Wales needs an appetite for Anaerobic Digestion

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.

Thomas Hall is Head of Business Development with Kelda Organic Energy.

8 thoughts on “Wales needs an appetite for Anaerobic Digestion

  1. What an excellent article.
    One may ask why our government in Wales has been so slow in supporting Anaerobic Digestion. It would, obviously, create good sustainable jobs and be ‘good for the environment.
    Perhaps others will now ask the same question

  2. The Welsh Government does consider that Anaerobic Digestion (AD) technology has a greater potential to have a positive impact on climate change than other food waste treatment technologies. They believe it can help positively address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating renewable energy. As a result they have developed a programme of investment to develop facilities to satisfy the country’s need to access an additional 140,000 tonnes a year of food waste treatment facilities.
    They have created a capital and revenue financial support package for local authorities who wish to adopt AD technology. As a result local authorities in Wales have developed six collaborative procurement hubs to jointly secure food waste treatment capacity, two of which are under construction.

    I have acted as the technical lead on two of these hubs in North East Wales (Conwy, Denbighshire and Flintshire County Borough Councils) and Tomorrows Valley (Merthyr Tydfil, Newport City and Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Councils).

    These facilities face a number of challenges a s well as providing a range of opportunities the such as;
    • Feedstock (Waste from householders has been reducing over several years in Wales, however this provides an opportunity for the facilities to capture commercial food waste)
    • Using the digestate (Building safe and secure markets in Wales)
    • Building markets for biomethane and transport fuels (Potential for the gas to be used as a transport fuel for example in the Local Authority collection fleets)
    • Raising awareness of AD (Ensuring that the facilities are welcomed by the community)
    • Planning & Permitting (Ensuring that new facilities respect environmental constraints imposed by their location in, for example, urban areas or nature conservation areas.)

  3. I must say my 22 litre food waste bin is one of the least favourite things in my life. It stinks, it is probably subjecting me to hazardous bio-aerosols, mould spores, and sundry other things I would be better off without breathing in. It regularly crawls with maggots of one type or another. Last week it subjected me to a plague of hundreds of little fruit flies that took a real shine to a couple of banana skins and set up home in there,… The flies left me needing to run a couple of insectocutors that eat about 60 Watts between them and, guess what, neither the Council nor the WAG will be very welcoming to the idea that they should compensate me for the additional electricity consumption which was probably made by burning fossil fuel anyway!

    The liquid remaining after it has been emptied can be gut-wrenching and cleaning it out with hypochlorite and boiling water isn’t much fun either. The cleaning operation probably also wastes more energy than anybody is ever going to get from the contents and that’s before you even consider that the truck that collects it probably costs the best part of £100 per hour to operate.

    All this insanity so a few santimonious red-green do-gooders can pretend that AD is in some way helping to save the planet! Planet indeed – as in planet, which, on?

  4. Brian Mayne’s comments are welcome, but as everybody knows the Welsh Government is moving too slow on this. There is enough knowledge out there to overcome any problems. Aberystwyth University and the University of South Wales, to name just two, have excellent resources.
    I can understand John Walker’s frustration, I have the same problem. However, I am willing to put up with it as it will greatly reduce landfill and provide a benefit at the same time.

  5. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 1.3 billion tons of food and $750 billion are lost annually. Food spoilage is a major contributor to the food waste problem, and keeping packaged foods fresh on the inside while protecting it from outside invaders and delaying spoilage is one of the most obvious consumer benefits in the food chain.

  6. This is certainly a way to go. Landfill sites are an old method of dealing with a great problem. So hopefully this will become a dominant resource in the future.

  7. Loss and wastage occurs at all stages of the food supply chain or value chain. In low-income countries, most loss occurs during production, while in developed countries much food – about 100 kilograms (220 lb) per person per year – is wasted at the consumption stage.[

  8. “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.”,thanks for creating awareness.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy