The future of the UK waste industry could be cleaner, more sustainable and help secure our energy supply but only if the Government raises landfill tax, one of the UK’s biggest waste firms has said.
Biffa, which last month de-merged from water company Severn Trent, said landfill sites and big incinerators were now outdated technologies and new waste treatments needed to be promoted.
Peter Jones, director of external affairs at Biffa said: "The UK is five years behind Europe in the way it deals with waste. The biggest cause is landfill tax. If it had been raised much higher four or five years ago, new, cleaner technologies would have already been in place by now."
Currently it costs about #35 to send a tonne of waste to landfill, whereas it would cost between #50 and #70 to treat the same waste using more environmentally friendly methods.
"The problem is that the industry knows that landfill is a technology of yesteryear, so new sites have not been opened," said Mr Jones.
"We’ve got about seven years of landfill space left, but there is no incentive for companies to build new plants when its still cheaper to put waste in the ground."
He called on the Government to raise landfill tax to about #85 a tonne – a figure he believes would kick start the market for alternatives.
But a spokesman for the Treasury said the Government believed the tax was high enough to encourage alternative technologies and would not be raising the cost of landfill above #35 per tonne in the medium to long term.
He said: "The Government's strategy to reduce the volume of waste in landfills and encourage recycling, combines incentives and use of the tax system to discourage un-environmental behaviour.
"The landfill tax has helped reduce volume of waste going to landfill by 28 per cent since 1997 and has helped to fund local community projects."
Biffa believes that if the alternative waste market is kick-started by landfill tax, the future of waste would involve high-technology plants combined with facilities to sort and recycle most of the rubbish that we throw out. For products that can’t be recycled, the group is backing anaerobic digestion and gasification technologies as the most likely waste treatment methods to be used in the UK.
Anaerobic digestion uses bacteria to turn kitchen and garden waste into a gas that can be burnt to make heat and electricity. Gasification uses heat to turn many different types of waste into gas, which is also burnt.
The company is already running the country’s largest anaerobic digester in Leicester and has a contract with Norwegian company Enorgos to build the UK’s first gasification plant on the Isle of Wight.
Both systems, Biffa says, produce less carbon dioxide than both landfill and incineration. The company also criticised the idea of using super-incinerators – such as the one proposed by Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull – labelling them an expensive burden in a world concerned about CO2 emissions.
He said: "Incinerators nowadays are a lot cleaner than your garden bonfire but they emit lots more CO2 than alternative technologies, they are a risky high-value investments and have very long lives at a time when waste is changing dramatically. There is certainly a bit of a split in our industry over incineration.
"SITA and Veolia have big factories in France dedicated to building parts for big incinerators. But, if you build one, it is there for the next 30 to 40 years. In the next ten years it’s likely we will have CO2 taxes or trading schemes across all industries. So by building a big incinerator now you are going to pay dearly in the long run."
Mr Jones added that incinerators were less sustainable because they wasted a lot of energy.
He said: "A big incinerator is also only 27 per cent efficient – it produces electricity but all the heat it creates goes up into the sky.
"What makes the new technologies better is that it is easier to recover the heat and steam and pump it to factories – which gives that industry energy security."
Mr Jones said the pressure was particularly on local authorities to wise up to new ways of dealing with waste and make sure they prepared for the change before landfill fines came into force.
He said: "The race is on. All this has to be in place by 2010 if councils are going to achieve the Government target of diverting 50 per cent of waste from landfill by 2015. Otherwise they will be facing fines and long distances to transport their waste as landfill sites start closing. Big penalties are coming if they don’t prepare."
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