid by the spatial dimension in which the EU has created common markets and waste-related definitions and standards so that member states can trade material tariff free across borders.
One further dimension is how environmental and economic objectives are reconciled and whether cheaper solutions supersede those less environmentally damaging, or vice versa.
All of the above will be governed by the UK’s future relationship with Europe. It is within this context that I recently gave evidence to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee following the publication of Policy Exchange’s report. Throughout the session a number of themes emerged, such as extended producer responsibility, producing secondary materials higher up the value chain, movement of EU nationals and waste crime after Brexit.
The export of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) was also subject to much debate and provides a good example of how the multiple dimensions noted above interact. This interaction will ultimately dictate the UK’s trade in waste and is therefore worth a closer look.
Refuse Derived Fuel
A major category of waste export is ‘Refuse Derived Fuel’ (RDF), which is manufactured from residual waste and exported to other countries for energy recovery. Exports of RDF have grown substantially in recent years, from close to zero in 2010, to 3.2 million tonnes in 2016. In 2016, 46% of UK RDF exports were sent to the Netherlands – an example of the spatial dimension of waste.
Exporting RDF isn’t free, and the current “gate fee” is £87 per tonne – slightly lower than the cost of landfilling waste in the UK (£103 per tonne). The export of RDF cost the UK around £280 million in 2016; indeed, UK businesses and households have spent nearly £1 billion in just six years on exporting waste to other countries, where it is used to generate heat and power in Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities.
Part of the motivation behind exporting RDF is to avoid paying the landfill tax, and this exemplifies the effect of the regulatory dimension. In fact, this is a – perhaps rare – example of how economic and environmental drivers work in tandem: it is both cheaper and preferable from an environmental perspective to export RDF than send it to landfill.
Secondly, the export of RDF occurs because there is currently a gap between the amount of residual waste arising in the UK, and the capacity available to treat it. Research by Eunomia suggests we generate around 26 million tonnes of waste per year, yet the total energy from waste capacity amounts to only 13 million tonnes per year. We only have the capacity to treat half our waste output – so the gap is filled by shipments of RDF to other countries for energy recovery.
This capacity gap represents a large infrastructure challenge and opportunity for the UK – one on which Defra, Local Authorities are businesses should work together. Although exporting waste as RDF is a real cost to the UK economy, the environmental case for or against RDF exports is more nuanced. The export of waste implies additional emissions associated with transportation, but EfW facilities in Continental Europe are generally more efficient than those in the UK, since they typically capture both heat and power, or use gasification technology. This means that the overall environmental impacts of RDF export may be lower than an electricity-only incinerator in the UK.
How the UK reconciles these economic and environmental concerns (the third dimension) will be influenced by the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and will be subject to lengthy discussion. Indeed, this misalignment was borne out during the evidence session.
Impact of Brexit
So what are the impacts of Brexit on the UK’s trade of RDF? Committee members broadly defined these as tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers.
Starting with the former, the key question is the possible impact of tariffs on RDF exports once the UK has left the EU. Non-EU countries exporting waste to the EU are generally subject to WTO tariffs at 6.5% or higher. If UK exporters are subject to the same tariffs, then this would increase the cost of RDF exports as a waste treatment route, exacerbated by the recent fall in Sterling (since continental facilities quote their gate fees in Euros).
The Dutch Waste Association suggested that this cliff edge scenario could result in a loss of exported material and, due to the capacity gap, potentially 3.5 million tonnes being landfilled again in the UK. This outcome would undermine EU and UK action which has helped transform waste treatment in the UK from landfill-based disposal towards tighter environmental controls.
If a post-Brexit trade situation makes waste exports more expensive than domestic feedstock contracts, and faltering recycling in England makes EfW more desirable, this might be used to underpin arguments for incineration as a low cost solution. This solution may be optimal from an economic perspective, but may only satisfy environmental goals if UK EfW facilities are developed with greater efficiency, by recapturing the heat or using gasification technology. Pursuing this should undoubtedly be the aim after Brexit to maximise resource productivity, ensuring that operators extract all economically-recoverable materials during use.
Secondly, discussions around non-tariff barriers to trade raised concerns about regulatory divergence between the UK and EU. Should the Circular Economy Package (CEP) become transposed into UK law before Brexit, regulatory divergence will be minimal in the short term. Looking further ahead, where the UK is outside the EU, it may still be required to comply with EU regulation for continued trade of materials.
The key question is whether aligning standards to those demanded by non EU markets – and the benefits this may entail – is worth the possible loss of waste-related markets inside the EU.
Any departure would significantly change the spatial and environmental dimension of waste. For example, the current export of RDF to Europe can be justified on environmental grounds due to close proximity and higher efficiency EfW facilities. However, greater transportation distances to markets further afield, with less stringent regulatory frameworks, may undermine this.
Moreover, the added bureaucracy that regulatory divergence entails could act as a further barrier to trade. As one of the panellists giving evidence said, “profit margins on per-tonne movement of waste are tight. Anything that gets in the way in terms of the new bureaucracy that will emerge outside of the customs union could certainly have a sluggish effect on trade.” Any regulatory divergence should carefully consider the potential to act a barrier to trade and environmentally driven goals.
Going forward, the long term approach of the UK will be determined by how the Government prioritises the dimensions that govern UK trade in waste; regulatory, spatial, economic and environmental. There are no scenarios that tick all of these boxes, so inevitably policymakers will need to choose.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.