‘WASTE management’ is a term that’s been around for some time, and will mean different things to different people. Discounting the likes of construction companies, who propose how they will dispose of the mess they make through efficient waste management, the term is often a buzzword, a catch-all, used to convey a responsible environmental attitude but meaning very little in practice. It’s also very ‘unsexy’, often brushed aside as ‘dirty garbage’ preferably out of sight. I’ve certainly been guilty of that, before I bothered to look at it more closely, and then wondered why real waste management isn’t a top subject. For the plain truth is that waste, in virtually all its forms, is an asset, not a liability, an infinite resource of unparalleled value.
Humankind started to abandon its partnership with Nature when agriculture began to migrate towards industry. Today, Nature is, if anything, the enemy, to be defied and tamed. Yet there are simple lessons we should re-learn. Nature, the Great Recycler, wastes nothing. Everything is continuously transformed. And she is a willing tutor and partner if we would only participate.
There is nothing new in this article. All four technologies, if you can call them that, are already established and provable (they may not relate too well to Tony Blair’s vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Elon Musk’s space programmes and 5G, but perhaps it would be a better idea to get some basics sorted first). Three of the four technologies are familiar territory to many. The fourth may be a surprise to some. All hold a key to our salvation, which prompts the question of why they’re not top-of-mind and top-of-policy.
1 Garbage: (excluding plastic, which is number 4 below). This article is not about recycling per se, but is concerned with the conversion of waste to energy. So, accepting that some metal and glass objects are mechanically recycled, why does any remaining garbage go to landfill (or worse, sea-fill), when we know it can be burned for energy? Some of it is. The popular term is ‘waste-to-energy plants’. Surely these should be at least as prolific as council tips, indeed a replacement for or an adjunct to council tips?
2 Cowpats: Poor old Daisy’s been getting bad press because, after thousands of years of service, she turns out to be the guilty party in farting us all to death. Quite apart from whether you consider this nonsense, it is true that she produces a lot of methane, a very flammable gas. If only we could harness it! Well, some enlightened dairy farms in America have been doing this for years. They nickname it Cow Power. Collecting the manure instead of dumping it stops the gas entering the atmosphere. Instead, with some added food waste, it’s fed into a biodigester, which is like a mechanical version of a cow’s stomach. The biodigester captures the methane and converts it to natural gas.
3 Human excreta: If ever there was a resource whose supply is guaranteed, continuous whatever the weather conditions and directly proportional to population size at all times, it’s what we excrete. It’s full of energy, and all we seem to do with most of it is flush it down the toilet and good riddance. I know it’s subsequently treated to become tomorrow’s clean water supply, but its energy is mostly wasted.
The average person defecates 500g a day, which can convert to methane gas capable of producing 0.5kWh of electricity. In Portland, Oregon, it was reported in November 2017 that two solid waste treatment plants used 77 per cent of sewer methane to generate energy, with the remaining 23 per cent processed as fuel for diesel vehicles. The new facility was able to power the equivalent of 154 bin lorries. Closer to home, it was reported in October 2010 that Didcot sewage works produced enough gas to power up to 200 homes. In 2019, instead of dumping sewage into rivers and coastal waters for which they had been fined £300,000, Yorkshire Water’s Knostrop Energy and Recycling Facility processed 94 per cent of Leeds sludge into 3,700 cubic metres of methane, able to power 7,600 homes.
Where are all the other local initiatives? Why aren’t poo converters as common as public lavatories once were? Why don’t we have the added satisfaction of knowing that each time we visit the thunder-box we’re automatically boosting the energy supply?
4 Pyrolysis: If you’re unfamiliar with this word, so was I, although I already knew a little about the process it stands for. Ask a random selection of people where plastic comes from. My own experience is a depressingly small percentage, especially as we’re talking about one of the greatest polluting scourges on our planet. Plastic is an oil product. Ergo, plastic can be recycled back into oil, i.e. energy. In the UK, we dispose of some 20 million tonnes of it per year. Nearly all of it is dumped (Europe mechanically recycles about 10 per cent of its waste plastic). Pyrolysis is chemical recycling, whereby the plastic is vaporised in a chamber and converted into oil and diesel. One tonne of plastic waste converts to 700 litres of diesel.
So why aren’t we shouting ‘Hurrah!’ each time we see a stray plastic bag, knowing that it can be tomorrow’s light or heat? Where are all the pyrolysis plants (there is only one in the UK, I believe)?
These are all simple concepts, easy to grasp, exciting to consider, and attractive to most, especially the young. My questions in this article are rhetorical, because depressingly we already know the answers – lack of investment, lack of political commitment, lack of perceived return on investment. Except that the last is most certainly not true. The return would be as permanent as it’s been for Joseph Bazalgette’s 19th century sewerage systems. Certainly more rewarding than the ghastly wind turbines despoiling our landscapes and seascapes in the pursuit of revenues rather than affordable energy. Certainly more effective than vanity projects such as HS2 (for £100billion, how many waste-to-energy plants could you build, how many local poo converters, how many pyrolysis plants?)
In the words of Ian Dury, what a waste!