Using Waste to Generate Energy is Key to Northern Ireland Making the Most of its Rubbish

25 May 2021

Using Waste to Generate Energy is Key to Northern Ireland Making the Most of its Rubbish
In May’s Business Eye the Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) reflects on the waste industry in Northern Ireland and how we can make the most of our non-recyclable rubbish.


By Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA)
The world of recycling and waste management is largely unseen, unheard, and not something many of us consider as we go about our daily business. In fact, the only time we notice it is on the rare occasion when something goes wrong and our bins aren’t collected. This is testament to the fact that this industry has become a well-oiled machine – quietly dealing with the many thousands of tonnes of food, product and packaging waste we collectively produce every day.
The population of Northern Ireland actually produces around a million tonnes of household waste every year and about 50 per cent of this is recycled – but what happens to the rest?
In Northern Ireland, the majority of the waste that can’t be viably recycled (which the industry calls “residual” waste) is currently sent to landfill, while some is exported to other European countries where it is used to generate energy in specialist power plants – but landfilling and exporting residual waste is expensive, carbon-intensive and environmentally unsustainable.
This poses a significant challenge for Northern Ireland to catch up to England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, which are all rapidly moving away from landfill and waste exports towards greater recycling and increased domestic use of energy-from-waste technology.
These specialist energy-from-waste (EfW) power plants use the residual waste as fuel to generate heat and electrical energy and, compared with landfill, save the equivalent of around 200kg of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere for every tonne of waste they process instead of sending it to landfill. This is because waste rotting in landfill releases significant quantities of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas.
New infrastructure projects like Arc21’s proposal for an integrated recovery facility at Hightown Quarry near Mallusk are therefore critical to Northern Ireland reducing its reliance on both landfill and exports; for helping Northern Ireland to deal with its own waste material in the long term; and for lowering carbon emissions associated with waste treatment. This project alone is anticipated to save 57,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year compared with landfill and will generate enough electricity to meet the annual power needs of around 30,000 homes.
Major waste infrastructure projects like this also make a significant contribution to the local green economy – supporting hundreds of jobs as well as delivering other forms of social value.
Widening the outlook across the United Kingdom, the waste industry’s transition away from landfill to energy recovery is acknowledged by the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in its recent Sixth Carbon Budget, which points out that efforts to move the nation’s general rubbish to energy recovery have resulted in a 63% reduction in the waste sector’s carbon emissions since 1990 – a performance matched by few other sectors.
The UK has also committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the waste industry anticipates that it will be able to decarbonise its activities sooner than that (with some support from new policies to drive investment in zero-emission technology), but this will not be possible while significant tonnages of waste are still sent to landfill.
Of course, moving away from landfill to energy recovery is just half the story and, in accordance with the “waste hierarchy” (the policy framework which determines the best way to manage waste), it is better to reduce or avoid waste in the first place; to then re-use items wherever possible to extend their life; and to then recycle as much as we can.
In the UK, our national average recycling performance has gone from dismal single figures to around 50 per cent of everything we throw away over the last twenty years. The UK Government wants to get to 65% recycling for all council waste by 2035 and this is going to require a seismic change in the way products and packaging are made; how they are sold and how they are collected and recycled – but even under the most ambitious recycling scenarios, we still need a solution to deal with the waste that cannot be recycled, and energy recovery remains the best environmental option.