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Game changers: How Viridor is developing modern solutions for modern problems

12th December 2019

*This article first appeared in the December 2019 edition of Energy, Oil and Gas magazine

Modern problems require modern solutions. While waste management has been a matter of discussion for decades, today, the process is more closely associated with the goals of the climate agenda than ever.

This calls for a significant increase in efficiency and integration with other processes in an attempt to create a holistic circular economy and respond to the challenges the planet is facing.

In the vision of Viridor – a market-leading recycling, renewable energy, and waste management company – the former of the three is just one component that needs to be taken care of.

Playing in tune with the renewed vigour with which a circular economy is being pursued, the company aims to maximise recycling while, at the same time, minimise landfill by diverting nonrecyclable waste in the production of useful, green baseload electricity and heat via energy recovery facilities (ERFs).

By doing this, it also strives to complement the shift towards typically intermittent renewable energy.

“Here, in the UK, we are still struggling to realise the recycling rates the public is hoping for. We at Viridor are working with our local authority partners to make sure people are putting the right stuff in the right bin, but we’re also investing in new recycling facilities and upgrades back by long-term contracts. Alongside recycling, our ERF portfolio uses black bin bag waste to deliver lowcarbon energy from waste that otherwise could not be recycled,” begins Phil Piddington, Managing Director of Viridor.

“The next leg of the journey towards a circular economy is to develop what we call ‘energy parks’, where the ERF units are built next to recycling assets and as close as possible to landfill sites, so that the different functions these facilities play can be brought together.”

A telling example of Phil’s latter claim is the agreement Viridor signed with Dutch company CarbonOro at the beginning of November. The collaboration will see the delivery of the world’s first gas clean-up system, which transforms landfill gas into transport fuels in a process, which also
allows the successful capture of CO2.

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Another programme that highlights the benefits of trying to make the most of landfill sites, includes a partnership between Viridor and water purification company LAT Water in a pilot project demonstrating how landfill gas energy can be harnessed to extract water from the leachate produced at a Devon landfill site.

The project will use low-grade heat from Viridor’s landfill gas engines at ambient pressure to concentrate the leachate and extract the water, achieving environmental benefits in retaining the water resource while reducing CO2 emissions by a potential 80 per cent reduction in tankering requirements.

Viridor is proud to be offering solutions specifically within the UK. The organisation has now grown into the unique position of being the biggest UK-owned recycling and energy recovery company, working with over 150 local authority and major corporate clients with 32,000 customers across the country. As such, it has created and continues to extend a large network of advanced recycling, energy recovery, and landfill diversion facilities. 

One of the business’ latest projects is the construction of a £252m resource recovery centre (RRC) in Avonmouth, which is being developed at the same time as a £65m multi-polymer plastic plant on the same site.

“The ERF will divert 320,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste away from landfill. It will transform this waste into fuel to create 282GWh of electricity, which will power the facility itself, as well as the multi-plastics plant, which will be the largest of its kind in the UK,” Phil discusses.

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Speaking in a greater detail about the plastics plant, he points out that  because recycling plants are energy-intensive, the integrated project will leverage environmental efficiency and cost benefits. 

“It will create a sophisticated plastics recycling and reprocessing centre in the South West, which taps into the low-carbon power created by the ERF. In year one, it will produce 60KTPA of recycled plastic (PET, HDPE, and PP flake and pellet) from 81KTPA feedstock, rising to 89KTPA in year three, producing 63KTPA of recycled material.”

Phil goes on to describe the strategic importance of the plant: “There is considerable demand for recycled plastic due to the sustainability targets of the consumer brands we are proud to partner with. Crucially, further demand will be fuelled by legislation such as the 2022 plastics tax, which will come into effect for material that has less than 30 per cent recycled plastic. Therefore, our investment in the plant and the replication of the model it follows elsewhere in the UK, will be vital, if we are to address the plastic reprocessing capacity gap in the country.”

The opening of the Glasgow Recycling & Renewable Energy Complex (GRREC) in August will go down as one of the major highlights of 2019 for Viridor. Operated by the company on behalf of Glasgow City Council, it is a first for the country and has the capacity to divert more than 200,000 tonnes of the city’s waste from landfill every year, using state-of-the-art technology. The GRREC also has the ability to extract recyclable material from general waste and boost Glasgow’s overall recycling rates, diverting 90 per cent of all council waste from landfill and saving 90,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

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“Three main technologies make up the GRREC,” Phil adds. “First, we have a  smart recycling facility, which extracts recyclable material from general waste to create a refuse derived fuel (RDF) that can be further processed to release energy.

