Under the proposed changes, the EU would use environmental and "fitness for use" criteria to clarify when a waste ceases to be a waste. This could in principle allow wastes fit for use as fuels - such as solid recovered fuel from mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) plants - to become non-wastes.
These could then be burnt in power stations without having to meet emission limits set down in the waste incineration Directive (WID) and could also be moved across borders without being affected by transfrontier shipment controls.
The term SRF applies to material that has been sorted before being put through an MBT plant.
The driving force behind these moves is Germany. The country has recently reclassified SRF as a non-waste at state level, according to Gerald Tetchner of Enertech Engineering Consultants. This allows it to export the material to eastern Europe.
It has done this through a "pragmatic interpretation" of the current legislation, Mr Tetchner says.
A change in the waste framework Directive would put the German policy on firmer ground.
In Britain, a change in SRF's classification would be popular for different reasons, as dozens of local authorities are contemplating investment in MBT systems. The "non-waste" classification would allow the material to be burnt in power stations without having to comply with WID standards, so providing an outlet for this currently homeless material (ENDS Report 361, pp 25-28 ).
DG Energy and DG Enterprise have taken on Germany's cause in the Commission. DG Environment is taking "a more cautious approach", according to Laetitia Reynaud of FEAD, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services, due to fears that any move could increase emissions of pollutants. "DG Environment has told us it's DG Energy that wants to declassify SRF," she says.
A formal proposal is not expected until the autumn at the earliest, but the issue is already causing splits in the waste management industry. FEAD has not agreed on a position yet due to disagreement between members that favour MBT and those favouring energy-from-waste incineration.
The UK's own Environmental Services Association is suffering similar problems. It submitted a draft position paper on the issue to its members in May, but no agreement was reached.
Biffa is the most outspoken waste company in favour of change. "Faced with a likely energy crisis, there is an urgent need to open up the energy market," said Berian Griffiths, the company's environment director, in a statement to the ESA. "If the waste management industry continues to argue that SRF must remain waste and [that] WID is absolute for all combustion processes...it risks being marginalised in the wider energy debate."
In spite of this position, Biffa does support the view that emissions from the combustion of SRF must be "no worse" than those from the fuels it replaces.
Other waste firms are opposing the change. "I'd have concerns about the change whether I worked for a leading energy-from-waste company or not," said Keith Riley, managing director of Onyx's southern region. "My concern at the moment is that we have the waste incineration Directive and that places controls on emissions. If you take that away, what controls will we have?"
Mr Riley also fears that if SRF becomes a tradable commodity, it will become difficult to trace its movements and "much" will end up being disposed of in unsuitable outlets.
Gev Eduljee, technical director of Sita, appears to agree. "If WID is not needed for burning SRF [in power stations], then WID should not apply for the waste industry too. There's no environmental argument in different standards." He insists, however, that Sita will not come to a position on the issue until product specifications are agreed.
Those in favour of declassification say that specifying the chemical constitution of SRF can regulate emissions. Keith Riley would only favour this if the WID emissions limits were "translated backwards" into limits on the SRF itself. "That might be okay, but then the limits would be pretty tight and I expect people would lose interest in the issue."
To move things forward, the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) is developing a set of standards for SRF.
Due to be published in the next six to twelve months after being put to a formal vote, the first standard states what material can be defined as SRF based on whether its calorific value, chlorine and mercury content fit within specified ranges. An SRF can have chlorine content no higher than 3%, for example.
A second standard, meanwhile, contains five "fuel specifications". These will include limit values for some substances, but only half of them will be mandatory.
Controversially, there will be no mandatory limits placed on heavy metals, whereas there are emission limit values for metals under the waste incineration Directive. "Yes, it's controversial, but the technical committee believes that a limit on mercury is enough as it's the only heavy metal that won't be captured [by abatement equipment]," said Martin Frankenhauser, chairman of CEN's technical committee on SRF.
The other standards include "sampling, sample reduction and supplementary test methods", and "physical and chemical tests" for determining the properties of SRF.
One question that has not been raised by this debate in Britain is whether declassification will actually lead to significant quantities of SRF being burnt in power stations. The fact that Germany is exporting its SRF even though most of its power stations are WID compliant suggests this may not be the case.