Is it the end for refuse derived fuel? Discuss

Written by: RWW | Published:

The UK’s commercial and industrial recycling industry was quick to jump on the bandwagon of refuse derived fuel. On paper, RDF appeared to offer C&I MRFs a fail-safe route to bypass expensive landfill costs. In practice, however, this hasn’t been the case, says Stephen Almond who explores the issue.

For many companies, refuse derived fuel (RDF) has simply become financially unviable due to the ever-increasing set-up, maintenance and transport costs. As a minimum, sites require a shredder, a large baler and a wrapping machine in terms of set-up costs. Then, eye-wateringly high operating, labour and maintenance costs all significantly increase the costs of processing RDF. This is all before shipping costs have been considered. 

Figures from the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) research into solid recovered fuel (SRF) and RDF exports to other EU countries (July 2013) on RDF exports to other EU countries show that, although the cost of preparing residual waste for RDF appears low at €15-20 per tonne, the baling and wrapping, on land transport, administration and port costs, sea transportation costs and gate fees increase this figure by a whopping €80-100 per tonne. 

Serious concerns have also been voiced about the environmental impact of the RDF process, specifically around the exporting of waste. Currently a significant proportion of material exported as RDF is being needlessly removed from the recovery/reuse cycle in the UK. Concerns have also emerged regarding the illegal dumping and inappropriate storage of RDF material, with the Environment Agency reporting an increase in incidents.  

These problems demonstrate the potential reputational risks associated with RDF. 

Market vulnerability

As well as the rising costs and environmental risks associated with RDF processing, C&I MRF operators face a great deal of market vulnerability. Uncertainty concerning future restrictions on the export of material and potential over-saturation of the market - combined with increasing calls for an RDF tax - could lead to fewer guaranteed long term contracts and even a potential risk of the market collapsing with very little warning. 

With the latest Environment Agency figures showing that 892,900 tonnes of RDF were exported in 2012, compared to just 272,000 tonnes during 2011, it’s clear that a sudden market collapse could be catastrophic for C&I MRFs. 

Faced with this uncertainty, it’s no surprise that some waste management companies are seeing their predicted saving per tonne on landfill costs being completely eroded away. We could even end up in a ridiculous situation where C&I MRFs pay to process the RDF process, only to have to pay again to landfill the material anyway.  

What’s the alternative? 

So, if the days of high volume RDF production are numbered, what’s the alternative? 

Throughout the UK, a number of forward-thinking waste management companies have already recognised that material recovery provides a much more commercially and economically viable alternative to RDF.  

The latest developments in sensor-based sorting technology can - and already are - enabling C&I MRFs to recover much higher volumes of high value end material than ever before, typically achieving purity rates of around 95% and yields of up to 70%. 

In comparison, manual or semi-automated techniques typically recover just 10-20%. 

By combining a range of detection techniques to achieve optimal results, plastics, fibre, films, paper, cardboard, textiles and wood can all be recovered to an exceptionally high standard. And, while RDF costs are predicted to continue rising, initial outlay for sensor-based sorting technology is recouped quickly, with a typical payback period of just 12-24 months. With no manual picking required, labour costs are significantly reduced and from a quality perspective, it is possible to process and maintain higher throughputs, with consistent quantity and quality achievable 24 hours a day. 

The equipment also has a smaller footprint than traditional RDF processing machinery, making it suitable for smaller-scale operations. 

Time to act 

It’s clear that there is no long term future for RDF as a stand-alone solution for the UK’s C&I waste. In its report last year, the CIWM recommended that “the UK and Ireland should perhaps focus on extraction of high value recyclates which would have lower capital investment…. and lead to smaller exports to Europe.” This has to be the way forward - but not in the future - now. 

TOMRA is already working with a number of C&I customers including Mid UK Recycling, Blakeley’s Waste Management, Devon Contract Waste, Neales Waste Management, WRD Group, GSH Waste Recycling, Gaskells Waste Services, Wastebeater, Weir Waste and Spotmix - all of whom recognise that the days of high volume RDF production are numbered. 

Our latest contracts with UK C&I MRFs will see huge volumes of material recovery from some 750,000 tonnes of C&I waste these plants are expected to process over the next 12 months. This is positive, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other C&I MRF owners need to be encouraged to adopt commercially viable alternatives to RDF. By taking steps now, C&I MRF operators can introduce a stable, long term approach and maximise the potential of materials and end markets.  

With predictions suggesting that the UK is likely to generate 58 million tonnes of C&I waste by 2020, recovery offers a very strong commercial opportunity. 

If more UK and Ireland MRFs adopted sensor-based sorting technology, only the smallest amounts of residue (after all valuable fractions had been recovered) would be destined for the precarious RDF route. 

This would offer a much more stable and sustainable outlook for the future.


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