How Can We As Consumers Help To Make The Most Out of Our Waste and Recycling?
The Eco Park on Charlton Lane Shepperton is providing the next generation of household and business waste treatment facilities for the county of Surrey. The innovative facilities produce electricity for the national grid and fertiliser for use in farming. It is run by the waste management company SUEZ (formerly known as SITA), on behalf of Surrey County Council, and is now fully operational, offering both anaerobic digestion (AD) and gasification as well as a Community Recycling Centre.
I am talking to Kacie Thompson, a communications manager who joined SUEZ in 2017. Kacie is from the United States but moved to Surrey in 2016 and is now happily settled in South London. She has an MSc in Corporate Environmental Management from the University of Surrey.
Could you please explain the terms gasification and anaerobic digestion?
Gasification is used to process non-recyclable ‘black bag’ waste and turn it into energy. The gasification facility at the Eco Park is designed to treat up to 55,000 tonnes of black bag waste each year, mostly from homes in Spelthorne, Runnymede and Elmbridge. The waste first goes through a screening process to pull out metals for recycling and remove any oversized waste and inert materials like brick or concrete. The remaining waste is shredded to create Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) which is then fed into the gasification chamber. At the bottom of the chamber is a fluidised bed of sand which is heated over 700 degrees Celsius with reduced oxygen levels. The waste is broken down in the fluidised sand bed, creating a synthetic gas which rises to the top of the chamber. At the top of the chamber, the air is added to the gas and then ignited. The heat from igniting the gas is used to produce steam that then drives a turbine to generate electricity.
At the end of the process, the gases are cleaned and filtered before being released through the chimney on site. We continually monitor emissions to make sure they are kept within strict permitted levels. The ash produced from the process is currently sent to a landfill, but we hope that in future it may be able to be used as an aggregate in construction.
On the other hand, anaerobic digestion is a process that uses microorganisms to break down biodegradable material, in this case, food waste, in the absence of oxygen. At the Eco Park, food waste goes through a pre-treatment process to remove any unsuitable items (like plastic bags) and shred the waste into small pieces. Water is then added to the food waste and the mixture is fed into a series of tanks containing microorganisms that break it down in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas that is used to generate electricity. After the biogas is removed, excess water is removed to create a compost-like material called digestate that can be used on farmland to improve soil nutrition.
Would you say that the Eco Park is a power station?
That is how we like to think about it. It is a power station producing electricity, but the fuel used comprises non-recyclable materials and food waste. We are subject to strict emissions controls and the gases produced from both processes are monitored and cleaned before they are released via the chimney.
The benefit of having the plant here is that local residential waste can be used to generate enough electricity to power over 4,000 homes, which is an area approximately equal to the size of Shepperton. Also, refuse trucks from Elmbridge, Runnymede and Spelthorne do not need to travel far, which cuts down on emissions.
We could say that the treatment of local household waste at the Eco Park is helping to make the community more self-sufficient in terms of waste management, whilst also contributing to energy security. In 2022:
- *The Eco Park generated a total of 25.4 GWh of electricity – 16.2 from the gasifier and 9.2 from the anaerobic digestion facility
- Of the total electricity generated, 15.9 GWh was exported to the grid
- The facility exported enough electricity to power 4,262 homes for the entire year, more than all the homes in Shepperton
- 44,035 tonnes of non-recyclable black bag waste processed
- 25,226 tonnes of food waste processed
- 4,164 tonnes of digestate produced, sent to be used as a soil improver in agriculture
**Between 2021 and 2022, 52,561 tonnes of household waste was collected in Elmbridge (from kerbside and bring banks), out of which 26,944 tonnes were sent for recycling, reuse, or composting. This represents a recycling rate of 51.3%. There are 136,795 people living in Elmbridge (according to 2019–2020 statistics), and we generated 441.8kg of waste per person during the period 2020–2021.
What residents can bring to the recycling centre:
Do you think we as consumers could take more responsibility for the waste we generate?
The main thing we try to encourage people to do is to really think about how items could be reused, for instance by passing them on to someone else. We would love to see the residents reduce waste by re-using and repairing more of their items rather than disposing of them.
What about the items we put into our bins?
