What is RDF?
RDF stands for ‘refuse derived fuel’. It 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. RDF 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 RDF are subject to prior written notification and consent in accordance with the Waste Shipment Regulations.
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 export of residual waste as RDF, that otherwise would have been landfilled, allows a significant amount of material to be moved up the waste hierarchy, a principle that is enshrined within law. It also brings environmental benefits: over 700,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions were saved in 2016 by exporting RDF for treatment in Europe instead of landfilling in the UK. This is equivalent to taking over 740,000 cars off the road.
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.