Legal ruling forces Agency to rethink controls on waste fuels

In light of a recent Court of Appeal judgment, the Environment Agency is considering whether some waste fuels should be reclassified as non-waste and exempt from waste controls.

The Environment Agency is examining whether waste fuels such as refuse-derived fuel (RDF), solvents and tyres could be reclassified as ‘non-waste’, following a judgment from the Court of Appeal on the circumstances under which waste oils can be considered to be ‘fuel’ rather than ‘waste’.

RDF is produced by certain mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) technologies for municipal waste – Greater Manchester alone will produce 270,000 tonnes of the material each year by 2011 – but there are currently few outlets for it outside cement kilns (ENDS Report 385, p 22 ).

But if RDF was reclassified as non-waste, power stations could burn it without having to meet the requirements of the waste incineration Directive. This would remove a major barrier to the uptake of MBT technology (ENDS Report 386, p 17 ).

Waste oils were burnt in roadstone plants and power stations, instead of heavy fuel oil, until the Directive came into force two years ago. Oil recycler OSS Group then moved into the market and started processing the material into clean fuel oil (CFO), which it said was indistinguishable from virgin fuel oil. But the Agency took the position that CFO was still ‘waste’ until burnt.

However, at the end of June, the Court of Appeal ruled that waste oils could be non-wastes if they had been reprocessed into a distinct marketable product that could be used in exactly the same way as an ordinary fuel and with no worse environmental effects (ENDS Report 390, pp 53-54 ).

A month later the Agency announced it would establish a group to define when waste oils cease to be waste. The group includes the Environment Department (DEFRA), OSS, the UK Petroleum Industry Association, the Association of Electricity Producers and the Quarry Products Association. It aims to develop a standard within three months.

In the interim, the Agency will regard CFO and equivalents as non-waste if they meet the British standard for heavy fuel oil.

However, the Agency also intends to look at how the “end of waste test” could apply to other wastes. According to Agency policy officer Haydn Jones, these could include RDF, waste solvents and waste tyres.

But it will be harder to set criteria for these materials than for waste oils, with difficulty defining what “ordinary fuel” they replace. For example, RDF could replace coal in a power station, but coal is an extremely variable fuel in terms of its emissions. “We’d either have to come up with a test based on RDF’s emissions or we’d have to say that we can’t come up with a test as the fuel it is replacing is so variable,” said Amin Anjum, an Agency waste policy officer. “In that case, it would have to remain waste.”

There are also questions over whether municipal waste made into RDF has undergone enough processing to count as a “distinct marketable product”. Some MBT processes simply dry the waste and then remove recyclables. The same question applies to waste tyres that have simply been chipped and had metal components removed.

Firms producing or using RDF were reluctant to comment in detail on the ruling. Shanks, which produces RDF from MBT plants in East London, said it was “having discussions over whether it presents an opportunity to us”.

Those involved with other wastes that might be affected were more forthcoming. Solvent Resource Management, which was involved in the original High Court case with OSS and makes a secondary liquid fuel (SLF) out of waste solvents, does not expect the judgment to affect SLF because it would have to be comparable with high-grade oils and match their environmental or fuel standards.

“Irrespective of whether these rules are based on the recycling processes themselves or the specification of the finished product”, the company said it does not expect to see a change in the waste status of SLFs used in cement and lime kilns.

Waste tyre reprocessors are more optimistic. “Potentially it does open some doors,” said Peter Taylor, secretary general of the Tyre Recovery Association, but “much depends on how the Agency decides to implement it”.

Mr Taylor said the ruling could have implications for pyrolysis. Coalite’s tyre pyrolysis plant, which closed in 2004, “ran into problems because the oils they produced were considered ‘waste’.”

The Agency is currently developing a protocol for waste tyres that would define when they are no longer waste, but this only applies to their use as surfacing (ENDS Report 376, pp 19-20 ).

The picture of how the judgment will affect waste oils is clearer. Since the waste incineration Directive came into force, most waste oil has gone to Corus’s Redcar works, where it is used as a reductant (ENDS Report 371, p 15 ). But since the judgment it has already begun to return to roadstone plants. Quarries are willing to pay £200 per tonne – twice what Corus will pay.

The long-term effect on the industry will depend on the strength of the environmental standards set by the Agency for heavy metals, chlorine and ash. According to Roger Creswell of the Oil Recycling Association, “if they’re set really high it would encourage re-refining to make base oil, but if they’re set too low it will stop all those plans.”

German company Puralube intends to build a 70,000-tonne capacity re-refining plant in the UK (ENDS Report 387, pp 16-17 ). However, managing director Christian Hartmann said this would only be competitive if high standards are set.