Wastes management

The end of meddling?

Eric Pickles has announced that he will abandon plans to charge people for their use of waste collection services (the "bin tax"). He will use the "carrot" of rewarding people with vouchers for the volume of recyclable material they produce, rather than the "stick" of charging them for the amount of waste they produce.

Mr Pickles justified this announcement as part of an effort to end "meddling" laws. (The other example of "meddling" that he planned to scrap was allowing people to choose whether to apply for redevelopment of their land.)

The move was also justified because charging people for their use of waste-disposal services would result in more fly-tipping and "bin wars".

And it was argued that the move would save money, because of avoided landfill tax (directly) and thereby European fines (indirectly).

Meanwhile, David Cameron was today warning people how much worse the government finances are than he had expected (for which, read: as bad as he knew they were but didn't dare to tell people during the election).

And let's not forget the great theme of this government: decentralisation.

Let us count the number of ways this is wrong:

Are the Tories spending or saving?

On the front page of today's FT is the headline: "Osborne warns of big spending cuts to come".

But in a speech yesterday, he announced 10 measures that should be implemented in the Budget to "kickstart a green recovery". Just his first measure alone - £6,500 energy-efficiency entitlement voucher for every home in Britain - would cost (given that there are around 25 million homes in Britain) over £160 billion. Others of the 10 announced measures would also cost billions of pounds.

That will help reduce the government deficit. Frown

But according to George, the measures will "only" cost £30 billion, "without adding a penny to the national debt".

Three questions:

Hot air on green gas

For numerous reasons (some set out on other posts on this site), heat is a huge, vital, yet ignored sector of our energy systems. It is responsible for nearly half the carbon emissions from the energy sector. It is the reason we are so dependent on imported gas. Twice as much of our gas goes to producing heat as producing electricity. Europe could replace all its gas-fired electricity generation, and would still be as badly affected as this winter if there were further interruptions to one of its major gas supplies during a cold spell in winter.

Despite this, the British government has so far done almost nothing to reduce our carbon emissions and insecurity in the heat sector. Indeed, policy to date has been to keep gas heating so cheap that alternatives are not viable. As a result, we have grown steadily more dependent and inefficient (no point spending money or changing habits to conserve something so cheap).

The Government has finally proposed to consult on a possible support mechanism for green heat, but unlike the simultaneously announced policy to support largely-irrelevant micro-generation, it has refused to commit to a timetable to introduce the heat mechanism by April 2010. It will be 2011 at the earliest, they say.

The eagle-eyed may spot a slight problem with that: 2011 will be after the next election. In current circumstances, a promise by a Labour government to implement a mechanism in April 2011 should be more heavily discounted than a Ukrainian bond. It is unlikely that any new government, possibly apart from another Labour government with a big majority, will place support for green heat at the top of its legislative agenda. Most flavours of government (of the options likely to result from the next election) would not be likely to implement a green-heat mechanism in the form developed under this government. The upshot is that it is unlikely that any effective action on heat will be taken before 2012 at the earliest.

As it follows from this that Tory policy on green heat is likely to be more important, I went to see what they had to say. They have put so much effort into Energy and Climate Change that I had first to look up who their spokesman was. It is Greg Clark. (Readers may be equally surprised to learn that the LibDems' spokesman on the brief is now Simon Hughes. The Minister, Ed Miliband, has at least achieved a degree of visibility in presenting his brief to the public.)

Clark regards the DECC policy consultations on heat and energy efficiency as both "a knock-off copy" of Tory policy, and as "dithering" (which says what about Tory policy?). Instead of dithering, he wants the Government to "adopt the green policies outlined in our plan for a low carbon economy".

The only component of those plans, announced by Cameron in January, to deal with green heat are to "enable biogas, methane produced from farm and food wastes, to replace up to 50% of our residential gas heating". It looks like National Grid's bullshit has not been in vain, but has been swallowed whole by the Tories. In fact, the Tories have gone further, probably because they didn't read or understand the National Grid paper (perhaps because they only saw a pre-publication draft), which at least assumed that some of this gas would have to be ACT (advanced combustion technology) syngas, not just biogas.