One of the biggest problems we currently have is that lots of people put batteries (which need to be recycled in a special way) into their household waste bins. Some still have use in them and can be a fire risk if not properly disposed of, causing a safety concern for staff and visitors on waste sites and risking damage to important infrastructure. This is a problem nation-wide, and it is something we would like Surrey residents to be more aware of. If they are throwing away something that has batteries in it, they should be removed before putting the item in the appropriate bin. Batteries can be safely and separately recycled at your local community recycling centre or in a supermarket, where there are often dedicated battery collection points.
For instance, in Weybridge, Waitrose has a collection point at customer services, and there is one in Morrisons (in the downstairs hall next to the escalator). Also, printing cartridges and cooking oil can be brought to the recycling centre in Charlton Lane, Shepperton. When it comes to collecting food waste, you can line your caddy with any type of plastic bag, e.g., old shopping bag or specially purchased plastic bags on the roll. ***
Surrey Environment Partnership – Food waste recycling (surreyep.org.uk)
Another issue is the contamination of recycling bins. Some residents put food-soiled items like pizza boxes or used kitchen roll in their recycling bins, but this kind of content cannot be recycled because soiled paper and cardboard will reduce the quality of paper products created from the recycled material. Such items should therefore be considered non-recyclable. The content of the recycling bins should be kept as dry as possible and clean from food contamination.
We as consumers often feel we cannot help generating so much waste. In an ideal world, if we managed to minimise our general and food waste, replace plastic bottles with refillable glass bottles, cut down on packaging, and use only natural fabrics, would it put companies like SUEZ out of work?
Absolutely not. At SUEZ, we focus on waste prevention and elimination and moving materials up the waste hierarchy. To reduce volumes of non-recyclable waste, we will have to recycle more and more, so we will still have a role to play in processing items for recycling and making sure we make the most out of our resources. And there will always be food waste to deal with, so anaerobic digestion facilities.
Do you think there is a conflict of interest between us the consumers and the waste management companies and experts?
Our goal is always to minimise waste and move materials up the waste hierarchy, so no, I don’t think so. If we take paint waste as an example. Paint used to be something that could not be recycled, but we designed a solution that helped prevent waste, reduced disposal costs for the council and raised money for charity. We opened a reuse shop where tins containing a certain amount of paint could be put aside and resold for a suggested donation to Macmillan Cancer Support. Also, new legislation and policy reforms are being introduced that will transform the waste industry and drive recycling rates. Extended Producer Responsibility will require manufacturers to take more responsibility for their packaging waste, incentivising them to change to more environmentally friendly packaging and ensuring the price of the product reflects the environmental cost of end-of-life disposal. Alongside this, there is a new policy coming into effect that will mandate separate food waste collections from all households and businesses, making anaerobic digestion facilities like we have at the Eco Park even more important. These policy changes will be a big transition in the industry and waste and recycling experts have an important role to play in implementing these changes.
SUEZ has adopted a zero waste and circular economy strategy.
I understand that SUEZ participates in charity events. Could you tell us more about them?
At a national level, we have partnered with Macmillan Cancer Support, and we have raised over £500,000 as one of their UK corporate partners.
In Surrey, ten percent of profits from our five reuse shops (nearly £60,000 to date) is donated to various local charities each year. We have supported a huge number of local charities over the years, including the Woking & Sam Beare Hospice and the Princess Alice Hospice. We are about to launch a new community fund for Surrey charities that will use the profits that we make through the reuse shops to provide grants of up to £10,000 for bigger charitable projects that address community and environmental issues. We are very excited about this.
Many of our social value activities are connected to reuse and waste minimisation. For example, we collect a great deal of mobility equipment, like crutches and walking frames, that are restored and sent to be put back into use within the NHS. We are engaged in social initiatives in Surrey that many residents may not know about. For example, we have partnered with HMP Ford (an open prison) where we sponsor a bicycle workshop where prisoners can acquire mechanical skills. We collect bikes that are not in good working order and send them over to the prison, where they are worked on and then sent back and sold back into use, usually for around £25-£100. Additionally, through the Released on Temporary Licence scheme we give prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentence the opportunity to apply for a job with SUEZ as part of a rehabilitation through our employment programme which has been very successful. This is something we are very proud of. We are also doing a lot of work with the Ministry of Justice to help encourage other employers to set up similar programmes.
On a more personal note, what hobbies do you have?
Gardening really. I have a huge vegetable garden and I go to the reuse shop and get stuff for it there, so I am never short of plant pots. I also bought some clay roof tiles, which I use for kerbing in the garden. My goal is to become self-sufficient in terms of growing food, or at least as much as possible in London.
