The drive to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill is one of the few clear and consistent themes in waste management.
It is generally accepted that we need to develop new waste infrastructure to sustainably treat the country’s waste and meet our targets and legal commitments.
It is predicted that to meet European landfill diversion targets alone, we need to build 8.8 million tonnes of new residual waste treatment capacity by 2020 and will require £8 billion investment.
But there are different opinions about what should be built, and where.
Many believe the UK will be unable to meet its commitments without at least a partly thermal solution. We are currently reliant on the import of energy while exporting SRF and refuse-derived fuel to generate energy overseas.
Together with concerns about critical and strategic raw materials and metals, this has led to an increasing case for dealing with our waste, and recovering our resources, within the UK.
In recent years, the government has given significant support to certain technologies, in particular anaerobic digestion, but has shied away from more potentially controversial solutions. AD alone cannot sufficiently increase diversion to enable us to recover resources. We need integrated infrastructure making the most of the inherent value in our waste.
The waste industry has traditionally been considered risk averse, relying on landfill and mass burn incineration, but now innovation is the name of the game for the UK waste and resource sector.
There are several innovations planned – including an Origin Renewable Energy Centre proposal to build a 96,000 tonnes per year gasification plant. This will generate up to 8 megawatts of electricity and has the capacity to generate up to 32MW of combined electricity, heat and stream energy.
SITAs new plant in Avonmouth is designed to turn low grade plastics into diesel and other liquid fuels. The plant, with a 7500tpa annum feedstock capacity, will produce up to 750l of diesel, and 200l of kerosene/gasoline per tonne of waste plastic – all with end-of-waste status. This new plant is expected to be commissioned this year and is the first of 10 proposed by the company.
These are just a couple of examples of how the sector is developing but we need to be careful not to just focus on technology but also look at people, their behaviours and attitudes.
We need the environment for these technologies to be developed and commissioned through support for R&D activities, access to finance, and policies to encourage companies to plan for the long term secure in the knowledge that they will have feedstocks and markets.
Community objections are a persistent barrier to the development of strategic infrastructure, especially for the waste management sector. We need to increase the awareness and responsibility of the general public so that they become more accepting of new infrastructure and technologies. Changes in public perceptions of responsibility for waste will bring about additional benefits, most notably in the area of waste prevention.
In 2010 the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group suggested some innovative incentive structures that could be utilised at the strategic planning level to give local communities a stake in the development of infrastructure.
The structures proposed fall in to five key categories: community ownership; utility discounts; community funds; district heating; and design.
There are new technologies being developed and refined to enable us to deal sustainably with our waste. But to make the best use of these we need to ensure that the public understand them and are engaged with them.
Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable wastes management, University of Northampton