Find out all about the city’s biggest CO2 emitter
If you head southeast out of Birmingham along the Grand Union Canal, the buildings and noises of the city are quickly left behind and the landscape becomes greener.
The remaining industrial structures on the right bank — a timber factory, some old warehouses, an electricity substation — disappear when, shortly after passing under Golden Hillrock Rd, the canal turns first to the left and then to the right, and you reach a densely wooded area. It seems that, at last, the city surrenders to nature.
But this fantasy ends abruptly. Because suddenly an 80-metre-high chimney appears behind the trees: we have arrived in Tyseley, one of the city’s industrial districts. And that is the chimney of the huge plant that, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for more than 25 years, has been burning Birmingham’s rubbish.
The Tyseley plant
The plant, officially called Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) because it produces electricity by incinerating waste, was built in 1996 by Veolia ES Birmingham — local subsidiary of Veolia Group, a French multinational with 179,000 employees.
It was built as part of a £750 million contract started in 1994 under which the council delegated the disposal of the city’s waste to the company.
The ERF has two boilers that can process 23.5 tonnes of waste each and, thanks to a steam-driven turbo-generator, exports some 25MW of power to the National Grid.
Veolia also manages Birmingham’s five Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs), where dry recycling material is collected.
The technology of burning waste to produce energy is often referred to generically as Energy from Waste (EfW) and is not new, but has gained momentum over the last few decades as a way to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, which emit large amounts of methane, a highly polluting gas.
The logic is simple, attractive and sounds renewable: using what is no longer in use to produce a scarce and expensive resource such as energy.
But not all that glitters is gold.
Waste incineration produces huge emissions of carbon dioxide and minor emissions of toxic elements such as dioxins, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and heavy metals.
The by-products of combustion are so-called incinerator bottom ash (IBA) and hazardous air pollution control residues (APCr).
According to Veolia, 95% of Tyseley’s incinerator bottom ashes are reprocessed to produce “a graded, quality material that is useable as substitute aggregate in such applications as road building,” while the highly alkaline hazardous residues are “transported in sealed powder-tankers and used to neutralise acidic wastes to produce a neutral filter-cake material.”
“Unfortunately, we won’t be conducting tours of the ERF for the foreseeable,” was the response from a Veolia spokesperson when I asked to visit the plant for the purposes of this article.
The chimney around the corner
From the sky, Tyseley looks like a white and grey stain that contrasts with the surrounding area. Most of the buildings in the neighbourhood are large factories and warehouses of companies involved in waste, energy, plastics and metals.
Its streets are long and dirty, uninhabited by people, but with a lot of vehicles.
George Road is different. It starts about 400 metres north-east of the incinerator and consists of a succession of humble houses, identical to each other, with a few trees until, 200 metres further on, it ends at the busy Coventry Road.
The residents of the quiet George Road are probably the people who live closest to the Tyseley ERF.
Amir is one of them. He has just left his house and apologises because he says he doesn’t speak English very well.
“Six or seven months ago there was some bad smell coming from the plant, but not any more,” he says. “It’s not bad now, it’s just something that happens from time to time.”
He is aware that at the foot of the tall chimney that can be seen from his front door the rubbish of the whole of Birmingham burns day and night. But he says he doesn’t pay too much attention to it and that the proximity of the big incinerator doesn’t keep him awake at night: “I don’t know the impact in the health, but normally I don’t see any issues.”
On its website, Veolia does not publish data on the plant’s air emissions. Instead it produces a monthly graph, without exact figures, on the percentage of some emissions compared to the limits allowed by the Environmental Agency, to whom it reports. The latest available emissions data on Veolia’s website is from September 2021.
In 2019, the plant took in some 342,000 tonnes of waste and produced 72,000 tonnes of IBA (21%) and 8,374 tonnes of APCr (2.4%). Emissions were always within the permitted limits.
It also consumed 775,485 litres of fuel oil and some 142 million litres of water — about 56 full Olympic swimming pools.
We only know those figures because John Newson, a campaigner from Birmingham Friends of the Earth, obtained the company’s 2019 Annual Performance Report through a FOI request to the Environment Agency.
In the neighbourhood there are others who share Amir’s views and, like him, prefer not to give their surname when sharing their testimony.
“I’ve lived here for two years. I’m not worried,” says Rasee who also lives on George Road.
A third resident, Raja, says he has never heard of any problems with the plant and is sure that “they take all the care to make it safe to the public.”
There are currently 57 active EfW facilities in the UK, according to BEIS’ data, with the Tyseley facility being the fourth oldest still in operation.
Several environmental organisations such as UK Without Incineration Network and Birmingham Friends of the Earth campaign against incinerators but so far there is no solid evidence that, if safety standards are respected, they cause major health risks to the populations living nearby.
