Industry, innovation and energy

Jane Gaston analyses new technologies in waste management, and how the right approaches can help deliver clean energy

At the end of last year, the Government set out its new strategy for Resources and Waste. New waste policy rarely tends to grab the headlines but the commitment to eliminating avoidable plastic waste struck a chord. Six months later and celebrity Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his latest campaign – to fight the war on plastic.

While tackling plastics is only one part of the challenge, it’s one that highlights a number of issues and opportunities for the waste and energy sectors. We have a huge global problem with waste plastics. This has come into sharp focus as many developing economies – like China who until recently imported most of the world’s plastics – have started sending waste plastics back to their country of origin due to the poor quality of the imports. In the UK, we produce around 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste each year – around 1.5 million tonnes being packaging waste. Of all this, only around 32 per cent is sent for recycling.

Reducing the amount of plastic we use in society has to be the long term solution. We’re already making progress with single use plastics with a ban on the sale of plastic straws, drink-stirrers and cotton buds from April next year. But we’re far from being able to eliminate plastic all together. Indeed, for many applications plastic will remain the sensible and most sustainable option for the foreseeable future. We therefore need to look at innovative solutions for that end of life plastic. If these solutions can ultimately provide a value to waste plastic we can then start to look at how we can remove the generations of plastic that has accumulated in the environment. Whilst this doesn’t achieve the ultimate aim of elimination, it can play an important role in delivering a low carbon, cleaner future.

That’s what we’re looking to do at Protos, our £700m strategic energy and resources hub near Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. Located alongside the University of Chester’s Thornton Science Park, Protos is a destination for innovation and new technologies. We’re planning a number of facilities to deal with plastic throughout its lifecycle, including recycling and energy generation. Waste2Tricity have plans to deliver a ‘first of a kind’ waste plastic to hydrogen facility using pioneering technology from PowerHouse Energy. Not only helping to find a solution to waste plastic it will also contribute towards the development of a hydrogen economy that is both lower carbon and also helps to provide cleaner air in our towns and cities. The technology was developed at Thornton Science Park, which is adjacent to Protos, and demonstrates our ambition to create a seamless link between industry, innovation and energy.

Technologies such as this are likely to be transitional. And, so they should be. Transitional in the way that the plastics market will change over time, with less plastics produced and more recycled. And transitional in that we should always be striving to use the best technology available. We should be developing waste management technology that is fit for purpose and new technologies will continue to be developed to improve environmental outcomes. This is why simply saying that we have sufficient waste management capacity can never be the answer. We must continually innovate and improve.

Technology will continue to influence and impact waste management – designing away waste; making products more able to be re-used or recycled; or dealing with the unrecyclable element in a better way. Technology will always improve and therefore will always be transitional. The danger is that if we don’t embrace transitional technology, in the fear that it is not the ideal solution, we end up doing nothing.

One of the biggest challenges with new technologies is their risk profile. While there are many investors, including from overseas, looking at clean energy technologies as the future, there’s naturally a bigger job to do to prove they will deliver a return. At Protos we bring together technology providers, waste producers and energy users and package up projects that are investor ready. We can commercialise new technologies that have been developed and tested next door at Thornton Science Park, and provide support around real estate, infrastructure and contracts. While initial stage investment produces a more sustainable waste management system for the UK, the real potential is for these technologies to be applied worldwide to help with the global shift to the lower carbon and cleaner future.

We’re leading the way in the North West. A new group of industry, university and local government leaders recently came together to form a powerful new collaboration to secure game-changing investment in the future of clean growth in the region. The North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster covers the traditional industrial powerhouses of the Liverpool and Manchester City Regions as well as Cheshire and Warrington. Under the direction of the North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) the Cluster aims to become the UK’s first low carbon industrial cluster by 2030 and could see at least 33,000 new jobs created and over £4 billion invested. New and transitional technologies, such as those at Protos, will be key to delivering on the zero carbon aims of the Cluster giving the North West the opportunity to pave the wave for the rest of the UK and beyond.

Peel Environmental
Jane Gaston is Development Director at Peel Environmental. Peel Environmental, part of Peel L&P, owns and develops waste infrastructure projects. It has achieved consent for a range of energy infrastructure schemes including a 35MW Energy from Waste plant at Protos in Cheshire, 22MW Energy from Waste plant and 250,000tpa AD and MRF in Glasgow; and a 20MW Energy Centre at Houghton Main, Barnsley. Peel works with investors, waste management companies, technology providers and contractors to secure a deliverable business model for each project.

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