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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

Is waste a source of renewable energy?

This article was originally posted on the Isonomia Blog on 5 December 2014 and is written by Mike Brown.


Whenever you look at material produced by the developers and users of energy from waste (EfW) incinerators, you soon come across the phrase “renewable energy”. Vince Cable used the term to describe a new incinerator in Lincolnshire just last week. On the websites of companies such as ViridorSITA, of councils from Glasgow to London, or of the Green Investment Bank, which has stepped in to fund several EfW projects – incineration is consistently referred to in the terms generally reserved for forms of energy such as wind, wave and geothermal.

I suppose this PR is hardly surprising – developers want to sell incinerators; a council that buys one wants to make sure that local residents agree it’s a good idea; and the GIB wouldn’t really be living up to its name if it wasn’t focused on renewable energy. However, Eunomia has argued at length against this view, which misunderstands both the policy and the science.


Don’t trust a word of it

Clearly there is a sense in which waste is ‘renewable’. The OED defines the word as meaning “capable of being replenished, not depleted by its utilization” – since we create more of it every day, unless we become seriously ambitious about recycling targets we will continue to replenish our stocks of combustible residual waste far into the future. It’s a slightly dismal interpretation of the word ‘renewable’, but I suspect it’s the one that many of incineration’s advocates have in mind. However, there’s a more fundamental question I want to address.

For an incinerator to produce renewable energy in a meaningful sense, it needs to meet the criteria stipulated by official definitions and government policies on renewable energy. The European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive defines ‘energy from renewable sources’ as including only non-fossil sources, namely

“wind, solar, aerothermal, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogases”.

In this sense, a considerable amount of the material in our waste isn’t renewable. In its recent document Energy from Waste: a Guide to the Debate, Defra recognises this definition in stating that:

“Energy from residual waste is only partially renewable due to the presence of fossil based carbon in the waste, and only the energy contribution from the biogenic portion is counted towards renewable energy targets (and only this element is eligible for renewable financial incentives).”

Waste contains fossil derived materials such as plastics. However, it also contains biogenic materials such as paper, card and food waste. While it may be environmentally (and often economically) preferable to recycle them, they are arguably just as renewable as any other form of biomass.

That said, many of the biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable. However, even granting them this status, the claim that residual waste is a source of renewable energy is problematic.


ROCs’ role

The aim of the renewable financial incentives seems to place EfW on a more or less level playing field with other forms of biogenic generation. In practice, only combined heat and power incinerators and the advanced conversion technologies (ACT) – gasification and pyrolysis – are eligible for subsidy in the form of Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs), currently at a rate of 1 and 2 ROCs per MWh respectively, and then only the energy generated from the biomass element of their fuel.

Unless a specific measurement is made of the renewable element of the fuel of a CHP EfW plant, 50% of power generated is eligible for ROCs. These technologies will in future fall under the Contracts for Difference (CfD) renewable energy scheme, so their partially renewable status is confirmed for years to come. The heat produced by a CHP plant may also qualify for subsidy through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

However, there’s no place in the ROCs or CfD schemes for the electricity-only incinerators that comprise the great majority of those we’ve built in the UK. That doesn’t upset the level playing field with biomass, as electricity-only biomass is also excluded from the new CfD scheme.

So government policy and practice treats EfW as at best ‘semi-renewable’, but only worth subsidising when it produces useful heat as well as electricity. The subsidy system therefore treats most of our EfW estate as less productive of renewable energy than even landfill gas, which qualifies for 0.2 ROCs per MWh from closed sites. Whilst an assumed biogenic share of EfW continues to be counted towards our renewable energy targets, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of incineration’s renewable credentials.


The green stuff?

However, it’s questionable whether even CHP incinerators merit their place on the green playing field. Incineration doesn’t perform very well as a form of energy generation. An incinerator only needs to achieve an energy efficiency of 25.5% in order to qualify as an R1 (recovery) facility. Recent research for Defra calculated that the maximum achievable efficiency for an electricity-only incinerator is around 33%.

The same report found that an incinerator must achieve “an overall conversion efficiency of greater than 33%” if it is to emit less fossil CO2 per MWh of useful energy produced than does a modern gas power station. If you factor the biogenic carbon in too, “to emit less CO2 overall… would require a conversion efficiency of 83%”. So, all non-CHP incinerators emit more fossil CO2 per MWh of energy produced than would a gas-fired power station, and far more CO2 in total. That doesn’t strike me as very green.




Further, because it doesn’t contain as much energy as proper fuels, in the grand scheme of things the amount of energy available from residual waste is small. Using a colleague’s figures, I calculate that you have to burn around 10 million tonnes of waste to generate 1% of our national energy needs.

