Price surge for recyclable materials should encourage more efficient energy from waste

As reported in the FT over the weekend, the price of waste in the UK has surged this year. Good news for recycling, but what about the energy from waste (EfW) sector?

Higher prices for recyclable materials should reduce the volume of waste that is incinerated. On the other hand the higher value of specific materials is likely to encourage the more effective sorting of waste, which in turn will encourage more efficient EfW technologies such as anaerobic digestion to flourish.

Creating energy from waste remains controversial, because the energy is usually extracted by incineration. Environmental groups tend to oppose incineration because of the harmful dioxins that are emitted into the atmosphere during combustion, as well as the resulting fly ash, which in some cases qualifies as hazardous waste.

An alternative EfW technology is anaerobic digestion of food and other organic wastes, from which it is estimated that 1.45 TWh electricity could be generated in the UK. Anaerobic digestion avoids some of the environmental problems associated with incineration.

However, anaerobic digestion requires that biodegradeable waste is separated from other wastes (for example through household food collections) – a mixed bag of rubbish cannot be treated using this technology.

Higher prices for recyclable materials encourages the separation of waste, particularly because high quality recovered material (with few impurities) commands a price premium. In turn this means the barriers to anaerobic digestion are reduced, making it a relatively more attractive EfW technology in comparison to incineration.

Based on this analysis, the increase in prices for recyclable materials sends the right market signals. Because some types of waste have a high economic value it encourages the sorting of waste. This allows recyclable materials to be recycled, and biodegradeable materials to undergo anaerobic digestion. A much lower volume of residual wastes can then be either incinerated or sent to landfill.