Recycle or convert to energy – what is the most sustainable way to manage our waste?

The debate about a sustainable means of managing our waste need not be framed around two mutually exclusive options; we need multiple means to address the enormous challenge of waste management.  As the population and demand for our limited resources increase, we need to find a way to ensure that we maximise the value we obtain from all of our resources.  Recycling, reuse and technological advances are creating a paradigm shift in waste management; waste can and is increasingly being viewed as a valuable resource.  The question remains as to how we ‘close the loop’ in the most energy and carbon efficient manner whilst ensuring maximum landfill avoidance.

It is right that we are beginning to regard waste as a valuable resource rather than something to be thrown away but it is how we use this resource that is under question. Whilst many aspire to the ideal of 100% recycling, this will never become a reality.  As long as there are houses with cylindrical vessels under the kitchen sink there will always be residual waste that has to be sustainably disposed of. We therefore need a waste strategy that will take this reality into account so that we can maximise landfill avoidance. This strategy needs to include a realistic recycling target, a pathway to realising it and a means for managing the inevitable residual waste.

Recycling targets should be based on sound evidence of what is realistic, efficient and of true benefit to the environment. A realistic recycling target should take into account the experience of economies that have successfully increased their recycling rates, for example Austria, with recycling rates of 63%, so that we can adopt best practices that can easily be incorporated into the UK’s infrastructure.  The recycling target should examine the carbon cost and efficiencies of the end to end process of recycling – collection, sorting and treating.

A realistic target will leave a certain percentage of residual waste that will have to be processed in some form to divert it from landfill. Residual waste can be efficiently and cleanly processed with existing technologies and fed back into the system in the form of heat, power and fuel. Some of the latest advanced conversion technologies have low emissions so they can be positioned near the waste generators reducing transport miles.  They efficiently turn waste into fuel as well as power, maximising the amount of resource that can be generated back into the system.

Those who oppose residual waste to fuel processing claim that the necessary infrastructure will require long term fuel sources thereby negating greater reuse and recycling. This is the case in regions where there is overcapacity but this is not the case in the UK, so there is ample opportunity to put our residual waste efficiently back into the system in the form of renewable heat, power and fuels, provided there are the necessary regulatory and financial measures in place.

Tighter regulation is required for the import and export of varying waste streams between different countries.  There is currently an anomaly in the flow of waste streams from around the world; the UK, for example, exports its biggest source of biomass whilst it imports large quantities of virgin biomass from as far away as Canada or Brazil. Whilst there needs to be a global and regional vision to rectify these anomalies, it is also important that targets should be set at a country level as each region faces its own waste, resource and infrastructure challenges, which all require their own unique solutions.

At APP we are aiming to deliver a commercial scale technology, which allows residual (non-recyclable) waste to be treated sustainably by maximising its value as a source of energy and fuels while minimising its impact on the environment.  APP has developed an advanced conversion technology called Gasplasma® which delivers high efficiencies with multiple output options whilst minimising visual and environmental impact. The Gasplasma® process is an innovative combination of two well-established technologies – gasification and plasma treatment, both of which have decades of proven commercial operation. This is designed to be a community based solution that can be rolled out at scale so that communities can sustainably dispose of their residual waste and receive renewable heat, energy and fuels in return.

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