Our company knows a bit about green heat and anaerobic digestion (AD, the process that produces biogas). One of our subsidiaries is the largest AD business in the country, producing more power from biogas than the rest combined (it's a big fish in a small pond). Another is a leading supplier of wood pellets for heating. I am the heat man, my brother is the AD man. What follows is my first stab to demonstrate how absurd this Tory "ambition" is. I will probably post again later with refinements based on more detailed and accurate figures from my brother, but the following figures are not unreasonable for illustrative purposes.

Don't take the following the wrong way. AD and green heat both have an important contribution to make (we wouldn't be leading the efforts to develop them if we didn't believe so). I am pointing out that they cannot contribute what the Tories think they can contribute, not arguing that a more achievable contribution from them would not be valuable. There is a strange perversion of logic in political circles, where something is only interesting if it can solve the whole or most of the problem on its own. Dismissing options that only make a partial contribution is like dismissing carrots because they only make a partial contribution to our diet. But it is an attitude regularly exhibited by politicians of all colours.

Anyway, with that said, let's proceed to the preliminary assessment of the Tory policy on biogas heating...

Residential gas consumption in the UK is around 350 TWh p.a. (more than total electricity consumption in all sectors). So the Tories' target is around 175 TWh of biogas. (1 TWh = 1,000 GWh = 1,000,000 MWh = 1,000,000,000 kWh or units.)

All the landfill gas produced and captured in the UK each year would provide around 1% of that target. Our sewage gas would provide another 0.2% or so. Just another 98.8% to find, then (and that's assuming these two sectors stop producing electricity).

If we need around 400 m3 of biogas for a MWh, 175 TWh for heating would need 70,000,000,000 m3 of biogas p.a. That's around 8,000,000 m3/hr.

A m3 of good putrescible waste @ 12.5% solids produces around 175 kWh. So to produce that much gas, we will need around 1,000,000,000 m3 p.a. of good putrescible waste.

Most waste isn't good putrescible waste of course, and one of the largest categories on which they hope to rely - agricultural slurry - produces little gas and needs a much higher ratio of waste and tank space to volume of gas produced. We could grow more, but we would need vast areas of land sacrificed to production of energy crops, which wasn't exactly a success recently even at smaller scale (proportionately) than required by the Tory policy. But for the sake of simple calculation, let's assume for a moment longer that this much waste of this quality could be found.

A m3 of digester tank can process around 13.5 m3 of waste @ 12.5% solids in a year. So we will need 74,000,000 m3 of digester tank to achieve their target. That's 9,260 Holsworthys (our AD plant in Devon - comfortably the largest plant in the UK, responsible for half of all UK biogas production outside the water industry); one for every 26 km2 and every 6,480 people.

And this assumes that no biogas is consumed or lost in the process of clean-up for grid-injection, and that no biogas is used for other purposes (e.g. electricity generation). Nor does it consider what we would do with that volume of digestate (nitrate vulnerable countries, anyone?).

The upshot is that we'd better grow and eat one hell of a lot of food if the Tories get in; an utterly impossible amount, in fact. Our current obesity epidemic has nothing on what they have in mind for us.

The reason they've gone for this technological "winner", of course, is that it seems painless (as all magic bullets do, until you have to explain why you missed the target), and it is promoted by a big company (National Grid), supported by a report from a big consultancy (Ernst & Young). Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

We have tried to engage with political parties on these sorts of subjects. But as we won't encourage their delusions, but will actually challenge them, they find that the best approach is to ignore us and cling to their delusions.

There is no point small companies, or others of independent mind, trying to engage directly with major political parties. They are not interested in the truth. They are blinded by money and power, and deaf to reason. It doesn't matter which flavour, they are all the same, other than in the choice of which interests to favour and lies to believe.

Pickles' rubbish economics

Fly-tipped asbestos in Thornton (from The Times, 17/08/06)Here is Cameroonian Conservatism in action. If people are inclined to avoid paying for goods, get taxpayers to pay for them, so they appear to be "free" at the point of consumption, in order to reduce the temptation to commit unlawful acts.

The specific example is that Eric Pickles, the Conservatives' Shadow Local Government Secretary, thinks it is wrong to charge people proportionately for the waste-disposal services that they require:

"We all want to increase the level of recycling but bin taxes will harm the local environment by leading to a surge in illegal dumping and backyard burning. Whether they can't pay or won't pay, many irresponsible people will dump instead."

