What does your household waste mean to you? Is it just a weekly curbside pick up? Or can the key to powering your house, car and place of work be found in your bin?
The UK government’s commitment to ensuring future generations can continue to live and thrive on a healthy planet were formally grounded in a white paper in 2018 titled the 25 Year Environment Plan: the plan to decarbonise our economy, and eliminate avoidable waste, by 2050.
Part of that plan discussed the introduction of more energy-from-waste programs and directives, specifically through the Resources and Waste Strategy, to push our economy and culture of consumption away from single use, and into a circular economy.
The move to a circular economy - the removal of waste products and the regeneration of natural systems through cyclical use of materials we make - will take a complete commitment from manufacturers, logistics, retail and customers, and will need to be global in scope. It is a full-spectrum re-think of how we live, eat, thrive and survive.
But waste is, and will to some degree continue to be, unavoidable.
So can we use our household, business and industrial waste to a better end? Is it inevitable that we will slowly add to landfill sites until we run out of space? Can we in fact use waste for our biggest need - the continued, sustainable, powering of the UK?
Each region, city, town and village will have varying levels of waste creation, and “Going Green” is a country wide effort. Local councils and private bodies have been making enormous strides in recent years to try and mitigate the damage of unavoidable waste and to encourage sustainable lifestyles. Of course, more can be done to hit a carbon net zero.
Energy from waste is only one part of societal efforts to find more sustainable ways of powering our country - recycling and reusing purchased items, sustainable landfill and renewable energy such a wind and tidal farms, are well known and oft-discussed hot topics - but nothing could make a more significant dent in our efforts to move to a circular economy than completely eliminating unnecessary waste, and putting that waste to better use.
What is energy-from-waste?
It quite literally means what it says! Energy created from waste materials found at home, and in places of business and industry. It provides a dual answer to the questions of what we do with increasing levels of waste, and how to create a sustainable power grid that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.
The most popular and well known of energy-from-waste systems is the incinerator - massive sites placed close to heavy areas of non-natural waste creation that burn waste to create energy. Rates of incineration in England have doubled between 2012 and 2018, and there are 90 incinerators in the UK, with another 50 in production.
It is a neat, effective, relatively cheap and well funded form of creating energy from waste, but there are still questions over the placement, long term effectiveness, public health and nitrogen efficiencies of incinerators. It has, however, been quoted being less damaging and more useful than landfill, which risks toxic overspill, groundwater poisoning and, of course, a lack of space as landfills expand.
Biomass energy is another option - biomass is biologically based materials (called feedstocks) such as wood, trees, crops and even dung, that can be burned to create electricity, heat and biodiesel.
Nuclear energy, although oft-regarded as non-renewable, is in fact a very popular renewable source of energy. However, uranium is not a renewable or easily sourced product, and the incredibly volatile waste product derived from nuclear fission requires expensive removal and storage.
Renewable Natural Gas (RNG)/Gasification is a biogas (typically methane based) that can take advantage of a wide range of waste products, feedstocks, microbial life and even sewage to provide energy via existing gas networks. A variety of methods are used to create RNG, such as anaerobic digestion and the sabatier process.
Creating a circular economy of low waste, high sustainability and reuse of products is achievable. We already recycle up to 45% of household waste, so the sustainable movement is not slowing down.
Every household, through a variety of means, will be able to purchase goods and buy products knowing there are innovative solutions that mitigate the worst of the damage while powering our country. The change, however, is still ongoing.