Globally, we produce an astounding amount of waste, all of which has a negative impact upon the environment.
It is hard to believe that as a civilised society, we continue to dump waste in landfill and there are several environmental problems associated with this activity. Greenhouse gases such as methane seep out of them and toxic chemicals like those from household cleaning products can pollute both the soil and groundwater. In addition they are smelly, noisy, can harm some wildlife species, plus they are breeding grounds for disease-transmitting vermin.
While recycling has helped curb the amount of waste that ends up in landfill, a considerable amount still gets sent to them each year. Other European countries seem to have a much greater handle on waste in general and Sweden is leading the way in terms of setting the example for other countries to follow.
As an example, households in Sweden produce the same level of waste as those in the UK however, less than 1% of their rubbish ends up in landfill thanks to the country’s waste management systems and solutions.
As an example, in Sweden, there are 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants which have been set up across the country. Over 50% of the waste produced in the country is incinerated annually at these plants.
Sweden recycles whatever it can, but refuse that can’t be reused or recycled usually ends up at these WTE plants. As the name suggests, the rubbish is used to generate energy. WTE plants contain huge incinerators for the rubbish and as it is burnt, steam is produced that spins generator turbines which produce electricity. This is then transferred to transmission lines and distributed across the country via the grid.
Remarkably, WTE plants provide nearly a million homes with heating and over a quarter of a million homes with electricity. So not only is it reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfill, but it also helps to reduce Sweden’s reliance on fossil fuels.
As an example, three tons of waste produces as much energy as one ton of fuel oil. With that in mind, imagine how much energy could be produced via the UK’s waste.
The waste incinerated in Sweden each year produces around 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. The country is also contributing to the clean-up of other countries in the EU by importing their waste and burning it.
There is an environmental impact to burning rubbish that the process generates by-products such as ash that contain dioxins. That said, Sweden has significantly improved the process which means that the by-products are cleaned up, which means that only a small amount of dioxins are dispersed into the atmosphere.
Due to the fact that many products contain materials that cannot currently be recycled or incinerated, landfill sites are still necessary. Reducing the amount of waste we produce altogether would obviously be the best solution, but that is easier said than done. With Sweden making such good of a bad situation, the hope is that other countries will eventually also start to follow suit.
The challenge for the UK is to first understand how much waste is actually produced. Government statistics would suggest that in England alone 177 million tonnes of waste is produced annually, we believe this number to be much less as we believe that waste is double counted.
Data collection doesn’t take into account that service providers haul waste through each others facilities.
We are getting better at recycling, the total volume of residual waste sent to landfill has fallen by 32% in four years to 20.9 million tonnes in 2012 and household waste recycling rates have risen from 18% to 44% in under a decade. £3.5 billion of new energy from waste infrastructure is currently under construction (much of it procured by local authorities as part of PPP projects) suggesting further significant reductions in the tonnages of waste sent to landfill as they become operational.
While performance on recycling and reducing waste sent to landfill is improving, the UK is still significantly lagging behind other European countries and The Green Investment Bank (GIB) believes that a lot more could be done. However, the potential to do more with our waste comes at a time when the UK waste market is also fast approaching a critical and potentially challenging transition – the shift from new infrastructure processing household waste to those focusing on C&I waste. More needs to be done to ensure the waste hierarchy is applied but also we invest in the right number of EfW facilities. It’s a balance between reducing waste and having the feed stock to keep these alternative energy facilities operational.
The direction of travel is clear. Sending waste to landfill is not sustainable and we are slowly catching up with our European partners. The word of caution is not to over invest in EfW plants as the recorded levels of waste in UK can’t be seen as accurate.
The UK residual waste market – A market report by the UK Green Investment Bank July 2014