It’s the biogenic material in residual waste that gives incineration its renewable kudos, and the largest proportion of this by weight is food. It typically comprises between 30-40% of the total mass, although the amount varies depending on exactly what materials are collected for recycling in a particular area. While paper, card and textiles may burn reasonably well 70% or more of food is composed of water.


Don’t suffer fuels gladly

It is not incinerated because it is a good fuel (you can test this at home: try to start a fire with some salad or a yoghurt that’s gone off) but because it attracts a good gate fee. Burning food requires considerable energy to enable combustion to take place, and the net energy gain is low. Estimates vary between 3-5GJ/tonne, compared with around 10GJ/tonne for mixed municipal waste over all, and over 25GJ/tonne for plastics. Food waste, the principal biogenic and therefore “renewable” component of residual waste is hard to burn and produces little energy.

The Defra research quoted above includes some useful tables showing the contribution that each material, whether containing biogenic or fossil carbon, makes to its overall energy potential. Apparently it’s based on outdated residual waste compositions from a 2006 report, although this is hard to check as it’s incorrectly referenced. The composition shows food making up 31% of the fuel: then, even generously assuming it produces 5GJ/tonne, it contributes only 15% of the energy potential. By contrast, with plastic making up 13% of the fuel, it contributes 32% of the energy. According to a more recent composition produced for Defra, plastics now make up around 25% of kerbside collected household residual waste, and would deliver more than half of the energy.

The myth that waste is a source of ‘renewable energy’ is dangerous, and needs to be stamped out before yet more public money is spent on incinerators. We may count some of the energy produced from incineration towards our renewable energy targets, but the ROCs and CfD schemes already recognise that the majority of UK incinerators don’t produce energy that is meaningfully renewable. However, Defra, DECC and the GIB, all of which continue to support and subsidise incineration, need to remember that non-CHP incineration produces more fossil CO2 per MWh (and far more CO2 over all) than gas-fired generation. To put the logic of my argument in its starkest terms: to the extent that waste is renewable, incinerating it generates very little energy; to the extent that incinerating it produces energy, little is renewable. I rest my case.


Mike Brown


Mike Brown

Earth First! Summer Gathering Fighting Incineration Workshop

The summer of 2015 has seen an incredible amount of activity by campaigners fighting proposed incinerators in the UK. With a long list of successes, as well as active and ongoing campaigns, opposition to incineration seems important as ever.

In light of these struggles Mariel Vilella (Associate Director) and Matt Franklin (Communications & Programme Officer) from Zero Waste Europe attended the Earth First! Gathering in the Peak District to hold a workshop on incineration and UK campaigns.

During the workshop, they were joined by a member of Glouscester Vale Against Incineration (GlosVAIN) looked at some of the core issues and hazards of waste incineration, and the myth of renewable ‘waste-to-energy’ incineration, before taking a closer look at some of the most active successful and interesting campaigns to fight the construction of new incinerators in the UK.

The Peak District where Earth First! Gathering 2015 was held

Incinerator struggles in the UK

In our workshop they did not cover all of the anti-incineration campaigns and successes in the UK, but instead to give just a glimpse at the broad range of ongoing campaigns. The UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) has information on many more struggles on their website.

On the 27th of July, campaigners in Swancombe, Kent had an unexpected success when Teal Energy who had proposed a 250,000 tonne per year incinerator suddenly withdrew their application right in the middle of a planning inquiry. The victory came after Teal Energy had seen the land which they had planned to build their incinerator on being purchased by the company behind the proposed London Paramount theme park, to prevent any potential impact upon their planned resort. This seemingly unlikely confluence of interests has now forced the ‘waste-to-energy’ company to seek an alternative site for their project.

In Gloucestershire, campaigners from the GlosVAIN group held a massive demonstration with hundreds of participants in Stroud, calling for plans to build a £500 million incinerator to be scraped. The plan which saw contracts being signed with the council before planning permission was granted, meant that if the council refused to grant planning permission the cost would have been between £60 and £100 million. Unfortunately despite the popular opposition to the plans they were approved and the construction by Urbaser Balfour Beatty is expected to begin soon.

GlosVAIN Stroud Demonstration
GlosVAIN Stroud demonstration in January

In Derby recent research by anti-incineration campaigner Simon Bacon, has revealed that Derby City Council have paid more than £725,000 to fight their own decision! In Documents published by Simon, we can see that Derby City Council, in a contract with developer Resource Recovery Solutions (RRS), agreed to pay appeal costs above an agreed “appeal contingency” cost, which turned out be £0.00. Meaning that the council had to pay the full costs of RRS’s appeal, which came to £725,943, whilst only paying £112,255 to defend their decision.