Having discovered this radical, socio-centric approach to law & order and public welfare, there is no limit to the ways in which this logic can be applied in other fields. The Tories will doubtless wish to propose:

  • The extension of this model to all other waste producers. The image (right) associated with this article in The Times illustrates that fly-tipping of commercial and industrial waste is a more common problem. Shouldn't we also relieve businesses of the temptations of illegality, in the interests of society?
  • As many burglaries and thefts are committed in order to fund drug habits, we should legalize drugs, and if that doesn't make them sufficiently cheap, provide them free to ensure that junkies are not tempted to steal to fund their habit.
  • Provide free snacks and drinks outside convenience stores, so shoplifters are not tempted to steal. The same, of course, will go for a selection of the latest fashions outside clothes stores, and phones and ipods outside electrical-goods stores.
  • Make cars and motorbikes freely available to young people, so they don't have to hotwire someone else's vehicle.
  • Free taxi-rides from pubs and parties, so no one is tempted to drink and drive.

The opportunities are endless, now that we can forget about economics and focus on the good of society.

BBC - The Broadcasting Bollocks Corporation

Chinese recycling
Photo courtesy of www.boingboing.net

In Radio 4's Home Planet today, Dr Lynn Dicks, pronouncing on the relative merits of recycling and landfilling, in terms of energy-consumption and carbon-footprint, said:

"Various people have looked at this from the point of view of greenhouse gas emissions, and again there are various different estimates from different people, but one particularly academic piece of research that I found was a full Lifecycle Assessment of the greenhouse gas or the CO2 emission from waste - either disposal of paper, including manufacturing of new paper and disposal to landfill, or recycling paper [Presenter interjects: And the lorry-loads that would be involved in that because that's something that Phil mentioned] and including taking the waste to the recycling facilities, disposing the residual waste after recycling... This was done by a consortium of people at UEA (University of East Anglia) and University College, London in 1995. It was all based on Milton Keynes, and what they found was that... oh well, I'll give you the figures - recycling paper produced about 50 kg of CO2 per tonne; if you disposed of it in landfill and made new paper, 550 kg of CO2 per tonne. So, it's much better to recycle."

1995! Our information and waste disposal techniques haven't improved since 1995? Oh well, if this is what the recycle-nuts want to hang their hats on, let's have a look at it. You can download it from here.

Take this, from p.11:

A second problem that occurs at the manufacturing stage is the scarcity of data, particularly with regards to the manufacture of products using secondary plastic materials. Whilst information concerning energy use is sometimes available, data for the remaining environmental inputs and outputs is either commercially sensitive or simply unreported. In this exercise, the process data (emissions arising directly from the process) has been taken as being identical for both primary and secondary plastics, but an energy saving (and thus the associated emissions of generation) of 77% is obtained by using secondary materials, as suggested by White, Franke and Hindle (1995).

Or to put it more succinctly, "we don't know how much energy is used in production of items from recycled feedstock, so we're going to assume it's 77% less than in the same processes using raw materials." That's how to get the "right" result. Use assumptions that make sure you get the desired outcome.

Even more questionably, from p. 13:

For each average tonne of waste which is disposed of to landfill in the UK, 81% by volume of the gaseous emissions are released to the atmosphere, 13% are flared, and 6% are used in landfill gas generating schemes (Williams, 1994 and Bellingham et al, 1994). This paper uses this average data when calculating the amount of electricity recovered. The electricity generated will displace emissions from old coal-fired power stations, and this study gives credit for these.

This probably wasn't even true in 1993 (the most recent year for which the Williams and Bellingham papers are likely to have had data). As I have mentioned before, I ran (until recently) the company that sold many of the flarestacks used on British landfills, so I know that a lot more flares went into landfills before 1993 than is usually assumed in government studies aiming to maximize the claimed reductions in landfill-gas emissions since then (which undermines the Government's claims that we are on target to meet our Kyoto obligations, but that is another story).

