Recycling is the solution

Joseph Doherty, our Managing Director, explains how Northern Ireland’s waste sector can be part of the solution to the climate emergency, rather than a problem

The COP 26 conference in Glasgow has woken the world to the importance of changing habits to provide sustainable solutions to today’s problems.

It has brought a sense of urgency for us all to act to address climate change, to reduce carbon emissions and to arrest global warming thereby leaving the earth in a better place for the next generation.

Without doubt, the waste sector provides one of the best places to enact change to help achieve those goals.

The strides the industry has made in the last decade when it comes to reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill, growing the amount of waste we recycle and recovering energy from the remainder is already impressive, but there is potential for much more.

Re-Gen Waste has been at the forefront of the drive to boost recycling here in Northern Ireland for the last 17 years and currently operates one of the most advanced materials recycling facilities in the world.

Each year since the company’s inception in 2004, the technology it and the wider the sector has developed to increase the efficiency of sorting waste has improved tenfold and is constantly evolving to improve the quality of the recyclables for reuse.

In the very near future, through our continued innovative developments, we will be able to reuse all recoverable fractions from waste in Northern Ireland.

Many of the technologies needed to recycle or recover 100% of our waste already exist but are either in early development or not commercially available just yet. However, with the raft of funding – both from the private and public sector – being made available to support green technologies around the world, it won’t be long before we can get closer to 100%.

A redistribution of funding estimated at £2.7 billion will also focus priorities and energy on recycling materials, following the Extended Producer Responsibility – which will mean producers will pay the full cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste – and the Deposit Return Scheme consultations, which will see a deposit introduced for single use drinks cartons.

When you consider the remarkable progress made in recycling since Re-Gen’s inception in 2004 and the increased speed of change during this period, Northern Ireland must keep up with best practice processes to ensure we can meet our goals.

To give any credence to the arc21 proposal to burn all our waste to generate electricity would appear a retrograde step, one which has Northern Ireland looking back at a solution which was acceptable 20 years ago and not looking to the future and its achievable solutions.

Re-Gen, and others in the industry, have proven that Northern Ireland’s waste can be a valuable commodity, one which provides processes to reuse and recycle materials and which is not constantly calling on earth’s resources for new virgin materials. If we build an incinerator to burn these valuable materials, they will be gone forever leaving only ash to landfill and carbon going to the atmosphere which will increase global warming.

So what does Re-Gen do now? We do send waste to incineration but to highly efficient heat and power facilities in Norway and Sweden where they have existing heat networks in their towns and cities. Those networks maximise the energy recovered from burning the waste. As we develop new processes and integrate new developed technologies into our business, we will gradually reduce the amount of waste sent to these plants only what cannot be recycled at that time.

One stark fact differentiates what is carried out in Sweden and Norway and what is planned by arc21. These countries have an underground heat network, Northern Ireland doesn’t. It would take billions of pounds to retro-fit such systems and in a time of budgetary constraint other more necessary infrastructure should take precedence in Northern Ireland.

The old adage applies here, “If it is not broken, don’t try to fix it”. The fact is that Re-Gen and multiple other local private operators have invested in facilities which could treat all of Northern Ireland’s waste and allow change to occur as the technology develops. Why build something with ratepayers’ support which is not needed?

Instead, Northern Ireland should utilise existing processing capacity through Re-Gen and others, allowing us to continue to innovate and turn Northern Ireland’s waste sector into a very important part of the climate solution in the future.

As COP26 has shown, the winds of sustainability have swung in the favour of the environment; it’s up to us to make the important decisions now to use those winds to create a better future for the next generation. Let us not pollute the verdant environment of Northern Ireland which our children will inherit.