Two trains a day, each carrying 900 tonnes of domestic waste, would leave Liverpool for Teesside, and on arrival, the cargo would be burnt to produce energy.
This £1.2bn deal between the Merseyside Waste Authority and a North East-based consortium could lead to a £200m investment in a new Energy from Waste (EfW) plant on the Wilton complex at Redcar, creating more than 250 jobs.
However, it has not gone down well on Merseyside, prompting a High Court legal challenge with the city’s Mayor leading calls for the contract to be awarded locally.
Historically, the UK has sent its commercial and domestic waste to landfill or exported it to Germany or the Netherlands, where it is burned and used to heat homes.
But UK Government taxes and EU directives designed to reduce landfill use are having results – just under 47m tonnes of waste was sent to landfill last year, compared with just over 84m tonnes in 2001.
This has produced a significant fillip to the UK EfW industry with more than 30 plants now built or proposed.
One of the Wilton consortium members, SITA, already has a similar 30MW EfW waste north of the Tees, at Haverton Hill, and is set to expand this after winning the contract to handle County Durham’s waste – it already converts Northumberland’s waste into electricity.
Near to this, in Billingham, US gases giant Air Products is building a new £250m EfW plant, with plans to build a second nearby.
Ben Messenger, managing editor of industry publication Waste Management World, believes Teesside is placing itself at the UK hub for the EfW industry and the Merseyside contract may be a precursor.
He said: “As more landfills close, it is becoming more common to transport waste further as there are fewer facilities where it can be disposed.
“It’s not uncommon to transport waste in some form quite long distances – although it’s better if it has been processed first and all the recyclables and organics have been removed for reprocessing.
“The Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority contract is proposing to transport an unusually-large amount of residual waste quite a long way, but SITA argue the carbon cost of doing that is mitigated by the use of rail.
“Teesside seems pretty open to these types of facilities, and the hundreds of millions of investment they bring, and already has a couple, with more in the pipeline.
“With the areas good road and rail links, as well as electricity grid infrastructure, I think Teesside is looking to make itself a hub.”
John Barton, chairman of the North East Sustainable Resources Board, which brings together the various elements of the region’s waste industry, says we need to change the way we view waste.
He said: “Whatever the merits of incineration over other technologies, what we see is continued and growing imports of waste into the region. So what’s wrong with that? As long as we redefine waste as resources, we can think of it in the same way as any other raw material or commodity – it means jobs, growth and prosperity.
“What we have in Tees Valley is a region that is batting above its weight when it comes to recovering value from waste.
“Yes, this means that we are importing larger and larger volumes of waste into the region, but think of it as a valuable resource, one that is creating jobs and prosperity here.”
In many areas, proposals for waste incineration plants of the types proposed and operated by SITA in the North East provoke local opposition.
Many communities argue strongly against the smell and increased road traffic, as well as concerns over the release of toxins. The plants also emit similar levels of carbon dioxide as some fossil fuel plants – although SITA argues its plant will cut CO² emissions overall, after taking into account the impact of reducing methane gas emissions from landfill.
However, the plant being developed by Air Products at Billingham employs an emerging technology which also has the benefit of slashing greenhouse gas emissions. It uses a plasma gasification process during which the waste is heated in the presence of a controlled amount of oxygen, but without combustion.
This produces a syngas, which can be used to produce electricity or alternatively be used as a green transport fuel, or for use in chemical production.
The syngas produced by the Air Products plasma gasification plant is composed mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, with smaller quantities of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
The carbon dioxide emissions are around 50g/kWh, which is far lower than coal, at around 850g/kWh, and gas, at around 350g/kWh.
Work began at the 35MW Air Products facility earlier this year. It is expected to open this time next year, providing around 80 full-time jobs.
Stephen Catchpole, managing director at Tees Valley Unlimited, said: “There cannot be many projects of this size under construction anywhere else in the UK. Tees Valley is once again showing how well we do large-scale development, how we help the country in terms of energy production and how we lead the way in the advancement of a low carbon agenda using new technology.
“Renewable energy is an exciting opportunity for Tees Valley. It fits with our green agenda, offering jobs and investment in the immediate term, and could, in the future, help our existing process sector in terms of power and feedstock availability.
“It is encouraging to see traditional engineering skills being at the heart of a brand new reinvention of the Tees Valley area.”
Optimists suggest that when the sector matures EfW can contribute up to 8% of the UK’s power needs.
Lisa Jordan, business manager in bio energy at Air Products, said: “The UK is seeking more sustainable ways to manage and dispose of its waste, and is looking to diversify its sources of electricity generation. Our technology is able to deliver on both counts. It certainly has to be part of the mix as more waste is diverted from landfill.
“Waste is an habitual energy platform. It cannot fill the whole gap, but it is a renewable energy source which can operate as a base load option. I have previously described this project as a game changer in the waste industry.
“Indeed, if Air Products have their way, we can see a future where the chemical process industry in Tees Valley, an industry founded on cheaper North Sea Oil which is no longer available, has a new future founded on a green feedstock which up until now we have been content to burn or bury.”