BURNING VISION: IN OUR 5TH PIECE MARKING RECYCLING WEEK, AISHA IQBAL REPORTS ON PROGRESS ON THE CROSS GREEN INCINERATOR. WAS IT THE RIGHT OPTION FOR LEEDS - AND COULD IT FORM THE FINAL LEG OF THE CITY’S RECYCLING JOURNEY?
IT’s been a burning topic in Leeds for several years, but one thing is for sure - the Cross Green incinerator is coming.
Progress on the plant, officially known as the Leeds Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility (RERF) is on target, and bosses say it is likely to open on schedule in the summer of 2016.
Construction started last September on the former outdoor market site.
Up to 150,000 tonnes of Leeds’s annual black bin waste will be sent there. This represents around half the city’s total bin output, and up to 3/4 of the total waste that will be brought to the site.
Recyclable materials - those that haven’t made their way into a green bin or a civic skip - will be harvested, and the remainder will be incinerated.
The combustion process is expected to generate 11 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 homes, which will be fed into the National Grid. Also in development is a district heating scheme which will skim off steam from the incineration processes and pipe it to heat municipal buildings, swimming pools, libraries and high-rise council flats.
The project will also create 45 permanent jobs once operational.
The RERF is being spearheaded by Leeds City Council and is key to the authority’s long-term waste and recycling strategy. It is funded through a 25-year private finance initiative, and it is hoped that over that period, the facility will save taxpayers more than £200m in landfill tax and environmental levies.
The plant will be operated by Veolia, which already runs several incinerators across the country. But the Leeds plant is the firm’s biggest and most ambitious to date.
The facility will, in effect, be the final leg of Leeds’s recycling journey, as the city bids to beat Government targets.
As reported in the YEP throughout this week, Leeds is aiming to smash through the 60 per cent overall recycling rate in the next few years, But despite good progress from our unimpressive performances of a decade ago, we still lag behind other areas, and campaigners are calling on the city to raise its game.
Paul Fowler, general manager at Veolia, believes that the RERF will “contribute massively to the overall target for recycling”.
And, although it will be incinerating most of its input, he insists it is much more than just a big furnace.
“It’s an important cog in the wheel in terms of diversion from landfill, which is the biggest driver,” Paul explains. “And it’s quite unique, because there are a lot of facilities getting built which are just about combustion.
“We, importantly, have got a pre-treatment process and will be recovering good materials and resources that can be reused.”
He adds that while the facility will use the latest available technology, it will “constantly evolve with changing technologies to maximise the efficiency of recovering materials”.
“Recycling is a big part of the process,” he says. “We are maximising that part and contributing to Leeds’s overall targets. I would like to think it will increase as people get smarter about how they deal with their waste.
“We want to be part of the message of re-use and recycling.”
For anyone driving eastward out of the city centre, the imposing structural foundations of the RERF are quite a sight. At 125m long, 36m wide and 42m tall to the top of the arch, it is believed the framework is the biggest structure of its kind in Europe.
Once the plant is finished, its full capacity will be 214,000 tonnes of waste a year, with the non black-bin element made up of commercial waste.
Currently, all of Leeds’s green bin waste is sent to a sorting plant in Beeston, and on to various re-processors, but our black bin waste goes to landfill, something which costs taxpayers £80 a tonne in landfill tax.
After processing at the RERF, recyclable materials - up to 20 percent of the total that comes in - will be harvested, and the rest will be burnt.
That combustion element continues to anger campaigners, who have long expressed concerns about the technology being used, emissions and the location of the plant.
But for supporters of the scheme, the trade-off - and the long-term benefit to the city’s recycling, sustainability and renewable energy vision- is immeasurable.
Education and information is, of course, key to changing public perceptions, but the firm’s public relations admittedly took a hammering in the early days of the project.
The completed RERF will have a visitor centre and education programme on reuse and recycling. It will also have one of the world’s biggest ‘living walls’ and will run school trips. A community liaison group, a hotline for the public during construction and a regular newsletter to 11,500 homes in the surrounding area are currently helping keep locals in the loop.
Kevin Parker, communications manager at Veolia, acknowledges there has been, and still is, some strong and vocal opposition to the overall project, but insists the incinerator story is not about heroes and villains, but part of a collective vision for a sustainable future for Leeds.
“People might have a perception of ‘oh they are a private company’. But we are made up of individuals who support the agenda of sustainability,” he says. “We are actually making a difference, delivering solutions on behalf of the council and we will be a big partner in that for the next 25 years at least.”
“The RERF will be heavy artillery in the recycling journey,” he adds.
“It will deal with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste over its lifetime. The cumulative effect of that will be absolutely massive.”
‘THERE ARE SMARTER METHODS THAN THIS TO DEAL WITH OUR WASTE’
EVEN long after construction began, the Leeds incinerator issue remains a contentious one.
Among the key voices against the project is campaign group Friends of the Earth, which still believes the council’s Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility (RERF) at Cross Green was not the best option for Leeds.
Simon Bowens, the group’s lead campaigner for the North, says the RERF offers an “incredibly inflexible means of burning waste”.
One key concern is that as public awareness of and participation in recycling increases - something borne out by the city’s increasing recycling rates - the need for the facility will diminish, and we will effectively be tied to a 25-year deal we can’t get out of.
Mr Bowens believes that for the Leeds plant to remain viable, waste materials may end up being brought in from outside the city.
“Sheffield did it, and they had to go back to the council and ask to be allowed to (import in) their waste,” he said.
“That’s bonkers. We should be handling our own waste. Let’s have a solution which is a Leeds solution.”
Asked if the RERF’s renewable energy and recycling functions could balance out other factors, Mr Bowens said that how that energy is derived - and the energy used in deriving it - is vital.
“Yes you might create some energy, but it won’t balance itself out, because the more virgin material you are trying to extract, the more intensive it is to do that.
“There are smarter ways of dealing with our waste.
“Anaerobic digestion (steaming and breaking down waste at high temperatures) is a much more flexible system. You can use it for industrial, but also for food waste.
“If we recycled or composted more, we’d be left with less tonnes of waste than what the incinerator needs.”
He points out that had Leeds been more ambitious - and quicker- with its recycling targets, we might not have needed the incinerator, although “I don’t think we needed it anyway”. He adds that while other potential benefits like a district heating system “looks great on a piece of paper”, that element should have been the key focus from day one.
“It should have been part of a much more holistic system but it was very much ‘let’s get the incinerator approved, then we will start thinking about that’,” he said.
“You have got to make it simple for people to recycle, but also make sure you extract the most resource you can.”