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One person’s waste is another person’s energy

Dublin Waste-to-Energy facility’s stock in trade is the rubbish in your ‘dirty’ bin

Dublin Waste-to-Energy lights up in blue to honour healthcare and emergency services workers. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Dublin Waste-to-Energy lights up in blue to honour healthcare and emergency services workers. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

 

The Dublin Waste-to-Energy facility in Poolbeg turned blue in honour of frontline healthcare workers during the early part of the pandemic.

It was an act of solidarity from a fellow essential service provider. “We stayed open all through Covid, enabling energy to be generated and waste to be collected from streets,” says project director Kieran Mullins.

The plant is a public-private partnership between Dublin City Council and Covanta, an international sustainable waste and energy solutions company.

The facility opened in 2017, providing a sustainable alternative for waste that could not be reused or recycled, by converting it to electricity.

“Since we opened we have taken in 1.9 million tonnes of waste and converted it to 1.4 million megawatt hours of electricity. In other words, that’s enough electricity to power 100,000 homes per year,” says Mullins, who has been with the plant since 2015, when it was still under construction.

The facility’s stock in trade is all the rubbish that goes into your “dirty” bin. “It’s what you’d see in your household waste bin, post recycling and composting. If it didn’t come here it would either go for landfill or be exported to Europe.”

Taking such waste and turning it into electricity is a good example of the “circular economy”, he says. It works on the basis that one person’s waste is another’s treasure, you just have to connect them.

“We are taking non-recyclable waste and putting it to a useful purpose.”

In so doing the facility meets the aims of the EU’s Energy Union strategy, designed to reduce the bloc’s dependency on energy imports. “It’s all about ensuring secure, sustainable energy sources,” he says.

There are about 450 waste-to-energy plants around Europe, contributing 1.5 per cent of the union’s energy usage.

“That’s energy that is not coming from fossil fuels such as coal and oil. When you compare it to landfill, it’s reducing greenhouse gases, too. Yes we do emit carbon dioxide, but it is 35 times less harmful to the atmosphere than the methane gas that comes from landfill,” he says.

Highly automated

It is among the most advanced waste-to-energy plants in the world and, though it employs 100 people, is highly automated, with some 4,500 automated touch points.

Many of the concerns people had about the plant before it opened have been allayed, helped by the posting of emissions data online, he says. Its open-door policy has helped too. Last year it received 3,000 visitors, many of them school tours.

People see “we are operating a very safe and secure facility, that there are no odours coming from the facility, and that our dioxin levels are way below what is on our licence,” he says. It is currently applying to accept an additional 90,000 tonnes into the facility each year.

Waste-to-energy doesn’t just mean importing less fossil fuels such as coal, it also reduces the requirement for diesel-burning ships to bring it in.

Last year China stopped receiving soft plastics, leaving many countries looking to dispose of such waste in poorer countries. Ireland should, he believes, take responsibility for dealing with its own waste.

That includes the 350,000 tonnes of waste it exports to Europe every year, which goes to European waste-to-energy plants. “We are exporting our energy source,” he says.

The Poolbeg plant will also play a part in the Dublin District Heating System, a thermal energy network that will distribute hot water through insulated pipeline to residential housing, starting with the former Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend.

“The waste heat from our facility will be able to heat 50,000 homes, again reducing the need for fossil fuels.”