This is just a small sample of the anti-incineration campaigns across the UK and there are many more active anti-incineration campaigns which can be found on UKWIN’s website, along with a map of potential, existing and prevented incinerators across the UK.

For anyone who wants to learn more about local anti-incineration campaigns, or set-up their own, you can also make use of the fantastic resources available on the UKWIN Website.

Power of Compost: Video Competition


"The Power of Compost" Competition Closed

Our compost video competition is now closed. We would like to thank everyone who submitted a video entry. We have now passed the videos on to our panel of judges and will be announcing a winners shortly. – The Zero Waste Europe team

What is so great about compost?

Compost is an incredibly powerful tool in the zero waste tool box. Organic waste is often one of the most challenging waste streams in urban areas, as it’s usually the largest waste stream of household waste and the most problematic in environmental terms. With separation at source and proper treatment through composting however, it can be an amazing opportunity to help create a genuinely circular economy. Composting organic waste can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and avoid hazardous disposal systems such as landfilling and incineration. As a natural soil improver, it replaces the need for chemical-based fertilisers (contributors to climate change), and it has amazing rejuvenating qualities for soil, increasing the capacity of the land to act as a ‘carbon sink’ and reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Across Europe millions of people are involved in composting, both on an individual level and as part of neighbourhood or community schemes. These actions are preventing vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and providing vital nutrients for soils. We want to hear your composting stories, and learn more about the inspirational ways that you and your communities are taking action to reduce organic waste.

That is why we have decided to launch a competition to celebrate composting, with some fantastic rewards.


Our competition…

Are you part of a fantastic composting project that doesn’t get enough attention? Do you need some added funds to expand your community composting scheme? Or are you just passionate about composting and want to promote your own creative organic waste solution? We want to know about it!

Submit your video to win

We have 3 huge prizes up for grabs, in our composting video competition, and all you have to do is submit a video or animation showing off your composting project, explaining why composting is so great, or highlighting a creative solution. We are particularly encouraging home-made and amateur video contributions, so remember the content is more important than the camera quality, and get out your smart-phones, and video-cameras and get stuck into a bit of compost.

The competition is divided into three categories, with different criteria and prizes, and will be judged by our panel of experts including experts from the European Compost Network (ECN), The Organic Stream, and Zero Waste Europe so if you want to participate, make sure you take a look at the different categories. You don’t have to specify which category your video comes under during the application process, so don’t worry if you aren’t sure, or feel that your video might fit more than one category, as our judges will assess which award the video would be most suited for.


The categories:


Community Solutions Award — Prize 500eur

In this category we are looking for the best community solution, so if you are part of a neighbourhood composting project or work with other local composters to collect all that food-waste, or just want to talk about community solutions make sure that you send us a video.


Creative Composter Award — Prize 500eur

This category will choose the most creative composting solution, we want to see your innovative and unusual composting efforts, as well as any creative attempts to promote composting of organic waste.


Compost Education Award — Prize 500eur

In the final category we are looking for the most effective and inspiring educational video about compost. This could be about the benefits of compost, or how to start your own compost project, or anything else really, so long as it is educational and espouses composting!


Tips & hints

We know that not everyone out there is a master in creating videos, there may not even be a direct correlation between video-editors and composters at all! But there is no need to worry, as we have put together some simple tips and hints to make sure your video is in with the best chance of winning!

There are so many more benefits of compost which we wrote about in depth for International Compost Week. We recommend that you give the article a read over before making your video to help ensure that you cover the kind of advantages of composting we are looking for.

  • Keep your video relatively short and to the point. We would expect videos to be around the 1.5 minute mark, and if videos are longer than 3 minutes we will not be able to include them in our competition.
  • If you are filming on a smartphone make sure to have your phone rotated in landscape (we find that makes a much better film!)
  • Try and move the camera as smoothly as possible to help avoid a film which could be difficult to watch
  • If your computer doesn’t come with any, there are plenty of free video editing and animation software options available, which you should be able to find with a quick internet search.
  • If video isn’t your thing, then you are also free to submit animations or other ‘video’ forms. Be creative, and surprise us!


This is the short version of the rules, for the legal stuff have a look at our full rules.

  • All entries must be received by midnight (GMT) on the 1st of November.
  • Entries should be uploaded to Youtube and set as unlisted, the link should then be sent to: COMPETITION NOW CLOSED
  • The judges will be looking for the best projects, ideas and composting solutions, not the most polished, professional videos.
  • The video should reflect the benefits of compost as explained above and the core values of Zero Waste Europe.
  • We are afraid that we will not be able to accept videos which are not either in English, or have English subtitles.
  • All entries must consist of original or previously unreleased content, by entering the competition you give Zero Waste Europe the right to host your video on our Youtube channel, and share it through social media.
  • Winners will be contacted by email.