What would you do with 350,000 tonnes of rubbish? Burn it?

This is what’s been happening to most of Birmingham’s rubbish. The Tyseley incinerator has been ‘skyfilling’ our rubbish since 1996, but the City Council’s contract with the owners Veolia expires in 2019, so everyone has just 8 years to come up with a better solution.

The Tyseley plant is officially called an Energy Recovery Facility, which sounds good. However, rubbish is a very poor “fuel”; containing a lot of air, water and bin bags; perhaps one third of the value of coal or gas. 40% is incombustible and comes out as ash. Aluminium burns at a high temperature, but as more drinks cans get recycled, this is a disappearing contribution. Most of the heat produced is wasted as warm air up the chimney; the great plume of steam can be seen dominating the city skyline from the surrounding hills. The waste flue gas has to be cleaned of toxic chemicals, which are trapped in fly ash, a ‘hazardous waste’. A small part of the energy comes through a turbine to become useful electricity.

The Tyseley plant does not qualify as a power station, so is primarily a waste incinerator. It was opposed by Friends of the Earth in 1996, as we feared that using rubbish as a fuel would divert efforts from recycling wastes.

The other products of waste incineration are water vapour and carbon dioxide (CO2) – the greenhouse gases. You might expect the Tyseley plant to be one of the biggest emitters of CO2 in the city, but it has become strangely absent from the Environment Agency’s online map of air pollution sites and the actual figures for CO2 seem hard to pin down.

Birmingham City Council has a target of reducing CO2 by 60% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Globally CO2 is again at its highest ever level in the atmosphere, and 2010 experienced the highest- ever global average temperature. Only low carbon technologies seem to have a future.

The Birmingham Climate Change Action Plan 2010 says that

A fundamental long-term change is required to establish a secondary materials

economy where components of the waste stream are automatically considered as potential products for new industries and as a source of energy as the last resort.

Yet, surprisingly it also proposes burning more waste at Tyseley, even bringing in ‘non-municipal waste’ to compensate for the falling volume of bin bags. Municipal waste arising in Birmingham fell by 4% in just one year 2007/8 to 2008/9. Nationally, household waste generation has been decreasing every year since 2006, while recycling rates rise.

Nature does not burn its waste, but recycles it all, so could we move much faster in the direction of “industrial ecology”? Some local authorities have adopted the goal of ‘zero waste’, i.e. to work towards finding a use for everything. Birmingham at present only composts or recycles 32 % of municipal waste, compared to the average for England of 40% (2009/10). There is a long way to go if we look at other cities around the world;

“San Francisco recovers 77 percent of the materials it discards, bringing the city ever closer to our goal of zero waste by 2020.” – San Francisco Environment Commission

The Welsh Assembly has adopted a target for Wales of 70% recycling by 2025 and Friends of the Earth proposes this target for the UK as a whole.

There are good reasons to think that a recycling revolution has started that will make past targets look far too modest. Producers are under EU pressure to use less packaging and ensure that products are all recyclable. Landfill sites are nearly full and landfill tax is making that an expensive option. Businesses have woken up to the value of waste, while technology is getting better at separating it.

A new report from the Institute of Civil Engineers talks of a coming transition to a “circular economy” driven by “intense global completion for resources and the rising cost of emitting carbon”, in which local authorities “go well beyond the traditional waste disposal role”’ to “produce products that meet the demands of local and national markets”. This requires wastes to be kept separate if possible and not ‘co-mingled’. There could be a lot of opportunities for small business in recycling, and a lot of new jobs.

Kidderminster already has the UK’s largest recycling plant which takes, separates and sells for a profit almost any kind of waste. Veolia, who own the Tyseley plant, are developing a plant in Southwark, London, to sort mixed household refuse, recovering all the recyclables and digesting the rest to give methane as a fuel; no refuse will be burned.

Composting could deal with at least 40% of waste, locking up carbon in the compost and rebuilding soils. There is an exciting new plan to compost waste from the Birmingham Markets. A waste wood recycling project is starting. Waste cooking oil is made into biodiesel. Food waste can be digested to make methane gas. Almost any waste can be gasified by enclosed heating in air (pyrolysis). A recent study from National Grid found that Britain could be making enough gas in future, renewably from waste, to heat half our homes. Mixed plastic can be cracked back into oil. Waste can be distilled into alcohol to run engines. All these are established technologies which are now being scaled up and built as commercial plants around the world. The fuels they produce are much more valuable than waste heat.

A new ‘Total Waste Strategy’ from Be Birmingham looks across the board at Birmingham’s waste for the first time in the light of the need to cut carbon, which seems like a big step forward. It envisages more recycling and the bio-digestion of food waste. Yet, it also talks of “maximising Energy from Waste capacity [the Tyseley plant] to provide an additional 180,000 tonnes treatment capacity per year”. Does Birmingham want to invest to expand the Tyseley plant? Or does burning refuse in air have no place in a low carbon economy?

Friends of the Earth wants to help push the transformation of the waste system much further and faster in Birmingham. If this inspires you, or you have ideas to offer, we would like to hear from you:


The Environment Agency – In Your Backyard map of air pollution

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (for CO2 and global temperature)

WWF – Living Planet Report 2006 (3 planet living in UK)

DEFRA – Municipal Waste Statistics UK 2009/10

National Grid – The Potential for Renewable Gas in the UK ( 2009)

Birmingham Climate Change Action Plan 2010+ (Resource management)

San Francisco Environment

Institute of Civil Engineers – The State of the nation, Waste & resource management

Be Birmingham – Total Waste Strategy

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives