Will growth in refuse-derived fuel impact recycling rates?

Refused Derived Fuel’ (or RDF) involves the conversion of non-recyclable plastics, paper, cardboard, and other combustible materials into energy.  RDF is a fast-growing industry in the United Kingdom, with the export market for waste material destined for RDF plants going from nothing in June 2010 to just over 215,000 tonnes in January 2015[1].  A great deal of the waste material used in RDF would have been destined for landfill, had the opportunity for RDF not been an option, but there are a few voices of concern from within the European community about whether or not the continued growth of refuse-derived fuel will have a negative impact on recycling rates, both in the UK and abroad, possibly due to the fact that individuals and organisations will feel less inclined to sort their waste if they believe that a.) recyclable materials are also being used in the RDF process or b.) that the environmental value of converting waste material into energy is somehow ‘greater’ than the positive environmental impacts of recycling.


To consider this issue further, it’s worth considering the example of Sweden – a country with extremely high recycling rates.  Sweden’s recycling prowess does not seem to have been negatively impacted by a growth in Refuse-derived fuel.  More than 99% of household waste generated in Sweden is recycled[2], and in 2015 Sweden had to import more than 1.3 million tonnes of additional waste to feed its energy recovery centres and generate electricity from this process.


There is already legislation in place to help ensure that recyclable materials are treated appropriately if they leave the UK for treatment, including recycling or for energy recovery purposes.  EU ‘Waste Shipment Regulations’ categorise different types of waste as falling into one of three categories – red, amber or green.  The Green list includes the most commonly recycled materials (as long as they have been sorted and are uncontaminated), materials that are subject to significantly fewer controls than hazardous waste, or waste being shipped for energy recovery[3].  This makes it much easier to ensure that material destined for recycling is actually recycled.


Some critics still feel that a growth in RDF and opening the UK’s borders for waste transferral to global sites who have the capacity to process the waste material we generate for RDF purposes will result in fewer incentives for the prevention of waste material and recycling.  However, RDF and waste management in general are closely monitored and legislated by the UK government and the EU, and as long as we work hard to ensure that the residual waste used in energy recovery remains only the ‘residual waste’ (i.e. waste left over after recyclables and compostable material has been removed), this should not be an issue.[4]


As the RDF industry continues to grow within the UK, and new RDF waste management sites are developed to ensure that our energy recovery needs are met ‘in house’ within the UK, the concerns about reduced recycling rates should lessen, as it will be simpler to monitor (and legislate for) to ensure that the UK continues to meet its environmental targets.


[3] Information from the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group’s report,

Exporting Opportunity? Putting UK waste to work at home and abroad


[4]Refuse Derived Fuel, Current Practice and Perspectives (B4-3040/2000/306517/MAR/E3) FINAL REPORT” - http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/studies/pdf/rdf.pdf


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