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The burning need to incinerate our rubbish


DISPOSING of human-generated waste down the lavatory and via the bin lorry is a vital, if unglamorous, duty for public health and for the environment generally.

For decades we’ve followed EU regulations and thereby have contributed to a global disaster: the oceans filling with plastic, from lumps of it to plastic bags and microplastics from cosmetics.

We’ve been here before. With the introduction of early forms of flushing toilet, people were so pleased to dispose of their waste  easily that they didn’t think about where it went. In London, it led to cholera and ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858.

Unless you devise a way of safely disposing of waste you just move the problem elsewhere and eventually it comes back to bite you. So too with the wheelie bin. On the whole, because we are pleased that our domestic rubbish is generally collected quite efficiently, we have not looked very closely at where it is going – particularly the part which we ‘recycle’, plastics, paper, metals etc.

We now know where it has been going! It was being shipped to China and elsewhere in the Far East where a good proportion (an estimated 30 per cent) was either dumped in the oceans or carelessly burnt.

Some EU countries, however, have had the good sense to incinerate their waste (notably Sweden and Denmark) in Waste to Energy Plants (WEPs).

The EU was not pleased because these efficient incinerators produce CO2 (a wholly beneficial gas) and so are falling foul of the various Large Combustion Plant Directives (LCPDs), also of the Greens who fear toxins (as they fear everything!) as well. This fear is quite unjustified as the plants clean the combustion output from impurities and toxins, including dioxins and mercury.

Significantly they can incinerate sewage ‘sludge’ where the microplastics lurk. The ‘fuel’ is usually referred to as ‘Refuse Derived Fuel’ or RDF.

The incinerators use the heat to generate electricity (an average WEP plant generates about 14 megawatts, equivalent to 50 ‘2MW’ wind turbines, which cannot deliver more than 15 per cent of their rated power), freeing oil and gas for other uses, so there is no net increase in CO2 emissions anyway.

The ash from the combustion has a number of uses including, when mixed with bitumen, asphalt road surfacing (with the closure of coal-fired power stations fly ash is getting scarce), or with cement to make breeze blocks; it can be ‘mined’ for rare metals, and what’s left can be put in landfill.

These plants are operating an almost complete virtuous circle. Right now, since China banned waste imports in 2018, we are desperately trying to ship our waste to Denmark where there is insufficient capacity to burn it, so we are (understandably) at the back of the queue.

We need an accelerated programme for building sufficient WEP incinerators, perhaps on sites that once had coal fired power stations or on the edge of nuclear sites as the electrical infrastructure is already there.

The annual amount of UK refuse is 31megatonnes (and no doubt this will have been increased by items needed for the Covid-19 situation). If we allow 20Mt RDF per year being available, at about 20 per cent conversion efficiency this could generate about 2Gigawatt (Drax in Yorkshire generates 4GW). This is about 2 per cent of our current power needs; more than solar panels can produce.

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Philip Foster
Philip Foster
Revd Philip Foster MA (Nat.Sci. & Theol.)

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