Our visit to the Energy from Waste (EfW) plant

I had last Friday off work and my friend (also called Jane) suggested we have a spa day – yippee! However we also had the chance to go round the Energy from Waste plant in Devonport so after a little persuasion and the promise of lunch the two Janes went off to meet another Jane (Community engagement officer, EfW). We had lots of questions of our own and some from other people so here is our attempt to share what we learned.

What on earth is that huge building next to the Dockyard in Plymouth?

The building is massive and when we drove up it was amazingly clean and not at all smelly – what a relief! The EfW plant came into operation in 2015 after the South Devon Waste Partnership commissioned the German company (MVV) to build it. The plant is paid for under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

What does it do? 

Basically it takes all our brown bin and black bag rubbish from Plymouth and South Devon, burns it and produces enough electricity via turbines to power itself, the Dockyard and the Naval base – anything left over goes to the National grid.

What happens to the recyclable rubbish if it goes into the brown bins / black bags? 

This seems to be a huge problem as half of the waste the EfW plant takes is from Plymouth and because recycling rates are so low in Plymouth (34%) this means that a lot of things are being burnt that could be recycled. We found out about the waste hierachy – shown below: waste-hierarchy1

EfW is the yellow bit and is quite low down the hierarchy in terms of the most effective way to deal with waste.

Why are recycling rates so low? 

There seems to be mass confusion! The whole Council recycling systems are confusing with different areas recycling different things in a variety of ways. For example, South Hams recycle food whereas Plymouth doesn’t. The reason for this difference is due to the different times that the Councils started recycling and the relative value of the items to be recycled. At the moment cardboard is really valuable so local Councils might focus on getting this and making money.

Another reason particularly in Plymouth is the facilities aren’t always there especially if you are a student in rented accommodation. Plymouth City Council have employed recycling officers and recycling rates have come up a little since fortnightly bin collections came into force.

What happens to the ash produced? 

The ash is turned into aggregate for road building and other outdoor areas such as parks. The EfW plant receives about 122 lorries per day and about 5 lorries filled with ash leave the plant. Some countries like Sweden are putting the ash in unused mines. By using the ash for aggregate this displaces the need to quarry – 60,000 tonnes of ash is equivalent to 1 million tonnes of quarrying.

How much waste do you get through? 

The EfW plant receives about 1000 tonnes of rubbish every day – this is equivalent to 1 days worth of rubbish collection in Plymouth. When we watched the rubbish coming in we saw lots of mattresses and heard a lot of glass tipping into the holding area. Below is a photo of the area where all the rubbish is tipped into and the big grab claw comes down to take it out and put in the fire.


What happens to all the fumes?

This bit was a touch technical but here goes!  The combustion of the waste heats water into steam which not only runs the plant but also is then pumped into the Dockyard to power the various systems such as the heating source. The by product of the burning of the waste produces fumes, these pass through huge filter bags covered in active carbon that take out the chemicals and then baking soda is added to neutralise the chemicals.The filter bags are termed as hazardous waste and go into landfill however this makes up only 3% of the waste products that isn’t reused.

What about people living nearby and the fumes and noise? 

There are really strict guidelines about this and the noise outside the plant compared to inside was huge. Apparently the noise produced outside is under 5 decibels and you can really tell the difference – whatever they have done we need it on our house!

The fumes produced each day are less than a diesel car produces when driving around the City – again this is strictly regulated. Jane from EfW said a bonfire display produces more harmful gases than the EfW in a year! I know she works there but she also lives in the street next to the plant so we were inclined to believe her!

What about plastic? 

The EfW plant ends up burning a lot of plastic because we aren’t good at recycling it. If we burn it then it can’t be recycled and used to make new plastic items therefore reducing the demand on the planet for oil and the raw materials.

Finally a huge thank you to Jane Ford from EfW for showing us round – it was eye opening and has totally changed the way I think about waste!

These are a selection of our photos – any unanswered questions please get in touch!



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