Around 500,000 tonnes of waste oil is collected from garages each year. Half is burned in coal-fired power stations and half in roadstone plants.
From December, however, both these outlets must stop burning waste oil unless they can comply with the waste incineration Directive (WID). This requires waste to be burned at 850°C for two seconds and for strict emission limits to be met, most notably for NOx.
Coal-fired power stations cannot comply with either requirement, while roadstone plants cannot meet the emission limits. Compliance would require investment in equipment of more than £100 million for each power station and £400,000 for a roadstone plant.
Both sectors, together with waste oil collectors, had hoped DEFRA would either seek derogations from the Directive for such installations or exploit a loophole in it allowing Member States to ignore the minimum temperature requirement (ENDS Report 343, pp 18-19 ).
However, at a waste oil conference organised by Shell in February, officials announced neither will happen. "[The industry] may not like it, but we're applying the law," said DEFRA's Andy Howarth.
Electricity generators and roadstone manufacturers were exasperated. Martin Isles of the Quarry Products Association, which represents roadstone plant operators, said it would lead to increased burning of heavy fuel oil (HFO) and increased emissions of carbon monoxide and other pollutants.
"May I ask DEFRA to open their textbooks at the sustainable development page?" he quipped. Waste oil, he argued, should not be classified as a "waste" under EU law because HFO has a worse environmental performance.
"There may be emissions that are better controlled now than under WID," said Mr Howarth, "but it isn't us who say what is and isn't waste. That comes from EU law, and that is what we're applying."
Most roadstone plant operators have yet to decide whether they will upgrade their plants - although one major operator has decided not to, said Mr Isles. The QPA is "actively considering" a legal challenge to the Directive.
Much now depends on the development of alternative disposal routes for waste oils, particularly cement kilns or steelworks.
The regeneration of waste oil appears to have been ruled out as a viable alternative. The European Commission is currently considering, as part of plans to revise the waste oil Directive, whether to scrap the legal priority for regeneration (ENDS Report 360, p 47 ). The move would save the UK from further proceedings and embarrassment over its failure to implement the Directive.
Martin Brocklehurst, head of waste strategy at the Environment Agency, said the Agency "doesn't see [regeneration] as good environmental practice". The lack of a market for regenerated oil in the UK, he said, had led some regenerators to operate under financial pressure, with environmental consequences. This appears to be a veiled reference to the Agency's legal tussle with Petrus Oil in the late 1990s (ENDS Report 294, p 5 ).
Theoretically, the cement industry has "substantial capacity" to take waste oils, said David Pocklington, the British Cement Association's director of industry affairs. Half of Britain's cement kilns could take it without changing their permits.
But Mr Pocklington was at pains to point out that "everything is price related" and many other industries are competing to burn their waste in cement kilns.
Cement kilns would probably charge gate fees for the material - a move that would lead to significant cost increases for garages and could encourage some garages to dispose of their waste oil illegally.
However, the idea of establishing a producer responsibility scheme for waste oil, whereby oil companies would provide the funds to cover collectors' additional costs, is being discussed within DEFRA. "Oil companies could be obliged to collect and, if necessary, regenerate, some waste oil based on the amount of oil they place on the market," said Mr Howarth.
A similar scheme for packaging waste has existed since 1998, while others are being introduced for end-of-life vehicles and waste electrical and electronic equipment. DEFRA is also consulting on whether to introduce a producer responsibility scheme for farm plastics (ENDS Report 359, pp 47-48 ).
An interesting potential market could be the use of waste oil as a reductant in steel furnaces. Corus could, for example, use up to 350,000 tonnes per year at its Redcar works in Cleveland. As this would not be classified as waste incineration, such a move would not require the furnace to comply with the incineration Directive - enabling Corus to pay collectors perhaps 50% of the current market rate for waste oil of £120-145 per tonne.
However, there are doubts about the likelihood of Corus taking anything more than a "modest" amount of oil. "The capacity to take 400,000 tonnes of oil is clearly there, but in my view it would be unusual [if it was taken up]," said David Fitzsimons of consultancy Oakdene Hollins. "In other countries, only modest amounts are taken in due to water contamination."
Water content would have to be below 0.5% said Roger Creswell, director of the Oil and Chemical Recycling Association. This could only be met "with difficulty".
Collectors are also concerned about working with a single large company such as Corus, and the logistical difficulties in getting oil to Redcar.