Whatever the case in 1993, nowadays this is absurd. The usual figure quoted for the capture-rate of methane from landfills over the lifetime of a modern, engineered landfill is about 85%. This is the figure used as standard in the government-approved model (GasSim) for estimating emissions from landfills. During the period when the gas is contained (i.e. after the phase has been "capped") and being converted (i.e. until the gas quality falls so low that it can no longer be flared), the capture rate is probably close to 100% in modern, engineered landfills. The 85% represents an allowance for emissions from the uncapped phase being tipped at any one time (the usual source of any odour), and slow seepage of the tail-end gas once it is no longer possible to flare it, by which time you are talking low volumes and low percentages of methane. Given sensible incentives, it would be possible to further reduce these emissions so that the overall capture-rate was over 90%, but let's take 85% as a reasonable average. Of that, provided that sensible incentives are maintained for its utilisation, the vast majority will be converted to electricity.

The impact on the LCA of assuming 19% capture, of which 6% utilisation, rather than the current figures of 85% capture of which perhaps 80% utilisation, is enormous. Methane (CH4) has a Global Warming Potential 23 times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2). If you assume that most of the carbohydrates in your waste are converted into landfill gas (roughly 50:50 CH4 and CO2), that most of that gas gets out, and that very little of it is used to displace fossil-fired generation, the comparison between landfill and any other form of waste disposal will be a no-brainer. Of course landfill is the worst technique if it's simply belching methane into the sky.

But this is bollocks. Methane isn't belching out of modern landfills - it is being captured and used to provide the largest single source of new renewable electricity in the country. Last year, landfill-gas generators produced nearly 4 TWh of renewable electricity. Onshore wind projects produced 2.8 TWh, offshore wind less than 0.7 TWh, while co-firing of biomass with coal, and refurbished hydro plants produced almost 2 TWh each.

The authors of the paper carefully ensured that it was not possible to trace their calculations from their assumptions to their conclusions. So it is not possible to reconstruct their calculations with more accurate assumptions. But even where they state their results, without showing how they were calculated, further errors intrude. On p.17, it is assumed that 13,000 grammes of methane are released per tonne of plastic landfilled (around a quarter of the methane emission-rate of paper). Ah yes, that famous putrescible plastic. This is such a beginner's error, that you have to wonder whether the authors had ever set foot on a landfill, or spoken to a waste-disposal operator.

And there is more. Landfilling of aluminium is assumed on the same page to produce 206.5 kilogrammes of methane per tonne of aluminium. Biodegradeable aluminium joins biodegradeable plastics in these academics' parallel universe. And thanks to what I can only assume is a labelling error, it is magnified by a factor of one thousand - not 206.5 g/t, but 206.5 kg/t in their scheme, or four times as much methane as is released from landfilling paper.

This study is so wrong that it isn't even in the right ballpark and so obfuscated that it is impossible to correct. And yet it is on studies like this that recycle-nuts like Dr Dicks rely to justify their brain-washed mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle". That may be the right approach, in some circumstances, but where appropriate (as indicated by relative costs), not as a rule. The current EU Directives on waste disposal, the Government's dirigiste waste strategy (in compliance with the EU), and councils' complex collection schemes (in compliance with the Government's strategy), are based on nothing more than incompetence and distortion.

What a load of rubbish

The Communities and local government select committee, chaired by Labour MP Dr Phyllis Starkey, has rubbished (excuse the pun) the government's strategy for reducing waste in landfill sites.  You may remember the plans for fortnightly bin collections and fines for not re-cycling were the solution to the growing landfill problem.  Well, Mr Starkey and his committee have damned the policy as "half-hearted and likely to fail".  The report says plans to charge householders who fail to recycle £30 a year are too timid and too complicated and a reward of up to £30 for "

To reuse or not reuse?

You probably haven't heard of the Waste and Resources Action Programme - or WRAP as they are cleverly known. But, on top of giving the public the deeply philosophical question of what came first: the name "Waste and Resources Action Programme" or the acronym "WRAP", it has also blessed the Great British public with its Real Nappy Campaign. The aim of this campaign was to encourage parents to use reusable nappies instead of causing waste (for want of a better word) by using disposable nappies. How very noble indeed.

