The future of rubbish

Peter Eglington and Coun Richard Forster at the recycling plant.
Peter Eglington and Coun Richard Forster at the recycling plant.
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Next month, a £100m waste and recycling centre in South Kirkby will sort its first bags of rubbish, “revolutionising” waste in Wakefield. Lindsay Pantry took a tour of the site.

IN A SMALL former mining town in the south east of Wakefield, gathered together are a group of people who are very excited about rubbish.

Because after two years of planning, the newly built £100m waste recycling plant in South Kirkby is almost ready to accept its first bagfuls, well, lorry loads, of trash.

There, among vast warehouses on land that was once South Kirkby Colliery, 95 per cent of Wakefield district’s rubbish will be diverted from landfill, sorted by futuristic machines, then recycled, transformed into fuel at nearby Ferrybidge Power Station or converted into gas on site to power the waste plant itself by rather less technical means – bugs.

“My guys are passionate about dealing with waste and they are desperate to get their hands on waste and start getting it through the machinery,” Peter Eglinton, managing director of Shanks Waste Management said. “It’s a very exciting time.”

Wakefield Council signed a 25-year deal with Shanks in 2013 to help overhaul the way waste from the district is dealt with. The investment alone is worth around £100m and the PFI contract as a whole is worth £750m. What is special about South Kirkby, the council says, it is that it is the only one in the country to deal with both the rubbish and recycling from an entire local authority – which in Wakefield’s case, includes 152,000 households.

Next month, it will start to receive its first truck loads of rubbish and recycling, and by September will be servicing the entire authority’s waste.

“The site will be virtually self sufficient,” Coun Richard Forster, the chair of the council’s waste management board, said, as we walk among the different hangars that each have a distinct role in the waste cycle.

“One of the things we’re very keen on is smell management. We realise there are residents nearby, so it’s something we wanted to ensure we were on top of. When the doors open, fresh air is dragged in rather than letting smells escape.”

The sophisticated odour control system was the first of many complicated technologies used on site to ensure the three aims of the facility are met – an improvement in local air quality and the environment; to move away from landfill; and to increase recycling beyond 52 per cent by 2016.

Black bag waste is sorted by a mammoth series of machines known as the Materials Recycling Facility. Here, using conveyor belts, scanners and equipment the size of a small family home, recyclable materials such as paper, glass and plastic are sorted from organic rubbish using lasers. Magnets and electric currents pick out aluminium and steel, and an optical scanner can be programmed to pick out whatever needs to be sorted, from milk bottles down to the colour of plastic.

Optimisation engineer Terry Wright – one of Mr Eglinton’s “passionate guys” explains: “Whatever you scan, it will read. 20 tonnes an hour it’s scanning and sorting. You would need six or seven pickers doing that, a smelly job.

“All of a sudden you’ll see an aluminium can flying off in one direction, it’s amazing. Every six months the technology is getting better.”

And that takes us back to the bugs.

A cavernous autoclave is used as a pressure cooker to heat organic waste once it is sorted. It produces a soup-like liquid, which bugs and bacteria will than eat, a by-product being methane gas, which will be captured to generate electricity to fire the site.

Once operational, the facility will handle 170,000 tonnes of waste a year, with the capacity to deal with much more – the equivalent of filling Wembley Stadium one and half times. It is expected that once it has been up and running for a few years, the site will produce more gas than it needs to power itself, and the excess will be sold to the National Grid.

That’s just one source of income. Compost produced in under ground tunnels from the district’s garden waste will be sold. And the flexibility of the site, Mr Eglinton said, means they will be able to focus on whichever material is most marketable at the time, for example, if the price of plastic increased, they could pick up more.

It will also lead to a substantial saving in landfill taxes for the Council. Last year it paid £7m in landfill taxes. This year fees have increased, and the authority is set to save £7.7m as waste will be diverted from landfill as soon as it starts accepting rubbish in March

Crucially, Mr Eglinton said, the PFI deal gives the council “certainty” over its waste management.

“There are still a lot of authorities that haven’t decided how they are going to treat their waste. What Wakefield has here is a solution for the next 23 years,” he added.

In November, York and North Yorkshire councils agreed on a deal for a new waste treatment plant near Knaresborough, but the plans were met with fierce opposition and a series of delays.

The Government pulled funding for a joint PFI project for Bradford and Calderdale in 2013, and Bradford Council said last month it could take up to 18 months to procure a new contractor.

Wakefield’s PFI deal includes upgrading and reorganising household waste recycling centres across the district, in Wakefield on Denby Dale Road, in Glasshoughton, at Welbeck near Normanton and at South Kirkby.

The Council is about to embark upon an information campaign to let the public know about the changes.

Around a third of households will have their rubbish collection day changed as routes have been re-designed top make them more efficient, and green boxes that used to house plastics and jars and cans, and cause untold amounts of litter on the streets, while be cast aside as all recyclable products will now be able to be placed in brown bins that are currently just used for paper and cardboard.

Glynn Humphries, the council’s service director for environment and streetscene, acknowledged that they won’t be able to reach everyone before the changes take place, and once March 17 comes around, allowances will be made to pick up after any missed collections for a few weeks.

But for the council, the site is about much more than rubbish.

It’s about the 60 jobs it has created, the education centre on site that will teach primary school pupils about recycling, and the partnership with Wakefield College and the University of Leeds to ensure a generation of engineers can find work in the Wakefield district. It’s about providing for the future.

Julie Greenwood, the strategic waste policy manager for Wakefield Council said: “This is allowing the council to modernise local government services, to make that move for the future generations of Wakefield.

“This project won’t just revolutionise how we collect waste, but what we do with it.”