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Half A Million Tonnes Of RDF Needs New Home

April 2020

The Dutch RDF tax was announced, in the UK at least, in early July, following the release of the Netherlands’ National Climate Agreement towards the end of June (see LetsRecycle article). Thereafter, there was a period of ‘Will They Won’t They”, until it actually happened in January this year. It is arguably still too early to make a thorough assessment of the impact, but we might have to make do with the clean data we have for January and February; by the time the March data is released, the ‘Coronavirus Effect’ will be an additional complication and the ‘Tax Effect’ will be less distinct.

So, diving in, Chart 1 shows the quarterly tonnages exported to the Netherlands 2016-2020 (2020 Q1 includes the known tonnages for January and February, and an assumed value for March (taken simply as the average of January and February)). The orange bars denote the time after the announcement of the impending tax. Looking at the pre-announcement average versus the post-announcement average, volumes have fallen by around 38%.

Chart 2 reflects purely on the tonnages for the Q1 in each year; that, after all, is the fairest like-for-like. Unsurprisingly, Q1 volumes are typically higher than other months (more RDF being burned in the colder months). Therefore, the latest orange bar, notably lower than its counterparts in previous years, quite possibly represents the highwater mark of 2020’s exports to the Netherlands, that being some 47% below the 2019 level.

In straightforward tonnage terms, what difference will this make? In 2019, almost 1.2 million tonnes of RDF were sent from England to the Netherlands. If that volume were to fall by the 38% suggested by Chart 1, then 440,000 tonnes of RDF from England will need an alternative home. If it falls by the 47% of Chart 2, then this increases the volume of displaced RDF to 540,000 tonnes. Taking the truth as somewhere in the middle, then it is entirely plausible that around half a million tonnes of RDF will need a new destination as a direct consequence of the Dutch tax. Sadly, it is highly likely that much of this will end up in landfill sites across the UK, given the lack of available capacity at Energy from Waste facilities in the UK and abroad, resulting in higher CO2 emissions; this outcome would disappoint a great many people, given the progress made in developing non-landfill routes for waste streams.

Then there’s the Coronavirus Effect. In the UK, the waste sector has been deemed a ‘Key Industry’, and so activity continues, and bins and skips continue to be collected. Volumes may be down (lots of businesses have been instructed to cease activity, hopefully just temporarily); alternatively, volumes may be up (supermarkets are reporting bumper trade, and the fact that so many people are at home will lead to higher Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) production, a key precursor to RDF). Waste collected will still need processing, it cannot simply be stored until we emerge blinking into the sunlight, whenever that may be. So there will continue to be RDF and the Coronavirus, on balance, may not greatly impact on tonnages. Still, as if Brexit and the Dutch RDF tax hadn’t given the sector enough to worry about, the strange new locked-down world presents a new unknown.

Stay safe and well, that’s the main thing!

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