I would like to take the opportunity and thank you Kacie and the whole SUEZ team for doing such a great job of managing our waste in these magnificent facilities, and I hope that we, as consumers, will manage to discipline ourselves and take time to acquire new skills and knowledge that will help us deal with and segregate our domestic waste, for example by learning more about what we can put in our bins and what we can bring to the Charlton Lane, Shepperton recycling centre. Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us.
*Figures provided by Kacie Thompson SUEZ
**What do we do with your waste and how much do we recycle? – Surrey County Council (surreycc.gov.uk)
***Surrey Environment Partnership – Food waste recycling (Surreyep.org.UK
When I was a teenager in the late-1960s I can clearly remember our home’s rubbish bin. It was a metal bucket that stood in the corner of the kitchen. The bin was emptied about once a week, if I remember correctly. I would take the bucket and I then emptied it into a large barrel that was placed just under a tall poplar tree that stood outside our home. Sometimes the rubbish would overflow the barrel and would end up lying all around it on the ground.
When the actual rubbish, whatever it was, and it was not a lot when compared to today’s, was in the bucket, it became rubbish and belonged to another world. Once in the bucket, the rubbish was not taken out again because it was rubbish. Only in some exceptional cases one would dip back into the rubbish to salvage something that had been thrown away by mistake. Even then, one would wonder if it would be used again as if nothing happened. Clearly, there was a rubbish line and one practically had nothing to do with things that went beyond that line. That line was in one’s home, and it was your rubbish bucket.
I remember feeling sorry for the man who used to come once a month or two to collect the rubbish from outside our home. He would arrive with a horse pulling a trailer. It would take him about an hour or more to load the trailer with the help of a garden fork. The rubbish was collected from the barrel and the ground around it. That was his job, and one did not particularly talk to the rubbish man. However, it was different when Mr Hamerski*, the farm that was just on the outskirts of my hometown owner, attended to the rubbish himself. Many considered him almost a hero because he did a good job of getting rid of all the rubbish himself. These were my thoughts as a young child and then as a teenager. Today, I admire the people who collect the rubbish, arriving in their magnificent machines and collecting all that waste. They work so hard, and unfortunately, the smell coming out of the bins can often be unpleasant and quite difficult to cope with, so it is a very difficult, challenging and important job to do.
The previous way of treating rubbish as rubbish has lasted with me for a long time. Once thrown away, it was rubbish. I had nothing to do with it and it definitely was not my problem. I also did not need to consider if my rubbish caused a dilemma. There was lots of freedom because rubbish was rubbish. The world felt big and endless. One could have as much rubbish as one wanted, but in reality, there was not that much of it. In Poland in the late-1960s, shopping was most often not wrapped, there were no plastic bags, and there was no custom of gift wrapping.
I had a great shock on my first visit to Britain in the 1970s to see how many English people would freely throw their rubbish, such as empty drink cans or crisp packets, straight on the ground—be it on the underground carriages, trains or just on the street. That was simply the way that it was done. I never could understand that solution with litter. Back in my hometown of Poznan, Poland, it was a very bad manner to throw any waste on the ground and it was placed instead into a rubbish bin. Since living in England from 1976, I have never deliberately thrown rubbish onto the ground. I have always felt very conscious about minding my rubbish throughout my life.
I remember sometime around the 1990s, about 30 years ago, people from Germany started to suggest separating our rubbish, depending on what it was, into separate containers. Initially, I thought that it was a bizarre idea and even a little bit ridiculous.
Things are so different today! I am the first to scrupulously attend to every piece of rubbish that I have to throw away. In fact, I am not so sure that the things that I need to throw away are really rubbish anymore. Bottles and jars, and paper and card need to be recycled. Plastic needs to be segregated between the recycle bin and general waste bin, depending on its type. Food goes into the food bin and garden waste goes into the garden waste bin. One thing is for sure, there is so much more rubbish generated today than back in the 1960s. I sometimes feel pain seeing all of the plastic packagings that I simply have to purchase with the products that I need, even if I am very selective.
A lot of our rubbish today is either recycled or burned in modern waste incinerators, where it is turned into electricity and waste. The ashes that come from the incinerators are further utilised in the building industry or road building (for example).
