Sunday, February 24, 2013
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David Heath's Column 07/12/12

Avonmouth is perhaps not the most attractive place in the west country, nor is a sewage treatment works the place many would choose to visit before breakfast on a Monday morning, but that’s exactly where I was early this week, and let me say I was delighted to be there. Why? Because I had the opportunity to formally open a facility I was arguing for some twenty five years ago, and which I think makes such common sense I don’t know why we haven’t many more all over the country.

Anaerobic digesters are large machines which turn waste products into something useful, specifically methane gas, which gives us energy, and high grade compost, which can be used to enrich soil. They perform this minor miracle by a process which, without being too explicit, is not too dissimilar to the way the human body deals with food in the digestive system, and despite the raw materials and the output, it’s a process which is self-contained and doesn’t produce nasty smells, smoke or pollution.

As I said, it’s something I was pushing as a, then, very new technology back in the eighties. I saw it then as a way of avoiding the huge expansion of the landfill site at Dimmer, which I was opposing, and I was aware that there were a few municipalities in France, Arras and Amiens I think, which had been experimenting in building anaerobic digestion facilities to deal with their cities’ rubbish. I’m afraid I didn’t win the argument then; perhaps the time just wasn’t right, and I couldn’t point to AD being used successfully in Britain at the time.

That has now changed. AD is being used quite extensively, not least by the water companies. Indeed, Wessex Water have had AD dealing with sewage sludge at Avonmouth for some years, providing enough electricity and more to run the entire plant. They even have a car which runs on methane derived from sewage, which they gave me a ride in. It works like a normal car, and no, it doesn’t smell. It’s just a perfectly normal car that happens to run on poo!

But what I was opening on Monday is a new venture. A new AD plant is now taking vast quantities of food waste from Bristol and making it into something useful, power to supply three thousand homes. The plant will take up to forty thousand tons of food waste each year. That sounds a lot, until you realise that as a country we produce fifteen million tons of food waste, so there’s still a lot to be done.

Of course we need to reduce that amount. It’s obscene to waste so much food, and we do so at every point I the chain, producers, retailers and consumers. We need to cut it down. But given that we are producing so much waste, it’s then criminal to just put it in holes in the ground, at considerable financial and environmental cost. This way, we have a genuine win-win. We do something useful, cut costs, create jobs, reduce energy demands, produce valuable product, and help local councils deal with a huge problem. And I can think maybe I was right all those years ago.


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