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Tees Valley: embracing the circular revolution

In September 2015, when Sahaviriya Steel Industries UK (SSI) announced that it would close its Redcar site on Teesside with the loss of 1,700 jobs, it looked like another nail in the coffin for UK manufacturing. Just two years later, there is widespread optimism that indus­try in the area could blossom once more.

This time, resource management, recycling and circular economy (CE) thinking have been put right at the heart of an ambitious regener­ation strategy.

Plans to devolve powers to combined local authority areas were somewhat knocked off course following the fall of the coalition Gov­ernment. But where other regions failed to get their devolution proposals off the ground, the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) was created in April 2016.

The TVCA is formed of five councils – Dar­lington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees. Its role is to work with local businesses to push forward an economic strategy, and it has decided to include the CE as a cross-cutting theme. This includes engineering-out waste, local sourcing of materials and sustainable energy production.

As part of the devolution deal with the Gov­ernment, a new Tees Valley mayor – Conserva­tive Ben Houchen – was elected earlier this year to oversee the combined authority’s work. This allowed a Mayoral Development Corporation to be set up, the first outside London, to re-develop a 4,500-acre site that takes in the former Redcar steelworks. A full masterplan detailing the corporation’s aims will be launched in the autumn.

  • The pitfalls of developing new gasification technology - see below

In the wake of these developments, a review conducted by Lord Heseltine last year explicitly backed plans for the CE, carbon capture and storage, and district heat networks. He con­cluded that the Tees Valley was “an ideal loca­tion to pilot and demonstrate the benefits and opportunities of the CE”.

This flurry of activity was in part the culmi­nation of years of planning and lobbying from local business leaders.

The North East Chamber of Commerce is acting as a cheerleader for the Tees Valley renaissance. Head of policy Rachel Anderson says the area has a lot going for it already: it is home to major chemical firms such as Sabic, BOC and Sembcorp, and has a lot of available industrial land under an enabled planning regime.

“We have also got a lot of skills here,” she adds. “If you look at some of the industries that have declined, such as ship and oil platform building, you can adapt that skills base to dis­mantling things. It is such thinking that has formed during the past 10 years, I would say.

“We have been working with companies to understand how we can bring about making Teesside the centre for recycled steel in the UK. We have clean power here, a private wire network, and this spurs other technologies.”

Paul Booth, chair, Tees Unlimited

“If you look at plastics manufacturing and the demand to move to using recycled material in bottles, for example, you start to think that maybe there is a role for Tees Valley. Allied to that, in terms of power generation, we are moving away from the old coal and gas-fired power station and moving into energy-from-waste (EfW).”

Suez currently rules the EfW roost in the north-east, with an incinerator at Haverton Hill in Stockton-on-Tees. It is also in partner­ship with Sembcorp for another at the Wilton International site – the 2,000-acre home to a range of energy, biofuels and plastics recycling operations. Wilton also hosts organisations such as North East Bioresources and Renewables, which is dedicated to innovative develop­ments in anaerobic digestion, biomass, biogas and incineration.

“A cluster is starting to develop and a real shared intelligence on how we might turn all this waste into a joined-up industry,” says Anderson. “A couple more leaps in technology will be needed, and that is on the horizon.

“We probably need a bit of fair wind in terms of Government investment but, if we get that, you could see the north-east becoming a hot­spot for new technology. We would dearly love to get the research and development here.”

Business secretary Greg Clark is a Teessider himself and Anderson thinks this augers well for the region.

“When Heseltine came here, he famously said he had the ability to ‘cough at the right doors’ in Government. It was good to get validation – the doors that were ‘coughed at’ did lead to some things. And we’ve got a Conservative mayor now, who may or may not be able to carry on with the bronchitis.

“The collapse of SSI was a very difficult time for the Tees Valley. We now have a 17sq km site on the side of a river with industrial permission on it, and a business secretary who is very well aware of that. I would find it inconceivable that they would allow it to go begging for long.”

