Thomas Hall says the tough recycling targets set by Welsh Government can be achieved by joined-up policies
There is a wide consensus that it is no longer good enough to think about waste solely in terms of sending it to landfill. In the first place the amount of landfill space left in Wales is running out, and landfill taxes make it very expensive. Even more importantly, when food is sent to landfill it breaks down to produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide.
These issues, coupled with an ever-expanding conscience, mean we now constantly consider the waste we produce – currently 17 million tonnes per year in Wales – and what we do with it. With the ever-increasing cost of fuel we are also giving more thought to where waste is going and the distances we take it.
The Welsh Government has set tough targets on recycling. It aims to make Wales a zero waste nation by 2050, reducing the waste we produce by 1.5 per cent each year until then. The immediate target is to recycle at least 70 per cent of our waste by 2025. This is commendable and shows the Welsh Government’s seriousness about waste management. It also recognises there are more opportunities if we prevent the waste of materials which have the greatest impact on the environment. In particular, how can we tackle food waste and use it to our advantage?
For the foreseeable future we will continue to create waste. In household food waste alone, Recycle for Wales estimates that we currently produce 227,000 tonnes every year. We need innovative solutions to address this. What’s more, they need to be found at a local level, since shipping waste all over the country doesn’t make sense, neither from a financial nor a sustainability point of view.
There will be no single solution. However, Anaerobic Digestion is a technology that possesses strong ‘green’ credentials and can make a huge difference. It is a biological process that happens naturally when bacteria breaks down organic matter in environments where this is little or no oxygen.
It is a controlled and enclosed version of the anaerobic breakdown of organic waste in landfill, which releases methane. This produces a biogas, which can be burnt to generate heat, electricity or can be used as a vehicle fuel. As well as biogas, Anaerobic Digestion produces a solid and liquid residue called digestate which can be used as a soil conditioner to fertilise land. Well-designed and operated plants are clean, have low impact on the local environment and don’t produce unpleasant odours. It is an excellent way of treating food waste. As Friends of the Earth states:
“Anaerobic digestion provides an important opportunity to generate 100 per cent renewable energy from biodegradable waste. Research clearly indicates the most sustainable way to treat our food waste is to have separate weekly collections for treatment by Anaerobic Digestion. Strong backing in the new Waste Strategy should mean that we start to fulfil this potential, with the widespread introduction of food waste collections and the construction of more Anaerobic Digestion plants across the UK.”
Local authorities across Wales have already picked up on Anaerobic Digestion’s potential. They see it as an effective, credible and efficient way of solving the food waste issue, generating high rates of recycling from a material that has previously been landfilled. It’s a natural progression to the work that’s already underway with food waste collections.
In 2012, the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme in conjunction with the National Centre for BioRenewable Fuel, Energy and Minerals published a report documenting the state of the Anaerobic Digestion infrastructure in the UK. There are currently 26 facilities specifically designed to handle large volumes of source segregated food wastes from commercial/industrial and municipal collections. They provide a capacity to handle approximately 1 million tonnes of waste and generate 38 MW of electricity.
If Wales is to successfully tackle its waste issue, and turn the food waste stream into something positive with great potential, whilst meeting the public’s expectations in providing a sustainable, environmentally friendly solution then Anaerobic Digestion facilities need to be a key part of the mix.
Suitably sized facilities need to be established close to the source of the waste in order to minimise the carbon footprint of the process. The aim must also be to treat a local problem for the benefit of the local economy. Local authorities need to continue working together to tackle waste issues in partnership. Only through such a joined up approach and by embracing innovative solutions can Wales strive towards meeting the tough but crucial targets it has set itself.