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WtE Tax? Let me tell you how it will be…

A tax on waste incineration may soon be coming to the UK. What’s all that about? The landfill tax has had great success in reducing landfill volumes, and there has been a well-documented rise in WtE incineration, both in terms of volume and monetary investment. It seems that the government now thinks this has gone too far, and corrective measures are needed to boost, not landfill, but greater and greener recycling methods.

The subject, unusually, reached Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons this month. West Wiltshire MP, Dr Andrew Murchison, asked ‘Will the Government strengthen their bid to host the 2020 United Nations climate change conference by putting a moratorium on new incinerator, gasification and pyrolysis applications, including the one in Westbury [see here for AcuComm’s coverage of this project], in my constituency?’. To which the prime minister replied ‘We want to maximise the amount of waste that is sent to recycling rather than to incineration and landfill. Waste plants continue to play an important role in reducing the amount of rubbish that is sent to landfill, and we welcome the efforts to drive it down further. but if wider policies do not deliver our waste ambitions in the future—including those higher recycling rates—we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste’.

The PM’s reply was taken more or less directly from the report outlined below. What was interesting about the question was that it lumped newer technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis together which traditional WtE facilities. All much the same in the eyes of campaigners, one suspects.

There are no details or timetables, and the composition of the UK government in a few months from now is anyone’s guess. But a tax on waste incineration has been around Whitehall for a while now. In December 2018, the government issued a strategy document, ‘Our Waste, Our Resources, A Strategy For England’. This deals with all aspects of waste management, but one area highlighted is better efficiency in the waste incineration sector. The principal government concern seems to be to make greater use of CHP (combined heat and power) than at present; most current facilities contribute electricity only. But there also seems to be a concern that there is now too much WtE incineration and too little recycling, and its use may need to be curtailed through tax, as has been the case with landfill:

‘Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long-term, we will consider the introduction of a tax on the incineration of waste. Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the Government expects this to continue. However, Budget 2018 set out the Government’s long term ambition to maximise the amount of waste sent to recycling instead of incineration and landfill. Any consideration would take into account how such a tax would work alongside Landfill Tax and the possible impacts on local authorities.’ (page 79, editor’s bold)

A tax might also, of course, incentivise CHP over current investment patterns, although the government does not explicitly say this. The idea of an incineration tax means different things to different people, depending on the desired outcome. Neil Grundon, of Grundon Waste Management, has a slightly different take. Writing on the CIWM web site in November 2018, he argued that the landfill tax has led to an increase in RDF exports rather than investment in domestic waste treatment capacity. A tax on RDF exports, rather than incineration itself, would, therefore, discourage these exports and provide cash for domestic investment in new, greener, treatment methods. Large incinerators would be taxed, to encourage the development of smaller, locally-sustainable facilities.

There is certainly a trend towards the construction of large – maybe too large – WtE facilities, which promise better economies of scale and greater return on investment. As we saw recently with Tata’s planned Cheshire facility, one objection raised is the inability of such large sites to survive just using local waste, whether in RDF or unprocessed form.

The export tax idea raises a couple of interesting issues, however. Firstly, it should be noted that this isn’t remotely what the government appears minded to introduce. Secondly, in regards to waste and, by extension, RDF as a problem to be dealt with, rather than a commodity with value. RDF exports are presumably profitable for the companies exporting them, and a worthwhile purchase for the overseas receivers. While an export tax would provide a clear benefit for local operators such as Grundon, it’s hard to see why any government should be keen to explicitly suppress a profitable export trade in this way.

Whatever the details, the broad direction of travel seems clear. To mix a metaphor, the UK seems to be aiming to move the circular economy up a gear. Where once the incentive was the reduction of landfill to the benefit of WtE and recycling, it is now to be the reduction of landfill and WtE, to the benefit of recycling alone. This may have profound implications for the industry, with smaller CHP-style units replacing the traditional incinerators and even perhaps gasification/pyrolysis technologies. In some ways, we’ve been here before. The UK pioneered waste incineration in the 1800s*, before abandoning it in favour of sanitary landfill in the mid-20th Century, and then re-embracing it in the 2000s in the wake of the landfill tax. So again today, the regulatory environment is not standing still. Planners must be aware of this changing environment and adjust their strategies accordingly.

* for anyone interested in the early history of UK waste incineration, I’d recommend ‘’The incineration of refuse is beautiful’ : Torquay and the introduction of municipal refuse destructors’, by J.F.M. Clark, Cambridge University Press, 2007. You can read it online here.

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