The value of waste: beyond the recycling bin by Rolf Stein, CEO

One of the biggest problems we have in this country is a failure to recognise the intrinsic value of waste, which has resulted in years of sending tonnes and tonnes of household and commercial waste to landfill. More recently, councils have woken up to the benefits of encouraging recycling, and have instigated a push that it beginning to pay dividends, with recycling rates reaching the highest ever level at the end of last year. However, the value of waste goes far beyond the recycling bin. Last month, I  was featured on, discussing the opportunities for using waste as a renewable energy source.

Recycling has been one of the key topics in the public conscience since the 1990s but despite this has shown little sign of waning in recent years. Steep government targets, financial incentives, new technologies and a need to send less waste to landfill mean that the concept remains high on the agenda. Whilst continued progress in increasing recycling rates should be welcomed, there are additional opportunities to maximise the value recovered from waste that are not yet fully being realised.

The latest figures released by DEFRA in November 2011 showed that household recycling rates exceeded 40% for the first time, increasing from 39.7% for 2009/2010 to 41.2% for 2010/2011. Household waste production also promisingly decreased by 0.9% between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, down to 23.5 million tonnes. The amount of waste collected by local authorities and sent to landfill declined in this period, by an impressive 8.8%.

The good news is that recycling rates are continuing to increase, as it becomes a normal part of people’s everyday lives across the country. The less than optimal news, however, is that the rate of progress has begun to slow in the years since 2008, with increases incrementally smaller year on year. As a country, we are heading in the right direction, but it is crucial that the momentum that households and councils have built up in the last decade is not allowed to slow.

Whilst recycling clearly has a critical role to play in reducing the ‘waste mountain’, there is further opportunity, innovation and environmental benefit in recovering energy from what might previously have been seen as a residual waste destined for landfill. New technologies are being developed which can fully exploit the inherent value of waste by transforming it into an energy source in its own right.

Advanced conversion technologies in particular have an important role to play in converting waste into energy, and can be completely complementary to recycling, maximising the value extracted out of municipal and commercial waste.

For example, Advanced Plasma Power (APP) has developed an innovative waste-to-energy/fuels process which represents an exceptional opportunity to deliver a sustainable waste management solution while providing an alternative risk-free energy source. APP’s core Gasplasma® technology combines two long standing and well-proven technologies (gasification and plasma treatment) in a new, unique configuration to convert residual municipal and commercial waste into a clean, hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (syngas) and a high value construction material called Plasmarok®.

The key benefit of the Gasplasma® process is that it can be used to treat waste that cannot be recycled, and would otherwise be sent to landfill or incineration. Before the waste is introduced to the Gasplasma® process, it is processed in a Materials Recycling Facility to recover any metals, glass and hard plastics, before the residue is shredded and dried to make Refuse Derived Fuel. This fuel undergoes a process to convert it into a clean energy source in the form of syngas. This clean syngas has multiple applications: it can be used to generate electricity efficiently directly in gas engines, gas turbines and fuel cells or it can be converted to Bio-SNG or liquid fuels. The process therefore facilitates resource optimisation, by ensuring that the maximum practical benefit is extracted from waste. It can be used in conjunction with existing recycling schemes and enables almost complete landfill diversion.

Recycling is undoubtedly  a highly valuble component in reducing our waste surplus and is the responsibility of individuals, households, businesses, authorities and government to action. However,  the additional value of waste, in terms of its potential as a renewable energy source, should not be forgotten. A two-pronged approach of both recovering resources and recovering energy can be entirely complementary offering an efficient and effective waste management system.

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