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The job defines the tool

Stuart Hayward-Higham

Don’t give me a DIY job - I will use a big hammer for a little job and a wood screw in masonry. Why, you may ask. Well, I’ve had no training, it’s something I don’t want to do and I have no desire to get hold of the right tool for the job.

When it comes to waste we too often hear that one technology is better than the other, or one type of collection is better than another. The recent debate on commingled or source-separated collections is typical of our sector’s often polarised view of solutions. But the right tool for the job is the one that reflects the local circumstances, balancing commercial and environmental drivers and meeting the needs of the client and the market for the products.

The same is true for ‘new’ technologies and presumably therefore ‘old’ technologies. The description by its very nature suggests that new is better than old - it must be because any progress is good, isn’t it? If you take the wheel, its basic design has been around for thousands of years and therefore must qualify as an old technology. Yet it is used more than ever because it is effective and proven. It has been improved and refined but the basic design philosophy is the same as it was back into the times of the ancient Sumerians.

“It takes confidence to offer innovative solutions where they are best used”

In our sector-specific world I am often asked whether gasification technology is better than moving grate energy from waste (EfW). It depends on the job, I often answer. That’s not to avoid a difficult point but to identify that it is the needs of the project that should define the tool to be used.

A number of recent reports have listed the numbers of moving grate, fluidised bed, gasification, plasma gasification and pyrolysis plants in operation around the world, and the one unchallengeable fact is that there are far more moving grate EfW facilities than gasification or other. Does this mean they are better? Well, no, only that as an industry we have already made most of the mistakes in their design, construction and operation and, as such, they are well proven.

We cannot say the same for the other technologies, which still have some of their industrial proving in front of them. Does this mean we should not use gasification, that it is so high risk that anyone would be a fool to use it? Of course not. What it means is that the risk balance of ‘how well it works’ is less well proven and so any project needs to accommodate the different risk profile.

SITA is developing gasification projects as well as moving grate EfW, in-vessel composting, anaerobic digestion (AD), landfill gas to electricity and fuel, materials recycling and processing facilities and landfill sites, as well as offering source-separated and commingled collections. We are also working on a number of emerging technologies that are not ready to be industrialised yet but we hope will complement the tools we can offer our clients in the future.

The Government’s recent promotion of AD should be welcomed but that technology cannot do everything. In fact, on our analysis, it is unlikely to deliver in excess of 10% of the capacity required. Pushing to the higher market share suggested by the AD taskforce might force excessive collection costs or unsustainable solutions. AD is the right tool for the job in some circumstances, but it is only one tool and the UK needs a variety of them to be able to deliver the range of solutions required.

It takes experience, skill and knowledge to be able to identify the job and then choose and use the right tool. It also takes confidence to not go with the fashion, not to offer what you have always done just because that’s what you know, but to offer innovative solutions where they are best used and to adapt to the market needs and local conditions and requirements.

Let’s accept that the job defines the tool and get on with meeting the huge but exciting challenge ahead of our waste and recycling sector.

Stuart Hayward-Higham is technical director at Sita UK

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