Energy recovery: The facts

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With landfill falling distinctly out of fashion, energy recovery has become the recent buzzword in the waste management industry. It’s now producing significant amounts of energy for the UK grid, and diverting unrecyclable waste from damaging landfill sites, but it’s still very much part of a heated discussion as to whether the sector should be allowed to develop further.

The one big unavoidable argument against energy recovery is that it is a non-sustainable process. Once the waste is burned, the recovered energy is used to heat water and turn generating turbines, and that’s the end of it. There’s also the question of dealing with waste products, from ash to wasted heat to unwanted gasses that contain CO2 and pollutants.

So why is energy recovery such big business? The answer is simple: The UK is facing an electricity generating gap where were are relying on French nuclear energy to plug the gap between decommissioned fossil fuel stations and the building of new nuclear plants and other facilities. Added to that, the European Landfill Directive means that we simply have to explore alternatives to burying waste, and burning appears to be the logical – if imperfect solution.

According to statistics, around 9% of UK electricity now comes from energy from waste (EFW) plants, and this could grow to as much as 25% in current trends continue. Companies such as Veolia are leading the way in expanding the sector, with modern plants that control emissions. Older generation incinerators are blamed for public fears that the EFW plants are polluters, but technology has advanced to such an extent that mass burns are cleaner and more efficient.

It’s a difficult concept to balance when the UK is promoting higher recycling targets. But with stringent landfill limits, and an energy gap to address, it’s clear that despite the obvious drawbacks, energy recovery has a vital part to play.

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