One of the first signs we had that my grandad Ted was becoming forgetful was when he started to bury his pension book in the back garden. Grandad had an irrational fear of burglars so took to burying valuable things. Predictably he then lost track of where, so me and my siblings spent a lot of our childhood digging holes in his garden to try to find them.
I had forgotten about this surreal period of my life until driving past my local landfill site last week when it struck me that my council was just like my forgetful grandad. It had an unreasonable fear of unlikely events and was burying valuable things that a future generation will have to dig up to recover.
I have learnt from The Discovery Channel that most things that go into a landfill site are, at their very heart, long chain hydrocarbons. Plastic, for example, is just a combination of carbon and hydrogen atoms held together by the energy from the sun that fell on the planet millions of years ago. The energy in wood, paper and even the food that we eat is from the same star but has just arrived more recently.
Turn any of these substances back into simpler molecules and you recover the energy from the old trapped sunlight. It’s that simple. Oil is essentially just another hydrocarbon, so why do we buy the sunlight in oil at $150 dollars a barrel but bury the same sunlight that is in plastic, wood and food waste?
I think it’s because like my grandad, we have an unreasonable fear of the alternatives.
The technology to recover the energy we are burying is well established. So far this year I have visited a plant that turns plastic bags into diesel oil, a plant that uses waste wood to make electricity and two plants that turn food waste into methane. However, what is telling is that only one of these plants was in England. Our European cousins are much more switched on to this idea – to the point that we bury more waste than anybody else and are the second worst in Europe at producing renewable power. These two facts are not unrelated.
So what are we so scared of that we would rather bury the energy than use it? I think it’s four things. The first one is that local politicians have an innate terror of planning objections from articulate voters who have been whipped into hysteria by tabloid scare stories. It seems to me that, for the middle-class home owning voter, being green is bit like raising taxes to pay for public services. It’s a good idea for everybody else but honestly my circumstances are different. We all want renewable power but not in the view from my kitchen window, thanks very much.
I also think that this knee-jerk opposition to any form of waste-to-energy process is rooted in more fundamental issues of scale, familiarity and hypocrisy that we tend not to think about. My car is a small hugely inefficient power station that burns long chain hydrocarbons to make electrical and mechanical power and in doing so produces great clouds of poisonous fumes. So does yours and if you don’t believe me, try running it for ten minutes in your garage with the door closed.
I am very fond of my car but worry about the environmental impact on my children of the millions of other small hydrocarbon-burning power stations on the British roads. However, I have got comfortable with this double-think – where my car is a piece of automotive art but yours is causing global warming and poisoning small children. What neither of us want is a bigger but much more efficient version of the same power station at the bottom of our gardens, thanks all the same, even though its emissions would be cleaner and more tightly regulated than next door’s 20-year-old Volvo.
I think the second fear for councillors is a general apprehension about new technology. Do these new-fangled European things really work and, more importantly, am I going to risk my political career trying to prove it? Councillors are understandably cautious about things that seem too good to be true and would rather somebody else had a go first. In renewables and life in general, this is probably a good idea: always remember it’s the second mouse to sniff the trap who gets to eat the cheese.
Thirdly, I think it’s perceived issues of cost. There is a misconception that all this technology costs multimillions of pounds, whereas in reality you can buy a 50,000-tonne per annum plastic-to-diesel plant for single figure millions, built and delivered, discount for you my friend if you offer cash in hand. With landfill prices going north of £80 per tonne and the situation in the Middle East looking very insecure, the economics of this technology can only get better.
Finally, I think it’s a general reluctance to do anything risky or hard that stems from the short-term thinking that blights British politics. My brief experiences as an unsuccessful civil servant taught me that being in government is a probably bit like bringing up sulky teenagers. Politicians tend to over-estimate what they can achieve in the short term and under-estimate what they could have achieved in the long term. I might lose the battle with my 16-year-old daughter over skirt lengths but hopefully I will succeed in getting her to stay on at school rather than leave to start a girl band.
In the same vein, spending two years building a plant that turns one tonne of plastic bags into 700 litres of diesel is risky and not going to save money in next year’s budget. In the long term, it will make a huge profit and might act as the catalyst to encourage others to do the same. However, there are precious few votes to be won for being a forward-thinking pioneer, particularly when it comes to recovering energy from waste.
So my plea to local councillors is the unlikely request to learn the lessons from my grandad Ted’s forgetfulness. Don’t be the generation that future generations look back on and think ‘how weird was that?’. Stop giving in to the tabloid press, stop being hypocritical about what cars really are and above all else please stop burying old sunlight because you are too scared to do anything else with it.