"Then, there is the anaerobic digestion facility using bacteria to break down organic waste and release methane for fuel to generate enewable electricity. Finally, the advanced conversion facility (ACF) heats the RDF, thus creating a gas, which is captured and combusted to generate steam, which powers a turbine to generate renewable electricity exported to the National Grid.”

What was remarkable about the construction of the facility is that the commissioning ended up as a self-delivery by Viridor, after the company  had to terminate the contract with its main contractor, Interserve.

“Building an ERF is a complex project. Consequently, even more complex facilities like the GRREC with three parts and using gasification technology, which was a first for Viridor and for Scotland,” Phil comments.

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“We have learned some valuable lessons and we have modified the detailed due diligence process we conduct on our contractors, because there really are a lot of boxes that need to be ticked.

"Of course, we look at pure technical capability, depth and breadth of skills and resources, but also at specific experience in successful delivery of complex ERF projects. Contractors can work across many sectors and often do so seamlessly, at GRREC we saw that ERFs require unique experience and require the full contract team to commit to solely working on that one project. They can’t manage multiple projects like these at the same time.

“Furthermore, technology providers need to understand the very specific types of technology that we want to install,” he continues. “Gasification gets everyone excited, but it is still being established as a proven technology and every ERF is slightly different. We used gasification technology at GRREC because that was the specification our client requested and it’s working well now the ERF is operating, but it needs carefully configuring and takes longer to optimise.

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"At the end of the day, we completed that project ourselves under significant pressure, but I am exceptionally pleased with the fantastic effort from our technical team who have done an excellent job. They stepped in, finished the plant, and took it successfully through commissioning. Of course, the journey has just begun, as we continue to optimise performance improvements to increase its efficiency.”

It is precisely the strong skillset of its personnel that gives Phil confidence that Viridor will maintain its position at the forefront of the recycling and energy recovery industry. He emphasises, though, that no marked progress
in the space can be achieved unless all stakeholders collaborate and work towards a common objective. This involves establishing and deepening fruitful partnerships with the Government, local authorities, commercial and
industrial customers, and local communities.

“There is no doubt that both the Government and the society are willing to take bolder decisions in tackling the issues at hand. The ‘Blue Planet’ effect continues to encourage action and we are happy to see the Government’s Resources & Waste strategy aligned to our own strategy, with plastics on a fast track. It is quite interesting to observe that there is a universal consensus between all political parties that more needs to be done to encourage recycling and increased recycled content across packaging.

"In this situation, however, it is all about the different methods of implementation that are being proposed. One of our key messages is that everyone needs to be extremely careful, lest they do it in the wrong way that may well destroy previous investments in the sector. As a chairman of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), I am in constant dialogue with the Government, trying to get them to understand what good implementation looks like,” Phil explains.

“As far as collaboration goes, the UK Plastics Pact of which we are a founding member, is a very good example of how we can bring the entire plastics packaging value chain behind a common vision, which is, namely, to create a future where plastics never become waste. It is our firm belief that everyone has to play their role in increasing recycling rates and if we all approach the challenges with a solutions-focused mind, we should be able to meet the ambitious targets we have set ourselves by 2025,” he reasons.

The UK Plastics Pact has committed to eliminating problematic or unnecessary singleuse packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative delivery models. A lot of work has already been done by Viridor and other organisation members in conjunction with large retailers such as Unilever, Marks & Spencer, and Sainsbury’s, to replace black plastic trays with colourful ones, thus enabling the higher recyclability of the latter.

This and other innovative initiatives are expected to help the UK Plastics Pact achieve objectives such as having 100 per cent of plastics packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and 70 per cent of it being effectively recycled or composted, within the next five-year period. 

In conclusion, Phil expects the UK residual waste market dynamics to remain favourable, with demand for ERFs exceeding the capacity into the long term.

He wraps up: “Given our confidence in the business climate and our ongoing investment in growth projects, we anticipate Viridor’s strong contribution to Pennon Group’s profit to continue to increase. We are currently assessing three further ERF options where we see under-capacity in the local market and the opportunity for attractive long-term contracts. As mentioned earlier, the company is also keen on replicating the co-location model, which places energy-intensive recycling and reprocessing operations alongside our sophisticated ERFs. In this way, innovation, investment, and a focus on our contribution to the circular economy, resource, and energy efficiency will continue to be at the heart of what we do.”

For further information please contact:

pressoffice@pennon-group.co.uk