British tampons and nappies set to fuel power stations

One of the UK's trickiest waste problems is being tackled by turning the undesirable into the combustible - tampons and incontinence pads are being converted into dry, burnable bales. The new initiative, from a major waste company, compresses the waste into fuel for power stations.

Huge volumes of what are known in the trade as “absorbent hygiene products” are produced in the UK. But it is difficult to deal with as its dampness makes incineration expensive. Dumping the waste in landfill is the other current option, but the material takes decades to degrade and heavy and rising landfill taxes are aiming to end the practice.

“Hygiene products are an essential part of many of our everyday lives but disposing of them has always been an issue,” said Justin Tydeman, CEO of the PHS group, which developed the new, patented process. PHS removes waste for 90,000 customers across the UK and Ireland, including many offices, schools and care homes, and tackles 45,000 tonnes of sanitary, nappy and incontinence waste a year.

In the new process, the waste is first screened for unwanted items. “The strangest thing we have found so far was a pair of handcuffs,” said Tydeman. The material is then shredded and squeezed, with the waste liquid disposed of as sewage. The dry material remaining is packed into bales, which can be burned in power stations.

The process is being analysed by experts from the University of Birmingham, who will report on how environmentally friendly the new process is in practice, compared to landfill or wet incineration.

“Whether or not it turns out to be a major source of energy in itself, the key thing is we find a good way to handle what is a complex and growing waste stream,” said Tydeman. “We don’t want this stuff just going into the ground.”

The use of fuel derived from general refuse is already common in the rest of Europe and is growing in the UK, which exports millions of tonnes of it to the continent. The PHS plant in the West Midlands began testing the new process last year, but on Monday it announced it has moved to commercial-scale operation, currently 15% of all the waste it receives. The company aims to turn all the 45,000 tonnes of absorbent hygiene products it handles into bales by the end of 2017.

Tydeman expects more such waste in future, as a result of an ageing population: “The great thing about life today is people are living longer, but what comes with that is often incontinence issues. We want this to be a growing issue, because we want people to live longer.”

Disposable nappies are already a huge waste disposal challenge, with 3bn a year being thrown away in the UK. Other companies are looking at ways to recycle this waste into things as varied as cat litter, insulation material and fertile soil.

One challenge is collecting such waste from homes, but the charity Zero Waste Scotland recently ran a successful trial of kerbside collections of absorbent hygiene products. Another problem is that almost half of women flush tampons down the toilet, rather than disposing of them in the bin. Between 1.5bn and 2bnsanitary items are estimated to be flushed down Britain’s toilets each year, leading to blocked drains and waste littering rivers and beaches.

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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