Big is beautiful for waste facilities
Experts from countries with exemplary track records on waste disposal rubbed shoulders with those formerly wedded to landfill and still in the process of a messy metaphorical divorce this week.And those with room for improvement professed to be inspired by the success stories of Sweden, the Netherlands and their ilk at the Global Waste Strategies Summit which convened at London's Selfridge Hotel.
Speaking about the current situation in the UK, Martine Brocklehurst, head of waste strategy for the Environment Agency, said: "This is an industry in a period of major change. Probably the greatest I've witnessed in my career. We're in the middle of the switch from waste disposal to resource management.
"But we're operating unsustainable processes and 70-80% of waste materials are still taken to landfill sites."
He said great progress was being made on municipal waste, hazardous waste and construction waste but there had been little change in the situation with commercial and industrial waste, as SMEs in particular are doing little to change their waste management habits.
Further progress on municipal solid waste could be made by tweaking the way the public pay for their waste collection, he argued.
"Almost everywhere round the world that you see charges [by weight] brought in, you see the volume of municipal waste fall," he said.
Hakan Rylander, managing director of Swedish waste disposal firm Sysav, told delegates that less than 10% of the waste processed by his company was being sent for landfill and the trick was to diversify rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all solution to waste management.
Sysav deals with all streams of waste except nuclear, he said, and had found sustainable, and profitable, solutions in almost all cases.
Tried and tested schemes such as refundable deposits on glass bottles are alive and well in Sweden, he said, and innovative solutions to new problems are springing up all the time.
Sysav itself has developed thriving markets for a wide range of recycled or recovered materials and can even recycle most hazardous wastes, said Mr Rylander, citing the example of waste oil being extracted from contaminated soils for reuse.
Incineration also plays a significant role in Sweden, with relatively little opposition as the public accept that waste replacing fossil fuels is a positive step.
When landfill is unavoidable, said Mr Rylander, gases are extracted and burned as fuel.
This multi-faceted approach had allowed Sweden to become a leader in sustainable waste management, he said.
"I believe that the waste problems can be solved with integrated waste management strategies using a combination of methods."
Herman Huisman, senior advisor at SenterNovem, a government-funded organisation in the Netherlands set up to promote green innovation, light-heartedly challenged Sweden for the crown of sustainable waste management, saying he could quote even lower figures for the percentage of waste being sent to landfill.
"Slightly more than 50% of household waste is recycled, 45% is incinerated and less than 5% goes to landfill," he said.
"That costs just over one Euro per person per week to deliver."
He agreed with his Swedish counterpart that a mix of techniques was the solution, but said some techniques had fallen at the first hurdle in the Netherlands.
Despite high hopes MBT had not proved successful as yet and remained the most expensive, least efficient technology for dealing with waste.
'Niche' incineration techniques such as pyrolysis and gasification had looked very promising for the past 20 years and, joked Mr Huisman, were likely to remain only 'very promising' for the next 20.
For the present, he argued, existing technologies are more than capable of doing the job and R&D should focus on improving what is already there rather than trying to develop a magic bullet which is not needed.
The solution according to the Netherlands model is to rely on a small number of very large facilities and take full advantage of the economies of scale.
And, despite experiences in the UK, it was possible to woo the public by talking to residents near proposed developments before the planning process began, outlining the benefits and advantages over alternatives such as landfill.
Plans to expand an incinerator in Amsterdam have not received a single objection from the public, and the same is true of other sites elsewhere in the country.
"In the Netherlands energy from waste is huge," he said.
"We have 11 very large incinerators - scale is everything with incinerators."