You may have read in our newsletter last April-May about Birmingham City Council’s Waste Scrutiny Review. This has since moved on to investigating “Energy from Waste”, and its report is due to come out shortly. Getting energy from waste sounds like a good idea, if it displaces the burning of fossil fuels, but Birmingham Friends of the Earth is concerned that this does not mean burning rubbish, so destroying the value of the materials by turning them into ash and air pollution.

For 20 years, most of the municipal waste that was collected has been burned in the incinerator at Tyseley (hundreds of thousands of tonnes every year). This is owned by Veolia, the international waste company. The plant does produce some electricity, but it is a dirty and inefficient process, using a “rubbish fuel”, so cannot be considered to be a power station, but only a waste disposal facility (an expensive one). Only with a massive subsidy from the Council has it been able to continue. However, the situation has changed greatly in recent years. Householders can now put plastic tubs and pots into the doorstep recycling box, along with plastic bottles. The Council is no longer supplying millions of bin bags. Paper is wanted for recycling and the council is paid for it. Therefore, the proportion of refuse that will burn at all must be declining. The recycling rate is set to improve further in 2014, as large wheeled bins for recycling are provided to households. The Council’s target is to raise the proportion from 32% of household waste composted and recycled up to 60%. Behind this is the fact that almost every material now has a value for recycling, so someone will want to sort and process it.

Veolia’s incinerator becomes the property of the Council in 2019. Given the cost of running and maintaining what will be a 25-year-old plant, we doubt if it will be an asset. The risk is that in an attempt to pay for its continued running, the Council will be forced to keep shovelling in mountains of rubbish. There is no energy or environmental case for Energy from Waste, if this is what it will mean.

Instead, Birmingham Friends of the Earth has called for a “Waste Savers” approach that aims to separate and use almost all of the waste, instead of the old “rubbish collection” approach. We think most householders would like and be prepared to co-operate with this change. Wales and Scotland already have targets of 70% recycled and some individual authorities have already gone beyond that level. We therefore challenge our City Council to adopt a “no incineration” target and to plan backwards the steps to get to that position.

In the rubbish bag or bin, usable materials become useless, by being contaminated with waste food and other “putrescibles”. This is why all the areas with high recycling rates have separate food waste collection from households. In Walsall and Sandwell districts, people can put out a small food waste bin that is emptied weekly (if you want). Food waste includes: teabags, vegetable peelings, egg shells – anything unfit to eat. It all goes to an anaerobic digestion plant, where bacteria make it into biogas; the by-product is a liquid fertiliser. The gas can then be piped, stored and burned in an engine to make heat and/ or electricity. The government and EU are promoting this technology which looks like the basic waste solution for the 21st century. Being the largest local authority in the country, Birmingham can offer a huge flow of such organic material from homes, businesses and parks that should make it worthwhile for a commercial partner or partners to invest in the equipment – here if anywhere! Harder material, such as wood waste can be gassified to be used as a fuel, without producing smoke. There are already gas burning “combined heat and power“ systems in Birmingham that can distribute waste heat to buildings. Waste and energy supply should be part of an integrated strategy, but we think this will need careful planning, and burning rubbish in air cannot be part of an environment-friendly approach.

Many local authorities which have well-developed recycling and food waste collection are finding that there is little left as residual waste, so they only collect the black bin once a fortnight. Birmingham is near the top of the league for residual waste per household; hence it has the most scope to reduce it. As wheelie bins roll out across the city, the 240 litre black wheelie bin being offered may be too large for most households, so we call for a smaller standard as the norm, i.e. 180 litres.

Many items can be reused, of course, and should not be thought of as “waste”. The Council’s bulky waste collection destroys tonnes of furniture etc that could be re-used. In some other areas, the doorstep collection does include clothing, books shoes and other items that then can be sold. Jobs and training could result from Re-use Centres.

If waste items are seen as a resource and collected as such, then a sustainable economy can be built around this, supporting businesses and jobs that recycle money locally, instead of enriching a single monopoly, the current position of Veolia whose privileged contract ends in 2018. The site at Tyseley should be transformed to “Cool Tyseley” recovering the value of waste without burning.

Opportunities should be spread around, so the ten districts of Birmingham each having 100,000 people could be suitable units for waste management. Even neighbourhoods of 10,000 people could handle their own waste, for example there are in-vessel composters and anaerobic digesters that would fit into any industrial estate. Reducing lorry movements should be one aim. Many of the business and premises to handle waste already exist within the city. They should be given a chance to compete for the waste, instead of giving it all to one multinational company, as happened with Veolia in 1994. An “industrial ecosystem” for waste should be the model, and it doesn’t have to be more expensive for the council, only they will need to plan and work towards it consistently. These are the ideas that Birmingham Friends of the Earth will be putting forward and seeking support for on every occasion.


What you can do

Learn more about what can be put into the recycling collection and make full use of it then let your neighbours know.

Think about composting more of your waste – cheap composters can be ordered at

Set up your kitchen so as to make it easy to separate waste where it arises.

Write to your councillor saying what you are doing and asking for ambitious recycling targets and a plan to phase out burning of rubbish (and breathing it!)

Give us your suggestions at

 John Newson