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New UK study shows carbon-emission reductions would be 5-times greater if MSW were used for SAF instead of electricity

The U.K. risks missing out on a significant opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint by continuing to incinerate household waste rather than use it to make sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), according to a new study released March 8 by the Manchester Airports Group.


Every year, around 8.5 million metric tons of household rubbish are burned to make electricity when items cannot be recycled or reused, according to transport sustainability experts ICF.


A further 7.3 million tons are burned with no energy recovery at all.


Instead of being incinerated to make electricity, the same waste could be used to produce SAF at new refineries across the U.K., giving airports a direct supply and creating tens of thousands of new green jobs. 


The research from ICF reveals that the reduction in carbon emissions from using bin-bag waste to make SAF would be at least five-times greater than that achieved by incinerating the same waste to generate electricity. 


It shows that SAF made from waste emits 89 percent less carbon than burning conventional jet fuel.


This means that using waste to make SAF results in a much bigger reduction in carbon emissions than incinerating it to make electricity—because nearly 50 percent of all U.K. electricity already comes from renewable sources. 


The emissions saving of generating energy from waste is expected to get smaller and smaller—eventually reaching zero—as the U.K. works towards all its electricity coming from renewable sources by 2035. 


The research found that, if all the rubbish the U.K. currently incinerates was used to make SAF instead, the carbon saving would be equivalent to the emissions of at least 46 million people flying from London Stansted Airport to Madrid every year.


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has given councils the green light to send the waste they collect to make SAF, with many disposal contracts due for renewal in the coming months and years.


That, according to MAG, offers an exciting opportunity to not only take the carbon out of flying, but to establish a needed SAF production industry in the U.K., with the potential to create up to 60,000 jobs.


“It is proven that SAF has the capability to power the planes of the future and will be instrumental in the decarbonization of air travel in the coming years,” said Ken O’Toole, CEO of MAG, which runs Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports and commissioned the ICF study. “The benefits of turning household waste into SAF are clear—it’s better for the environment, reducing emissions by at least five-times more than using it to make electricity. It can also contribute to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs and be a significant driver in helping U.K. aviation reach its target of net zero by 2050. It is vital that we use household waste in the most efficient way we can to help reduce carbon emissions. But the simple fact is, by continuing to incinerate waste to make electricity we’re missing out on an important opportunity to cut the U.K.’s carbon emissions. By using household waste to make SAF, we can scale up our domestic SAF production and ensure that air travel—which delivers so many economic and social benefits—remains affordable and on a path to net zero.”


DEFRA rules state that councils should prioritize disposal that enables municipal solid waste (MSW) to be recycled or reused.


After that, it can either be sent to landfill or used to make energy or fuel.


According to ICF, 27.3 million tons of MSW are collected in the U.K. each year, making it the most widely available domestic raw material to make SAF, ahead of agricultural waste.


Of that, 8.5 million tons are used to make electricity, with a further 7.3 million tons simply sent to incinerators without any energy being captured.


The research reveals that the reduction in carbon emissions from using bin-bag waste to make SAF would be at least five-times greater than that achieved by incinerating the same waste to generate electricity.


It  took a “best case” of electricity made from rubbish using an incinerator that not only produces power, but captures the heat at the same time, despite the fact many in use across the U.K. do not do both.


It also assumed the nonbiogenic content of that waste such as petroleum-based products like plastic was as low as 4 percent.


It shows that turning 1 ton of waste into energy would save 89 kilograms of carbon (89kg CO2e) when compared with the average emissions generated when producing energy for the U.K. electricity grid.


In 2022, 56 percent of U.K. electricity was produced from low-carbon sources.


If the same ton of waste was used to make SAF, there would be a 453kg CO2e saving compared to traditional jet-fuel emissions.


This reduction is delivered because the carbon needed for SAF already exists within the economy.


Therefore, it is produced without needing to extract additional fossil fuels.


DEFRA has confirmed that local authorities are free to choose fuel production over energy from waste and incineration but, under the terms of current disposal contracts, the amount of MSW that could be made available to new SAF plants is limited.


That means the U.S. and Europe could win the race to secure investment in SAF production plants, with the creation of up to 60,000 high-value jobs in the U.K. at stake.


Industry coalition Sustainable Aviation has identified that as many as 14 SAF plants could be built across the U.K., with the government committed to having five under construction by 2025.


In 2021, Manchester Airport signed a landmark partnership with Fulcrum BioEnergy U.K., which could make it the first U.K. airport to be directly connected to SAF production, providing up to 10 percent of the airport’s fuel use.


The publication of the ICF research comes after the first transatlantic flight powered exclusively by SAF took off in November to New York from London.


The U.K. government has a mandate in place requiring 10 percent of the fuel used by airlines in the U.K. to be SAF by 2030.


SA’s most recent decarbonization roadmap, published in 2023, sets out how aviation will decarbonize by 2050 and demonstrates how SAF will deliver 39 percent of aviation-emissions reduction on the path to net zero.


The creation of a thriving SAF industry in the U.K. is estimated to contribute £11 billion (USD$14 billion) to the economy.


Both major U.K. political parties have made pledges that electricity generation will be net zero by no later than 2035, meaning any practices that are carbon-positive will have to be phased out.



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