Environment Science Technology

Wasted Potential

Written by Douglas Blood

Every year we dump 2.12 billion tons of waste – 59% of which will end up in landfill.

Landfills are the fourth biggest contributor to changing climate.

Some 99% of what we buy is trashed within 6 months.

In 2019, the average UK citizen produced 409 kilograms of waste.

Two-thirds of the UK’s rubbish is sent abroad.

Over half of the highly toxic electronic waste is shipped to Africa or Asia.

It is a damning list – but there is a solution.

Waste is polluting our oceans, contributing to rising global temperatures and is an inefficient use of space in an increasingly populated world. Landfills create methane gas, a substance 20 times as harmful to the planet as CO2. Our recklessly unsustainable relationship with waste needs to end.

One approach to reduce waste, and create affordable renewable energy is the development of Waste to Energy (WtE) plants. The UK currently has 42 WtE sites, with more set to come. These factories consume 12 million tons of waste per annum (mpta). The Dunbar energy recovery facility is one of the largest refuse to energy facilities in the UK. The residual waste – otherwise destined for landfill or burning – is brought to the facility where it is incinerated in an oxygen-restricted chamber. The broken-down compounds are then extracted and fed copious volumes of air to heat up. The gases, now at 1000°C, are cooled by mixing with water to produce steam which powers on-site turbines, producing electricity. The 258-megawatt hours of electricity produced are sold to the grid which can continuously power over 70,000 homes. The remaining materials in the fire chamber – predominantly metals – are recycled and sold. The process reduces the volume of waste by roughly 90%, making festering landfills a thing of the past.

WtE plants have also improved their techniques to minimise emissions and meet government standards. Site’s emissions are monitored 24/7 and published, this has led to a more environmentally conscious production process. The incineration chamber is continuously adjusted mid-operation to ensure full combustion is achieved. Also, by-products such as Nitrous Oxide are treated and turned to gaseous Nitrogen – which makes up 78% of dry air – before being released into the atmosphere. Carbon is also added so potential pollutants can attach to the carbon before being filtered out.

Covanta, who run the Rookery energy recovery facility in Bedfordshire have cut their emissions by 53% since 2007. The energy from waste sector may not be the most glamourous or fashionable sustainable living movement, however by 2030 it could save over 12 million tonnes of CO2 from the environment, as well as reducing methane levels produced from landfills.

As well as the environmental benefits, WtE plants are economically viable. Covanta for example, currently has dividend yields of 10.93%. Firms are also paid by local councils to receive the waste, and then sell their electricity onto the grid. Firms such as Veolia and Covanta have invested billions into the UK WtE market. This foreign direct investment is a crucial injection into the UK economy. For instance, the Dunbar facility has 55 full-time staff and is estimated to boost the East Lothian economy by £10 million per annum.

However, despite the growing sector the UK still has 10-15 million tonnes of waste that goes to landfill every year. This deficit is very avoidable, but WtE sites do not grow on trees. It is estimated that at least 20 more plants must be built to tackle the levels of waste. This will cost £8-10 billion, and that funding is highly unlikely to come from a Holyrood or Westminster government.

Instead, it is the free markets’ chance to step up to power today and preserve tomorrow.

About the author

Douglas Blood

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