A Way with Waste

On 14th September members of the Society were treated to a spell binding two hours by David O'Connor, a waste manager from Onyx, as he explored the complex issues relating to the management of our waste.

In the United Kingdom we produce 400 million tons of waste per year - enough to fill Wembley Stadium to the roof every day of the year. Over 30 million tons of this comes from households; with the rest coming from industry, mining, agriculture and quarrying. Despite the best efforts of Central Government and Local Authorities the amount of waste going into our dustbins and wheelie bins is increasing on average by about 3% per year. All this waste has to be disposed of and traditionally in Britain this has meant landfill - putting waste into holes. All that is set to change. The Government, driven by European requirements, has signed up to a commitment to divert more than half of our household waste away from landfill by 2016. How, you might ask, is this to be achieved.? Well, the Government is pinning its hopes on composting, incineration and recycling. In addition they are working with industry to ensure that waste is minimised and that products are so designed that they are capable of being recycled. David explained to us how complex the arrangements for dealing with packaging waste would need to be.

How are we going to cope with all the waste diverted from landfill sites? The Government believe that up to 140 incinerators may be needed. These would burn the refuse and provide electricity from the heat generated. But we all know that planning applications for both incinerators and waste sites are often opposed by residents; and many are refused permission. This may all change is we are to cope with the changed waste management regime that the Government is proposing.

Having set the scene, David then explained to his audience that landfill was not just about dumping waste into holes. His colour slides explained the complex process involved in preparing a landfill site, which often has to be lined with impervious material such as clay or artificial liner, to contain the waste - both solid and liquid - within the site. Up front costs of 1.5 million were not unusual; and that would be before a single load of waste was tipped into the hole. David then took us through the entire cycle leading to restoration of landfill sites and their subsequent use. Most landfill sites generate methane as material decays. This is no longer flared off as a gas through a pipe to the surface but is piped to furnaces to generate electricity which can be sold to the national grid.

We were all left with a message that society has to recognise its responsibilities in dealing with the waste that it is producing. Those responsibilities may well involve us all in separating our waste into a number of receptacles at our homes for separate collection and recycling. Finally, David took us on a chemistry course! He explained in some detail how toxic chemical waste was neutralised and its products even recycled for further use. That the audience stayed late engaging David in discussion, was an indication of how interesting and thought provoking his presentation had been.

Roger Hockney
September 1999