Two of the largest studies conducted to measure the health risks of municipal waste incineration, in 2019 and 2020, concluded after analysing thousands of cases that living within 10 km of an incinerator does not imply an increased health risk during pregnancy and early life, although one did find “small excess risks associated with congenital heart defects and genital anomalies.”
The study points out, however, that it can neither be established nor denied that incinerators are responsible.
Other arguments put forward by environmentalists are that incineration discourages recycling and that the efficiency of these plants is low.
“The [Tyseley] plant is expensive and not sustainable as a source of electricity for a number of reasons,” argues The Way Forward for Birmingham’s Waste report, published in 2017 by Birmingham Friends of the Earth. “The efficiency is low, when the start-up oil or gas and the power used in running the plant is taken into account, and very low if the collection vehicles bringing in the rubbish are included. Its ‘fuel’ has changed greatly from when it was built; for example paper has declined and plastic has been diverted”
A successful business
According to its latest financial reports, Veolia ES Birmingham is not doing badly.
Between 2015 and 2020, its annual revenue increased by 42% from £39.2m to £55.2m, driven mainly by its rendering of services, while its cost of sales increased by only 22%.
And while in 2015 it paid £1.06 million in tax, in 2020 it paid £814,000, almost 25% less.
At the time of publishing this article, the company did not respond to questions about the reasons for this rapid increase in revenue.
In 2019, when the 25-year contract with Birmingham City Council came to an end, Veolia managed to successfully renew it for a further five years. It was a last-minute decision by the Cabinet that provoked controversy because the Resources Committee warned of the possible economic and legal inconveniences of doing so.
The improvisation was evident, as the council itself had highlighted several years earlier the importance of looking for alternatives before 2019.
According to public reports, the new contract until 2024 is for £87.5 million. But as the fine print is secret it is not clear whether it also includes those monthly expenses that appear every month in the city’s accounts as paid to Veolia under names other than “WD Veolia Contract”. These are details such as “WD Gas Bottles”, “WD Tyres” and “APC-Fly Ash Disposal,” among others, which in February 2022 alone totalled more than £187,000.
Carbon for you all
Perhaps the biggest issue about Energy from Waste is the huge amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by these facilities at a particularly critical time.
On 11 June 2019 the council declared a “climate crisis” and made a commitment to make the city net zero carbon by 2030. The Tyseley plant, however, is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Birmingham and the third largest in the West Midlands.
In 2020, to produce 175,003 MWh of electricity, it released 326,350 tonnes of CO2, according to financial reports submitted by Veolia and data from the Environment Agency.
That is the equivalent of a CO2 cube about 80 metres on a side every day.
The Birmingham Energy Institute at the University of Birmingham have said that calling energy produced by incineration ‘renewable’ is “misleading” because it burns so much plastic and because steam turbines are inefficient.
By 2024, it pointed out, when the UK’s ban on burning coal to generate electricity comes into force, “incinerators will be the highest CO2-emitting form of baseload electricity generation.”
Moreover, the vast majority of UK incinerators — and the Tyseley ERF is no exception — do not use the heat generated for heating as is done in other countries such as Sweden, making them even less efficient.
Between 2010 and 2019, Birmingham cut its annual CO2 emissions from 5.67 million tonnes to 4.03 million tonnes, a drop of nearly 30%, according to BEIS data.
Over the same period, emissions from Tyseley plant rose from 263,000 tonnes to 308,000 tonnes.
In other words: if the plant previously emitted 4.6% of the city’s total CO2 emissions, it is now responsible for 7.4%. And if overall emissions continue their downward trend, but Tyseley’s emissions remain the same, that percentage will keep increasing.
That seems the most likely scenario, as in the Waste Strategy 2017–2040 the council proposed to invest an extra £44.2 million in the plant over the next few years, deliberately neglecting other types of waste processing technology, such as anaerobic digestion, which would have allowed food waste to be treated.
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In 2020, the council went a step further in its strategy to support incineration, publishing a tender for a £490 million contract under the title “Tyseley Energy Recovery Facility, Waste Transfer Stations and Household Waste Recycling Centres — Operate Maintain and Renewal.”
The new contract to manage the city’s waste and the Tyseley plant will start in 2024, when Veolia’s contract comes to an end.
It is initially for ten years “with an option to extend up to a further 5 years.”
It looks like George Road residents will keep looking at the big chimney around the corner until 2034. Or perhaps until 2039.
At least Tyseley takes plastics out of the environment and uses the chemical energy in the waste to generate electricity and heat. This should be applauded not denigrated. Plastic in the environment is with us until it is removed by bacteria (takes millennia) atmospheric carbon dioxide will eventually be removed by chemical processes like photosynthesis (or, for instance) formic acid synthesis by catalysis.