UK: No environmental benefit of domestic RDF treatment instead of exporting

EBS / RDF (Foto: Kroll/

Bristol, UK – A new study by the RDF Export Industry Group strongly suggests that the legal framework does not provide for any sensible means of Government intervening to set a restrictive standard for exported RDF. Furthermore, the environmental and economic impacts of RDF export are not wholly dissimilar from domestic treatment of residual waste.

There has been a significant increase in the amount of UK waste being exported to mainland Europe as RDF since 2010. RDF exports from the UK have increased from just 0.01 million tonnes in 2010 to 2.6 million tonnes in 2014. Over the same time period the Netherlands has been the destination receiving the largest quantity of waste (1.3 million tonnes in 2014), although the proportion of waste going to Sweden (0.5 million tonnes in 2014) and Germany (0.5 million tonnes in 2014) is increasing year-on-year. This considerable rise in exports, and Defra’s response (on 1st December 2014) to its Call for Evidence on the RDF export market in England, prompted the initiation of the RDF Group, which benefits from Members including a number of major waste management contractors and operators both from the UK and across Europe.

The key messages of the resulting report include among others:

  • Within existing legislation, there is only limited legal basis for any kind of treatment ‘standard’ to be introduced for exported RDF and this would be challenging and costly (both to Government and industry) to enforce. The basis for this standard would have to relate to the application of the waste hierarchy, which would need to apply equally to residual waste treated domestically.
  • In the context of encouraging recycling at source, an advantage of RDF export is its flexibility. RDF export to overseas facilities has the potential to enable parts of the UK to leapfrog lower levels of the waste hierarchy by providing a flexible treatment route rather than one which often requires long-term guaranteed tonnages of waste. Investment in waste infrastructure in the UK should not be discouraged, rather it is important to focus on the right type and scale of infrastructure that is needed.
  • There are both costs and benefits in terms of the economic impacts of RDF export. As well as potential losses from the UK economy in terms of gate fee revenue (largely for landfill operators at present), there are additional factors at play, at different stages of the waste management chain for producers, contractors and the wider economy.
  • If the total residual waste that is suitable for recovery, but which is currently sent to landfill, in the UK (14.7 million tonnes) was treated at domestic R1 facilities, it would amount to both 3 per cent of total generation and 3 per cent of renewable generation (based on our calculations of the renewable fraction of residual waste). More importantly, if the 2.6 million tonnes of RDF exported in 2014 was treated at domestic R1 plant, this would contribute around 0.5 per cent to total UK electricity generation and around 0.8 per cent to total UK renewable electricity generation.

The full report is available under

Source: RDF Export Industry Group / Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd