Many of us are rightfully concerned about the impact of the waste we generate on landfill sites within the UK – as more and more landfill sites become full to capacity, new land must be given over to the storage of waste, creating new unsightly areas that none of us want on our doorstep.
There are certain solutions to this, from increased recycling and recovery rates, to the generation of energy from waste materials, but ultimately a small percentage of the waste we generate in our households and businesses will always end up in landfill.
Where does UK waste go?
So this raises the question of – where does it all go? Do you know where the rubbish from your bins ends up after it is collected? Or even if it stays in the UK?
Actually, whatever you think you know, the truth is probably at least a little different – and is changing all the time.
For example, in July 2015, the Environment Agency published an analysis of recent trends in the export of refuse-derived fuel, or RDF – waste materials that have been processed in some way to convert them into a usable fuel source.
In June 2010, no RDF was being exported from England, but by January 2015, 215,000 tonnes were sent primarily to the Netherlands, as well as Germany and Sweden.
As UK landfill tax rates rise, export levels also increase, according to the EA, but more recently parity between domestic disposal costs and export costs has seen exports reach a plateau.
The report noted that simply dumping waste in a landfill site is likely to remain a last resort, with domestic EfW (energy from waste) plants becoming the first choice, followed by export of usable materials at a profit to continental plants.
Why does UK waste go abroad?
However, exports of landfill waste seem set to continue either way, simply due to a lack of capacity within the UK – as warned in a SITA report in February 2014.
The organisation’s study was entitled Mind the Gap – a reference to the shortfall in domestic residual waste treatment capacity that is expected between 2015 and 2025.
SITA said: “In 2015, 17.8 million tonnes of residual waste will need to be landfilled or used as refuse-derived fuel in other countries, because there is not enough infrastructure capacity in the UK to make use of it domestically.”
By 2025 though, this is expected to drop again to 5.7 million tonnes – and that’s not directly because of a reduction in waste exports, but as a consequence of greater recycling in the UK and an overall reduction in the amount of waste generated in the first place.
So to answer the original question – is UK waste sent abroad?
Yes, sometimes, especially if it is profitable to do so, or if domestic waste-handling facilities are operating at capacity.
However, ongoing work to reduce the amount of waste we produce, and to increase recycling rates, is all helping to cut down on domestic landfill and waste exports, while technologies like EfW and RDF mean much of the waste we export to the continent can be used to generate energy once it arrives there.