About RDF

What is RDF?

WDF encompasses refuse derived fuel (RDF) and solid recovered fuel (SRF).

RDF is a generic term used to describe waste from municipal or commercial sources that is residual (i.e. non-recyclable mixed waste) that has undergone some processing that allows it to be burnt as a fuel to produce energy in an energy-from-waste incinerator. This processing can range from minimal sorting to more complex mechanical and/or biological treatment.

SRF goes through additional processing to improve its quality and value and, as it has a higher calorific value than RDF, is often used in facilities with high energy demands such as cement kilns.

WDF can be exported from the UK and Republic of Ireland under the following European Waste Codes:

  • 19 12 10 (Combustible waste – Refuse Derived Fuel); and
  • 19 12 12 (other wastes (including mixtures of materials) from mechanical treatment of wastes other than those mentioned in 19 12 11 (hazardous)).

Shipments of WDF are highly controlled and subject to prior written notification and consent in accordance with EU Waste Shipment Regulations. The export of residual waste, that otherwise would have been landfilled, allows a significant amount of material to be moved up the waste hierarchy – a principle enshrined within both UK and EU law. The movement of WDF allows countries that have insufficient residual waste treatment capacity, to avoid landfill and use energy recovery capacity available in other nations. The additional transport required for WDF is (contrary to popular opinion), only a very small proportion of the overall carbon saved through landfill diversion. Sending waste to landfill instead of energy recovery (electricity and heat) emits an additional 261 kg of CO2e per tonne of waste (comparison between Dutch energy recovery and UK landfill). This is more than ten times the emissions generated per tonne when treated in the Netherlands.

RDF exports from the UK began in 2010 and the market in the UK and Republic of Ireland has grown considerably since then. The industry is now worth circa £0.5 billion annually, and RDF production supports over 6,800 jobs in the UK. In 2016, 3.6 million tonnes of the UK’s residual waste – about 14% of the current total – was treated using spare energy-from-waste capacity on the continent. A further 0.4 million tonnes was exported from the Republic of Ireland. The market for RDF export is now well-established and forms a vital and flexible part of the UK and Republic of Ireland’s waste management system.

The RDF Supply Chain

The RDF supply chain includes the production of RDF (in the UK and Republic of Ireland), its pre-treatment, transportation, storage, loading, export, unloading, and its treatment at an energy-from waste facility (in continental Europe). The stages in this supply chain are shown and explained below.

Stage 1  – Waste Arrives At Waste Transfer Station

The supply chain begins with the arrival of mixed residual waste at a waste transfer station. This may be a pre-treatment facility, a residual materials recovery facility (MRF) or simply a site at which waste is collected before onward transportation to one of the former.

Stage 2 – Pre Treatment Of Waste

RDF producers undertake pre-treatment of mixed waste to produce RDF. The industry currently pre-treats mixed waste in a number of different ways, using a range of different physical, thermal, chemical and/or biological processes. Pre-treatment changes the characteristics of the waste to make it easier and safer to handle and transport, as well as making it perform better as a fuel.

Stage 3 – Preparation For Transport

Once pre-treated, RDF is prepared for transportation to its destination. The RDF may be baled and wrapped, or put into shipping containers. This will depend on the preferences of the supply chain and the relevant environmental regulators.

Stage 4 – Storage

RDF may be stored before it is transported, or at one or more stages along the supply chain. Storage may be required in order to collect enough RDF in one place before a shipment can take place.

Stage 5 – Transportation

RDF may be transported to a UK-based treatment facility or, as is more common, to an overseas treatment facility that meets the European efficiency standard. RDF is transported between waste transfer stations, ports and the treatment facility by road, rail and/or sea.

Stage 6 – Loading

RDF is loaded onto the vehicle used for export. Export of RDF can take place by road, rail or ship; the majority of RDF exported from the UK travels by ship.

Stage 7 – Export

The shipment method chosen for RDF export must be safe, legal and suitable for the material and its destination.

Stage 8 – Unloading

Unloading occurs at different points in the supply chain depending on the exact logistics of the export process.

Stage 9 – Transportation

Once in the destination country, RDF is transported from the receiving port to the energy-from-waste facility by road or rail.

Stage 10 – Further Pre-Treatment

RDF may undergo further pre-treatment before it is treated in the energy-from-waste facility.

Stage 11 – Received At Treatment Facility

The RDF is treated to generate electricity and, in many cases, also heat.  Some energy-from-waste facilities provide heat to industry or to nearby buildings and homes through district heating networks.

See all stages