Autoclave steams ahead

Construction work has begun in Gateshead on the world's biggest steam autoclave recycling plant, which will treat 400,000 tonnes of waste when it goes live next year

A £50M deal has been clinched to build what is being billed as the world’s largest steam autoclave recycling plant on the banks of the river Tyne in Gateshead, North-east England. The Derwenthaugh EcoParc and its recycling plant will be one of the first of its type in the UK.

With a recycling rate of more than 75%, it will be capable of treating 320,000tpa of municipal solid waste, 60,000tpa tonnes of light waste (kerbside, commercial and industrial) and 20,000tpa tonnes of green/skip waste.

The main contractor, Clugston, has now begun construction on site. And the facility is due to be operational towards the end of 2009, which will create 70 jobs in the region. The plant will be operated by Graphite Resources, a waste management company set up by brothers Michael and William Thompson, together with fellow director Richard Mair.

The company has appointed Lord Kenneth Baker, former Conservative MP and Secretary of State for the Environment, as non-executive chairman. The deal involves equity investment from lead investor Lehman Brothers, the management team, and a group lead by Lord Baker. Debt facilities are provided by Allied Irish Bank and Alliance & Leicester Commercial Bank.

Commenting on the venture, Lord Baker said: “Gateshead will lead Britain in waste treatment. Steam autoclaving is a sustainable way to treat wastes while maximising resource recovery and value. The Thompson brothers are pioneers and the North-east should be proud of leading the way to a more eco-friendly future.”

Head start for carbon

Graphite’s chief executive, Michael Thompson, added: “We are entering the carbon economy and this project provides the UK with a head start which councils and industry need to take advantage of.”

The plant will dramatically reduce the tonnage of waste sent to landfill, without releasing the carbon emissions associated with incineration. It will process both MSW and commercial and industrial wastes. Up to 30 tonnes of MSW, either sorted or unsorted, can be loaded into each autoclave and distributed evenly throughout the vessel.

The autoclave will then rotate and steam will be introduced at pressure, raising the temperature up to 160˚C. The treatment cycle lasts for one hour during which time the waste material is broken down. All foodstuffs, paper and organic cellulose material become fibrous. Plastic is softened and reduced in volume. Tin cans, glass, aerosols, steel and aluminium are de-lacquered and steam cleaned.

When the cycle is complete, the residual waste is less than 20% of the original volume. This material then undergoes separation treatment to extract additional value. The sterilised biomass fibre known as CellMatt can be used in many ways – development of uses for the fibre is ongoing and the company says it is excited about the results of tests so far.

Graphite’s development director Richard Mair says: “If autoclaving is adopted by local authorities nationally, it has the potential to revolutionise the way we think of waste. Instead of being a burden, it will be seen as a resource. The announcement of our project endorses autoclaving technology in the UK.”

Future flexibility

He adds: “Because autoclaving eliminates the need for householder participation in recycling, it also gives local authorities much greater flexibility for their future recycling strategies. It will help them to reach their recycling targets much faster and more cost effectively. It spells the end of landfill.”

In the short term, the plant will offer waste treatment and recycling services to regional and national waste companies, and local authorities. But it also plans to secure long-term waste treatment and recycling contracts such as that recently announced by the South Tyne & Wear Waste Management Partnership. This consortium, comprising Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland councils, has contracted out its cumulative 370,000tpa of waste for the next 20 years.

Graphite says the flagship plant will act as the blueprint for future sites, with several more sites planned over the next five years. In addition, the company aims to develop a renewable energy arm and a recycled product manufacturing capability at future sites.

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