Hard-to-manage waste and the circular economy

Gresham House's Peter Bachmann discusses how investing in innovative waste solutions is key to a sustainable future

Recycling is central to achieving a circular economy, where resources are used – and reused – in the most efficient way possible. However, many types of waste cannot be recycled. This poses an enormous problem for the planet, not least because waste is one of the largest contributors to climate change globally.

If food waste were a country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint after the US and China – due to the carbon dioxide and methane it releases when decomposing. Meanwhile, the incineration of inorganic waste – which cannot biodegrade – is resource intensive. Transporting and managing waste also contributes to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

While composting and recycling efforts have advanced, particularly in the treatment of plastic and paper, little progress has been made on tackling hard-to-manage waste – which includes industrial, hazardous, or heavily regulated waste. In fact, as the UK government looks to further segregate waste streams to enable greater levels of recycling, more types of waste are falling into this hard-to-manage category. However, specialist solutions are beginning to emerge from companies developing innovative technologies to convert waste into other usable and valuable new resources.

Kicking construction coal

One difficult type of waste to manage is industrial waste, much of which comes from the construction sector. Construction is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as the sector traditionally burns coal to forge strong building materials such as cement and steel. The sector cannot electrify this process as kilns must reach extremely high temperatures, which electrical sources cannot meet efficiently.

Waste Knot Energy is a UK-based firm providing a valuable solution to this problem. The company has built a plant in Middlesbrough that processes non-recyclable industrial waste – about 300,000 tonnes per year – into highly calorific fuel pellets capable of replacing coal and pet coke in energy intensive manufacturing processes.

This process enables Waste Knot to reduce industrial waste going to landfill, while simultaneously providing an alternative, greener fuel for the construction industry. Following our investment in the company, we conducted a full carbon life cycle analysis on the Middlesbrough plant, which revealed the site generates 668,000 tonnes of CO2 savings annually. The company plans to erect more such plants throughout the UK, in locations including Grimsby and Cardiff, and has already agreed long-term contracts with pellet distributors. These plants will also bring high-quality employment to less developed parts of the country, tying into the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Oil’s well that ends well

Cooking oil is another particularly hard-to-manage waste substance. Due to safety risks, used cooking oil (UCO) cannot be recycled into human or animal food supply chains. This has traditionally resulted in large quantities being sent to landfill.

However, we have invested in a portfolio of bioprocessing and biopower engines that can convert UCO into low-carbon biofuel. The GH Bio-Power group is made up of two complimentary divisions: Living Fuels and Living Power. Living Fuels collects UCO from local authority recycling facilities, restaurants, hotels, and industrial food manufacturers, and recycles it into a biofuel called LF100 through a proprietary mechanical, non-chemical process.

Meanwhile, Living Power owns multiple mobile biodiesel generators that use LF100 to generate and sell electricity during peak pricing times or to balance the National Grid when demand is not met by enough renewable energy supply. Where fossil fuels are typically used to offset this supply/demand imbalance, Living Power is helping decarbonise electricity generation in the UK. These super low carbon mobile generators can also be used to provide temporary, renewable power to construction sites, festivals, or any other off-grid location.

Cracking clinical waste

Due to its hazardous nature, clinical waste produced by the medical industry – everything from used sharps, to syringes, to PPE – is another difficult waste to manage as it must be disposed of in accordance with strict environmental and safety requirements. Clinical waste needs to be incinerated at very high temperatures of about 1,100°C – versus the 850°C required for standard waste disposal. This type of waste is on the rise, following a backlog of elective surgeries caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

We invested in Fornax Environmental Solutions, a company poised to tackle this type of waste. The business will seek to reduce the considerable amount of clinical waste the UK exports for processing by constructing and operating several environmentally friendly, high temperature incinerators across the country, with its first facility planned for County Durham.

Fornax’s plant will charge a gate fee to the providers of waste – hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and universities – to dispose of their clinical waste. It will be one of the first new high temperature incinerators built in the UK in decades and will comply with the highest environmental standards, while also re-deploying process heat into new low carbon heat networks. The company has also identified several sites across the UK where it intends to develop further small-scale high temperature incinerators, providing a healthy pipeline of investments for the long term.

Closed-loop waste solutions such as those highlighted above will become increasingly necessary as the UK and wider global economy transition to a lower carbon future. We will continue to explore local solutions to hard-to-manage waste, with a particular focus on those that can create additional value and enable a circular economy and sustainable future.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...