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Going underground: Waste technology that could revolutionise recycling rates

In an attempt to become more eco-efficient and with more stringent waste legislations being introduced worldwide, some businesses and governments are looking at ways to meander from current waste management and literally go underground….

It’s common knowledge that many industries are dying out due to the imminent rise in technologies. For decades machines have been gradually replacing the human hand, taking over in ways we wouldn’t have thought possible years ago.

When people think of new and emerging technologies, the waste industry probably isn’t the first one that springs to mind. However, there has never been a time in history when waste management has been such a grave concern to businesses and individuals alike, prompting governments worldwide to look at alternative ways of dealing with their waste.

Growing populations, lesser resources and threats to global health and the environment are just a few of the factors that are becoming a perilous issue for countries around the globe.

In a recent World Bank report, governments have been urged to take action. It is estimated that municipal waste will rise from 1.3 billion tonnes a year to 2.2 billion by 2025 if immediate action isn’t taken.

In the UK, published figures show that recycling rates have risen fractionally, currently achieving 45% of target. However, it also indicates that the European target of 50% may not be accomplished by 2020, leaving the UK open to the risk of being fined by the European Commission.

The UK Government is aware of the perilous situation and is looking at a number of ways to incentivise and support landlords, property developers and other businesses that innovate where recycling is concerned. Incentives include cash sums and ongoing business development growth and support.

According to a recent Government report, Dan Rogerson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management said, “I want businesses to manage all resources more efficiently by using less while creating more. Products should be designed to use fewer resources from the start and with longer lifetimes, repair and reuse in mind. Services for householders and businesses should make preventing waste and using reuse and repair services easier. I want to see less waste created in the first place, but where there is waste, I want to see it used as a resource and its potential maximised.”

One of the key objectives the report maintains is to “…encourage businesses to contribute to a more sustainable economy by building waste reduction into design, offering alternative business models and delivering new and improved products and services.”

Ultimately the key aim is for “…landfill being the last resort.”

With the huge and very pressing demand for new and effective waste technologies, environmental scientists and engineers are looking at ways to drive forward change in the industry as a whole, with the ultimate outcome being a more sustainable approach and a circular economy.

One particular technology that is revolutionising the waste industry abroad is the Underground Waste Management System.

India has recently been the very first country to implement such a system in the world’s first ‘Smart City’ – which includes an ‘integrated automated waste and recyclable segregation plant’, covering 886 acres in the Gujarat region of Gandhinagar.

These cities are becoming a popular choice for densely populated areas with high levels of urbanisation, with some property developers seeing it as a key strategy in attracting environmentally-conscious buyers.

The Underground Waste Management System takes all commercial and household waste below street level, diminishing the need for bins, street-level waste and rubbish lorries by using separation inlets that work on sensors.

The user separates their rubbish into three waste streams: Organic waste (card and food), mixed dry waste (aluminium cans, glass and plastic) and general waste. It is then taken to the courtyard area of that particular development, where the user puts the waste down the appropriate inlet. The waste falls into the basement holding area, where the valves are programmed to open when required. The waste travels through an underground network of pipes, where it can run at speeds of up to 70km per hour. It is then taken to a central compacter where it is compressed, miles away from its original interception.

Marketing and Communications Director Jonas Törnblom from Envac, the Swedish environmental technology company behind the underground system belives that sending waste below street-level is the way forward in creating a sustainable, more hygienic solution that will eventually see the demand for landfill decrease, ”Predominantly we believe that everything in the city is connected. All infrastructure is part of a network, except for waste management, which is still handled the same way it was 200 years ago. It’s an individual service built up by manual work.

“There’s no point in having waste trucks in the city and waste bins in the open and public ground, with all the negative costs involved; the noise, congestion, hygienic problems and health and safety. So, this is the basic philosophy for it. By installing these underground networks of waste pipes, you can get much closer to the houses, rather than access by a lorry to the individual house. This means that the waste disposable inlet can be based from a convenience point of view much more easily than having a waste lorry driving up to the building. So, there is an increase in convenience for the users.

“By the convenience and by the location of these inlet points, we can improve recycling because we can make these disposal points attractive as part of the development or part of the area. For example, next to a garden or a bicycle rack where people gather at social points where people are much more concerned with waste separation and recycling.

“This is not so easily done if you have conventional bins, which are always collected on a fixed routine; where you have a weekly or a bi-weekly collection. For example, if you have had a long weekend which accumulates more waste, the bins fill up more quickly, you have overflow and it becomes untidy. They don’t empty automatically by sensors.”

The system which runs on a vacuum-style technology itself isn’t entirely a new concept. The first such system was designed in the 60s with hospitals being the first to use them. However, the technology is advancing and becoming more sophisticated with foreign countries being quicker adopters than the UK.

Jonas continues, “At the moment, we’ve seen a very quick adaption in South East Asia, in countries such as Singapore, Korea and Japan. They have a situation where they have a problem with high temperatures, humidity and a lot of organic waste which deteriorates, causing a range of problems. In order to get maximum use of their buildings – they have to store waste in such a way that they don’t get cockroaches, rats and flies etc. So, this is a very convenient way to store it underground.

“They are super-Asian societies. They cannot plan for the future, so they have to automate as much as possible. If they can do this at the same time, they increase hygiene factors and the liveability of the area. In Asia, these are the driving factors and the biggest markets we have at the moment.”

The Envac system has over 700 installations in 30 countries from whole districts to individual apartment blocks, commercial buildings, hospitals and airports. The UK is a late adopter of underground waste technology with only one property developer implementing the Envac system so far in Wembley City. The complex houses 4,200 residential apartments, a retail boulevard, offices, student accommodation and a hotel.

Jonas adds, “Wembley was installed in 2008 where we received a lot of publicity and awards. We achieved recycling rates that were unseen before in this type of multi-family dwelling.

Spokesperson for the Wembley development, Rebecca Beeson said “The regeneration of Wembley Park has been under way for over a decade. Developing on such a large scale has offered interesting challenges and opportunities in terms of how to approach social and environmental infrastructure.

“As well as improving the local environment, Wembley Park’s existing 1,000 residents report that Envac fosters neighbourly conversations and connections which would never occur in a bin store environment.

“Its installation offered the benefit of reducing the noise and traffic movement of collection vehicles as well as freeing space within buildings which would otherwise be used for waste system infrastructure.”

Whilst the Underground Waste Management System seems like an obvious solution for the reduction in recycling rates, it isn’t without its many challenges, meaning its widespread implementation in the UK could be a long way off. Jonas continues, “The problem that we have in the UK is that, although it is appreciated by the advantages it brings to the developer and the building owner, it’s difficult to find a model for the ownership.

“In Wembley, the developer was a good partner who wanted to take long-term responsibility for it. Unfortunately other developers in the UK are in for the short-term, who are out after a few years once they have sold the buildings, so they are not interested in owning the infrastructure. And, the local government is not that keen on owning such infrastructure, so we have difficulty in finding obvious owners.”


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