Waste management

Imagine a society without waste. Picture a city without giant landfills and polluting incinerators. This isn’t a pipedream; it’s achievable. And it would be the hallmark of a city truly making progress. Waste is currently a financial drain on our council and local businesses; it makes our streets unsightly; and it harms the vitality of the local environment and our communities. But we could actually turn waste into a commodity by using it to create energy, build soil, and develop new products.

The problem

According to a World Bank report; throughout the world, cities produce around 1.3 billion tons of solid waste every year. This figure is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tons, by 2025. Birmingham regularly appears at the bottom of league tables for recycling in the Midlands. The city only recycles around 30% of its household waste, compared to over 50% in other areas of the Midlands and over 60% in Wales.

Birmingham’s Friends of the Earth report that instead of making good use of the resources in our waste, most of it is going up in smoke in the Tyseley Incinerator. And the amount of energy the incinerator produces is less than we could produce by making more efficient use of these resources. The current waste system is run by private contractor Veolia; which is paid by Birmingham Council. Veolia owns all of the city’s waste and has no incentive to make better use of this resource. As well as being a poor use of resources, burning waste in the incinerator adds to air pollution in the city while emitting high levels of carbon dioxide, adversely impacting on citizens’ health and wellbeing.

The council recently announced that it is to downgrade its 2015-16 recycling target to just 30% – after a performance monitoring report revealed that recycling within England’s largest local authority has actually declined. This poor performance flies in the face of Defra targets for a 50% household waste recycling target in England by 2020.

Some Birmingham councillors have blamed missed targets on the authority’s decision to introduce a £35 per year charge for green waste collections in early 2014 – which initially saw many residents in the city boycott the service. Green waste tonnages are down by 11,000 tonnes, meaning that had the charge not been introduced, Birmingham’s recycling rate could have risen to 33% based on tonnages produced in previous years.

The solution

It doesn’t have to be this way! Organic waste can be turned into biogas and fertiliser using anaerobic digester technology. This biogas could be put into the gas grid, or even used locally to power buses and taxis. And local companies or co-operatives could process the city’s waste, creating jobs while keeping the value of the waste within Birmingham.

Biogas produced from organic waste such as manure and sewage is a low-cost fuel that can be used as an alternative to natural gas for both heating and electricity. The production of biogas reduces emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, as well as reducing water pollution from nutrient run-off. Anaerobic digestion utilizes microorganisms, kept in an environment without oxygen. Air tight reactors are used to transform this decomposed waste into biogas. The remaining sludge is then used in agriculture. 25% of organic waste is treated in this way in Europe already. This new and useful technology for organic waste decomposition will continue to increase because it is not just considered a great way of producing renewable energy; it is also an efficient way of managing solid waste without contributing to air pollution.

Birmingham’s supermarkets, hospitals, academic institutions, businesses, farms and its citizens are all creating this energy resource every day; but currently much of it is simply being incinerated or sent to landfill. By contrast, in Denmark, some 70% of its renewable energy consumption comes from biomass.

In Canada, the city of Surrey is developing the country’s first Biofuels Processing Facility. Once the facility is operational, it will be home to a closed-loop fully-integrated organic waste management system.

The facility will receive and process 115,000 metric tons of organic waste annually, with the capacity to process 100% of the city’s organic waste. The facility will convert kitchen waste and yard waste collected at curbside into renewable natural gas that will fuel the city’s natural gas waste collection trucks. The facility will also produce a compost product that will be suitable for landscaping and agricultural applications. There’s no reason why it can’t be done right here in Birmingham.

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