Energise your waste

The last week in January has been earmarked as the UK’s Big Energy Saving Week. With a focus on helping people cut their energy bills and making homes more energy efficient, there is a natural tie-in with the environmental issues. Not to mention the on-going targets to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to power our lives.

Gas, coal and nuclear power are still the main sources of generating electricity and provide us with heat and light, alongside the ability to manufacture goods and provide services. Indeed, gas continues to be the main source of the UK’s power, with about 40% of the UK’s energy in Q2 2018 coming from gas-fired plants. However as we all know, these sources of energy are finite and will eventually run out.

With this in mind, encouraging individuals and organisations to cut down on their energy consumption and use more energy efficient appliances is just one element of preserving the fossil fuels we seem so keen on wasting. Perhaps we should instead be taking a closer look at alternative materials and processes that can contribute to power generation.

Renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar power and water mills have all been put to the test and are now successfully providing energy to the UK. Indeed, in Q2 2018, renewable sources accounted for 28% the UK’s energy production, as shown below.

  • 7%: Gas-fired power stations
  • 1%: Renewables
  • 5%: Nuclear plants
  • 3%: Coal-fired power stations
  • 4%: Electricity imports

The move to renewable energy is all well and good but each has its own individual issues and hurdles. One other energy source considered to be partly renewable is RDF, otherwise known as refuse-derived fuel.

Less well known than its renewable counterparts, RDF refers to the creation of power by burning waste.  Currently in the UK there are resources to do this but not on the scale of other energy sources. Other nations however, have already realised the benefits of harnessing energy from rubbish. Norther European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway, are pioneers in this technology, which not only cuts down our reliance on fossil fuels, but also finds a home for waste that would otherwise end up in landfill.

What is RDF?

Refuse derived fuel (RDF) is a material that is manufactured from both business and domestic waste. It includes biodegrable materials, plastics, wood and anything else that has a calorific value but has not made the grade for recycling.

Items that are non-combustible such as glass and metal are segregated from the RDF which once sorted is then shredded ready for burning. There is also the potential for the raw RDF to be dehydrated and put through extra segregation processes to create SRF (solid recovered fuel). Solid recovered fuel is a more concentrated, dryer form of RDF that has a higher calorific value and produces more energy.

Once processed, both RDF and SRF are shipped to specialist plants where the material is processed for combustion to create heat and energy.

The Benefits of RDF

The benefits of RDF and SRF are two-fold. Ultimately not all waste can be recycled. This can be for a variety of reasons. The material may be so scarce or difficult to recycle that there may not be any commercial benefit in doing so. Alternatively, the material may be contaminated by food or liquid, or it may be too small to segregate. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that any recycling company will be able to recycle 100% of the waste it collects. Historically these ‘left-overs’ would be sent directly to landfill and the waste management company would pay fees to send it there.

Today more and more waste management and recycling companies are realising the benefits of creating bales of RDF instead of sending this surplus waste to landfill. Cawleys for example are committed to eradicating landfill requirements from its depots and have been pioneers in championing this new technology. Not only is it more environmentally friendly than sending waste to landfill, it also provides a more cost-effective disposal stream.

The second benefit of RDF is environmental. As we all know, our natural resources are on the fast track to running out. There is only so much coal we can extract from our planet. The renewable energy sources discussed above have a huge part to play in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels but if we can harness the power of the tonnes of waste we produce each day, surely that’s a win win situation.


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