The recent party-political war of words over Birmingham’s bins rather misses the point; we need a new resource recovery system in Birmingham to make us leaders in the field economically, socially and environmentally.
Unfortunately, rather than being able to look at long-term picture, councils are left scrabbling over short-term funding from the government. This is a distraction when you think of how much the council currently pays for all the potential resources contained within black bags to go up in smoke.
The Green Commission, or whoever is going to ensure Birmingham meets its environmental commitments, needs to look at the big picture and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
A system for mass production and burning of the majority of the city’s waste is preventing us from recovering the value in the waste. The current contract with Veolia for burning 350,000 tonnes of waste each year in the incinerator expires in 2019 giving us all a golden opportunity to plan for a transformation of the waste system.
A new collection system for Birmingham should be designed to separate dirty putrescible waste from dry recyclable items. The collection system should be designed backwards to meet the needs of the recycling industry, who have to be included in any discussion. Wheelie bins are used in many areas of the country and we are not opposed to them in principle, but we need a system that is going to work best for recyclers in Birmingham – by that I mean residents and the companies receiving the materials.
Every waste authority in Britain has experimented with different collection systems, so Birmingham can adopt what works elsewhere, tweaking the system to fit the needs of each area.
Much as we wish to stay out of party-political squabbles at Birmingham Friends of the Earth, it does seem that Martin Mullaney has a point in terms of the food waste collections aspect of this bid fitting well with the criteria. We would like food waste collections to be established as soon as possible with local pioneering technology used to turn it into gas that could then be injected into the grid or used to produce electricity.
Aston University is to open a pioneering plant using anaerobic digestion later this year – this will yield much more useful energy than burning waste. If we can exploit their expertise to build a network of plants over the city to reduce the number of miles travelled by collection vehicles this will be beneficial in terms of the environment, job creation and energy security.
We hope that the Labour administration is serious about introducing separate food waste collections and is not planning to put in expensive measures that won’t fit a system for doing that. They should speak to the people at Aston’s European Bioenergy Research Institute urgently to seek their advice on how best to organise an effective system.
You will often hear politicians talking about a ‘zero waste to landfill’ policy, but this does not need to be the case for Birmingham. Landfill is only an issue for biologically active waste that produces the powerful greenhouse gas, methane and leachates which can percolate into and contaminate ground water systems. If this biogenic segment has been removed, then, in theory, only inert material is being land-filled and landfill tax should not apply.
In terms of climate change, it might make sense to bury the small amounts of material which cannot be composed, digested or recycled, so that the carbon is kept out of the atmosphere (unlike when burnt). Indeed, in this scenario the landfill site could act as a repository and we could recover these resources in the future to reuse.
Re-use, composting and recycling require less capital, less technology, less land space and can be done more locally than centralised waste management and disposal options. We are sure that there will be plenty of third sector and community groups who are interested in making sure they find a workable solution in their areas.
There is an opportunity to take back control of the city’s waste and make it the basis for a growing industry sector within the low carbon economy – these are jobs that cannot be lost overseas.
A target of one or two neighbourhoods with diverse housing types should be run as pilots next year to test a ‘’materials recovery system’ instead of a refuse system, designed in consultation with recycling companies, residents’ groups and community organisations. This model can then be rolled out across the city, when the council’s contract with Veolia expires in 2019.
If we can phase out incineration and create a cleaner system which is more profitable for the city, that will be something of which we can all be proud.
Joe Peacock of Birmingham Friends of the Earth