Chip and Bin - the added cost

It is expected that the fortnightly bin collections and the "chip and bin" tax we are to pay on top of council tax for the removal of our bins will increase levels of fly tipping.  If that is the case, we the tax payer have a serious problem!  It is thought that there were 50,000 cases of fly tipping in the London Borough of Chelsea and Kensington alone last year.  Haringey over 60,000.  Outside London, Manchester had more than 30,000.  Yet the Government and councils have warned that the worst cases are likely to be in rural areas but are simply not reported.  So far it has cost

Big Brother is taxing you

Sinister goings on at our town halls. It appears that 68 of them have already installed microchips in to our bins without even telling us. That is more than three million households in Britain who are well equipped to be taxed for their waste in Government "pay as you throw" proposals. This is despite the fact that a channel four survey revealed nearly two thirds of us are against the idea. It is quite clear that the Government is trying to force this extra tax through the back door and they are disguising it as green measure.

When is a climb down not a climb down? When it's a consultation.

Do I sense a Government climb down over Bingate? In what has become an issue of electoral importance, the fortnightly collections fiasco may have had an impact on the recent local elections. The Government can pour billions of pounds away on an ineffectual health service or go to war with another country based on lies and mis-information yet still keep the electorate onside; but inconvience our every day lives by not collecting our bins and voters will punish you. And punish those councillors they have. The Telegraph today picks up various councils that have introduced fortnightly collections and their opponants have picked up seats.

This may just be a case of putting two and two together and making any number you wish, but it is enough to have got this out of Ruth "Yvette Cooper is more respected than me and everyone knows it" Kelly - "Local councils may decide that the weekly bin collection is one aspect of their policy and they may want to introduce other measures to increase the rate of recycling. That is completely their prerogative. But whatever is done should be done in close consultation with local communities." Ahhh! The consultation word. So it's not a climb down afterall, just a consultaltion to make us all feel like we played a part on the democratic process. Oh well, better keep those bins in for another week then...

The man is on a roll!!

I haven't watched it, but apparently on GMTV this morning Tony Blair said that there must be better ways to boost recycling rates than fortnightly bin collections. He described himself as a bit of a traditionalist on the idea according to the BBC. This comes just one day after the Dustmen's Union declared that weekly rubbish collections could be saved if town halls recycled more efficiently. Who actually backs this scheme apart from the jobsworths in the local councils and Whitehall? The Right Honourable Anthony Blair doesn't. Who would have thought, first the NHS and now local councils? The man is on a roll.

Defra creates a new Quango

This government really doesn't like rubbish, does it? It would rather we just didn't produce it or if we do to hang on to it. It's as though it has suddenly become a luxury, a privilege of the rich to be able to get rid of your rubbish. Well things are about to get worse. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), headed by David "will he won't he, probably not he hasn't got the guts" Milliband, are going to introduce laws that will mean we lose our say over when and how their rubbish is collected entirely. Presently we can at least complain directly to the council responsible if they are unhappy with the frequency or quality of collection.

The whole thing stinks

So we are told that we will be fined an outrageous fee if we put our rubbish out too early as it encourages mice and rats on to the streets? But what better way to encourage mice and rats on to the streets (as well as a pretty awful smell) than to only collect our rubbish every two weeks? That is what four in every ten councils are now doing. What in the name of God is going on? Why do I pay my council tax, exactly?

It's your fault and you'll pay

One hundred and eighty-five thousand pounds. That is how much a dozen local councils in England and Wales have raised through fixed penalties from households putting their rubbish out on the wrong day. This includes households who have put the bins out just a few hours too soon or left their wheelie bins on the road. Is this just another case of local government's desperation to get as much money of their residents as possible through any means?

The long malign arm of the Environment Agency

As reported by the Telegraph, but strangely not available on their website, the charity Inter Care has been forced to shut down its operations by the Environment Agency (EA). Inter Care sends unused drugs from the UK to African hospitals. The EA has ordered them to suspend shipment because they may be breaching European Union regulations on waste disposal. Clinics in Africa are now running short of drugs as a result.

You can pick your enemy in this story. Maybe the fault is the European Union, for legislating in such a way that it would prevent something as beneficial as this. Or maybe it is the fault of the EA for excessive pedantry in the application of regulations. Experience of the EA would strongly suggest the latter, but experience of the EU would suggest the former. Is this the perfect confluence of two of the most sclerotic government bodies in the world? The perfect bureaucratic storm?