Having been out with the bin men in Cottingley, I was keen to see what happens to the rubbish they collect. I got the opportunity to have a tour of the Leeds Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility (which is the massive building with a shiny roof you can see in the distance as you travel down Dewsbury Road towards town) – it is the destination of all the black bin waste across Leeds. Its main purpose is to incinerate waste and capture the energy produced (in the form of electricity and heat). The facility also sorts the waste, prior to incineration, to remove some of the recyclable materials which we’ve put in our black bins.
I arrive at the imposing looking building not quite knowing what to expect, I’m taken up to the 7th floor visitor centre and made to feel very welcome. The visitor centre takes bookings from schools and community groups, so I’d recommend other people/groups take the time to go for a visit. If you want to arrange a visit contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
After a safety video (and test!), I start to learn about the facility. What it does is mind boggling. It can process over 50 tonnes of waste an hour (24/7), of which over 20 tonnes can be burnt per hour, producing around 11 Megawatts of power which is fed into the National Grid. Once the furnace is ignited, extra fuel is not typically needed, the ash from the burnt waste is sent off to be used for building materials (such as roads) and the gases released when burning are thoroughly cleaned before being released into the atmosphere.
Impressively, the process that is used to clean the gasses released produces an alkaline product which is treated off site at a facility which uses it to neutralise acidic waste, making the facility as close to 0% waste as possible.
The tour starts by going down to the control room, which is manned 24/7. You can see into the pit which is where waste is held before it goes into the incinerator. There is a grabber that is like a supersized arcade machine, except that it can pick up 6 tonnes! It operates in automatic mode or manual mode, and the operator in the room lets me sit in the seat! I got two ‘grabs’, picking up 2.6 tonnes in my first attempt and then 3.9 tonnes in my second attempt. Each time, once I’d picked up the waste with the grabber, I just had to press a button and the machine then directs the grabber to put the waste into the chute leading to the incinerator.
In the control room there were all sorts of displays and screens monitoring the process of burning waste, the heat in the furnace (that has to remain above 850 degrees), and the quality of the steam leaving the building through the stack.
Inside the main plant facility, we walked around on metal walk-ways, but we could see down to the ground floor (which looks a long way away if you’re on the 7th floor), I was struck by how smoothly everything ran, how quiet it was, how the smell was ok, not what I expected at all. This is a clean and well run facility. Along the way the waste is shifted and sorted, with infrared sensors to separate off recyclable materials (which are sent to another facility) and broken down in size so that it burns well.
As we finish the tour back on the 7th floor, we come out by the green wall which is some 30 meters high and 125 meters wide, which adds a much softer, gentler feel to the building (and is one of the largest walled gardens in Europe).
The amount of waste we produce as a city is enormous, the challenge for all of us to reduce the amount we produce (which is easier said than done). Lots of it from sources which surprised me, for example the most recent analysis showed that food waste could be as much as 30% of the content of Leeds’ black bin waste (a clear indication of the need for food waste collections in Leeds).
The waste management plans of Leeds needs to continue to move forward and the amount of waste we recycle clearly needs to increase, however processing our waste through this facility rather than sending it to landfill is a huge step forward. The facility is only in its fourth year of operation and there are plans to use the energy it produces even more effectively (for example through the planned district heating scheme) and I look forward to hearing about future developments of this facility and inputting into the Leeds recycling plans.
This post was written by Cllr Andrew Scopes
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