Paul Booth, chair of the local enterprise part­nership Tees Unlimited, has been a key figure in driving forward the CE agenda. With a back­ground in the chemicals industry – including Sabic, Huntsman and ICI – and a long-stand­ing interest in recycling, he certainly has the right skills mix and expertise. His vision influ­enced the TVCA’s economic strategy and the Heseltine review.

“If you go back 30 years, we have been devel­oping depolymerisation processes,” he says. “Simply put, we can chemically deconstruct plastic and take it back to a monomer. This properly recycles it as opposed to mechanically recycling it, [when it] ends up being inciner­ated.”

Booth had his imagination captured by a company called Graphite Resources about 10 years ago. The company had a contract with Gateshead City Council to take waste from the kerbside at no cost and, using an autoclave, sep­arated materials in a way that could be used by chemicals companies as feedstock.

“I got Sabic interested in recycling polysty­rene, polypropylene and polyethylene as a result. A lot of work went into proving that a molecule of plastic was far better retained as a molecule than incinerated for energy.”

The role of steel is intimately bound up in the local green economy despite the SSI closure, says Booth.

“On the one hand, the UK potentially has no steel-making capacity left. We export some­thing like 15 to 20 million tonnes of scrap. Imagine a world in 20-30 years’ time where every molecule of plastic or steel that we buy from outside the UK is recycled rather than exported.

“In the North Sea there is something like £50bn-worth of scrap that is going to be decommissioned during the next 20 years. We have enough scrap steel to stop worrying about whether we have enough raw material.”

Of course, recycling steel is not straightfor­ward because impurities such as zinc are noto­riously difficult to extract from scrap. “But all of those processes are being developed in the UK and we’re very well advanced,” says Booth. “If you start putting together a scrap supply chain, with new processes to skim off the impurities and you put it into an arc furnace, it’s a lot greener than starting with iron ore.”

tees valley report

tees valley report

So will electric arc furnaces and the new technology needed be developed on the SSI site?

“We have been working with companies to understand how we can bring about making Teesside the centre for recycled steel in the UK,” he says. “We have clean power here, a private wire network, and this spurs other tech­nologies.”

A strategic plan will be published for the Redcar site, setting out the aspirations for energy and advanced manufacturing. Booth says they have already attracted a lot of interest.

“We have been working very hard with com­panies that are under non-disclosure agree­ments until we can get to the point that [everyone is] happy that the investment can be made. We’ve had around 80 enquiries from companies wanting to invest.”

Developing the CE will depend on new tech­nology, but there are pitfalls. Graphite Resources’ Derwenthaugh EcoParc autoclave venture, which inspired Booth, was mothballed in 2012 because of reliability issues. It announced a comeback last year. More recently, Air Products failed in its gasification venture at Wilton.

But, true to her role as a flag-waver for indus­try, Anderson remains resolutely upbeat: “It was disappointing that Air Products could not make the plant work. It still could be a very exciting project,” she says.

“I think with any sort of development of a new industry and a new technology, in some ways failure is as valuable as success. You have to know where you went wrong. Air Products made a huge investment in the Tees Valley, spotting there was an opportunity here and the symbiosis with the industries around them, it shows what the capabilities are.”

The pitfalls of developing new gasification technology

stephen wise

stephen wise

Gasification as a technology is established and works. But gasification as a technology for treating solid municipal waste, so using it for industrial and commercial waste is still considered to be a relatively unproven technology.

A number of gasification projects are currently heading towards completion and operation. However, a number of others have fallen by the wayside for varying reasons.

One of the key critical aspects for gasification plants to work successfully is the quality and consistency of the fuel. A solid and robust supply chain needs to be in place that will ensure it meets the required standards.

The second critical aspect is the scaling up of the technology. A number of gasification processes are proven at certain sizes, but simply scaling those up will not deliver a larger gasification process. A number of projects have sought to really push the boundaries of the scale involved in an effort to improve commercial viability.

The third critical aspect is sound engineering because the process is not just about the gasification. Pre-treatment, clean-up of emissions and the generation of electricity or upgrading the gas for other uses are crucial.

It is important that we learn how to walk before we attempt to run. That way it is less likely that we will fall over.

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Stephen Wise is waste sector director and waste technical lead at Amec Foster Wheeler


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