At this point, a question springs to mind: has this been a rubbish revolution or is it just a shift of the rubbish line? Looking back, I can see that the rubbish line has shifted from the rubbish bucket in my home to the rubbish dump site. After throwing our scrupulously segregated rubbish away today, be it in our home or directly at the waste dump site, only then we do not deal with it anymore. We are kind of helpless and depend on others to do the right thing with the large amounts of bad rubbish that we are daily forced to generate, and it is not really the case” out of sight, out of mind”.
- Wacław Hamerski “The more you learn to do something in your life, the more you will be a human being.”
Commodore John Keegan and His Great Adventure
“It’s an important point to make that all war is terrible.”
The opinions given by the Commodore are personal and not necessarily those of the Royal Navy nor of the Ministry of Defence.
I’m talking to Commodore John Keegan, OBE who was born in 1959. Ever since he was a six- or seven-years-old boy, he visited ‘Navy Days’ in Portsmouth, and wanted to join the service from an early age. Soon after he turned 18, ‘In September 1977’ John tells us: ‘I arrived at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (known as BRNC for short) along with a long list of strange items considered essential (such as stiff collar and studs, non-metallic hangers etc) and the great adventure began. This first period involved turning civilians into something approaching military people, and this meant learning the correct dress, bearing, and the ability to march and shoot. This was followed by practical naval studies, and most importantly aspects of leadership which still serve me well today. After ‘Passing Out’ in 1978, I joined the Fleet for six months before going on to read Naval Engineering and completing my postgraduate courses.
Then I was off to sea again while still training on the aircraft carrier HERMES to study for my Fleet Board. It was essential to pass this to be able to continue my career. There followed many challenging appointments, both at sea and ashore. These involved a few scrapes here and there. During this time I served on one minehunter (BOSSINGTON), four destroyers (LIVERPOOL, MANCHESTER, EXETER and CARDIFF) and another aircraft carrier (INVINCIBLE), and this was later interspersed with shore jobs ranging from procurement of surface-to-air missiles, the Ministry of Defence (four times), the Operational Planner to Commander-in-Chief Fleet, a 6-month secondment to BP Amoco, Command of HMS RALEIGH ( New Entry Training), and finally as the Commander Maritime Reserves, which was head of one of the six fighting arms of the Service. I can honestly say looking back on this period that I had an exciting and interesting 36 years of constant change and jobs satisfaction: I met many people that I became enriched by, and made many good and enduring friendships, learning a great deal about myself on the way.
None of this would have been possible without the support of my wife Susan, who managed to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground during the general rigours of military life while staying strong when I was away for up to seven months at time. Our boys have followed on the Service life, one to the Royal Air Force and the other into the Army, making Susan and I very proud.’
Commodore, John Keegan retired in February 2013, and he has been recognized for his 36 years of dedicated service to the UK in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2013, he was awarded an OBE for his “Outstanding Commitment to the UK” and for his “diverse and selfless career” in the Royal Navy. John, who was 54 at the time, said that the award was a complete surprise, but he was delighted to be recognised.
When you joined the Royal Navy in 1977, your father appeared not so keen on the choice of your career. Has he changed his mind as time has gone by?
He has passed away now. Yes, he did. I think He actually was quite proud.
What about your mother? How did she feel about you wanting to join the Royal Navy?
She thought it was a good career to have and followed it closely until she died two years ago.
Sorry to hear that. I’m sure your mother supported you because ever since you were a little boy you wanted to join the Navy.
Yes, she did. I thought it was a good idea to have a life in the armed forces and to be paid.
After obtaining your naval engineering degree and completing your officer training, you continued to be rapidly promoted from one position to another. Would you say that you had some special talents in your fields?
No, I think I was lucky. It’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time and attention to detail.
But don’t you have some special talents in the fields of mathematics and physics and science?
Yes, indeed. I liked mathematics. I liked physics and, it enabled me to go and work in the Procurement Executive, where I’ve worked on anti-aircraft missiles.
While serving in the Royal Navy, how many real battles have you experienced?
Two battles. Once during the first Gulf War when we were attacked by an Iraqi fighter armed with an Exocet missile, and my captain had been sunk by such a missile in the Falklands War. He calmed the Ship’s Company down by saying: ’Gentlemen, I’ve been sunk by an Exocet before, I don’t intend to be sunk again, which was a very good piece of leadership.
Did you have any losses, while fighting these battles?
No, thank goodness.
That is amazing. So, you didn’t have to deal with a problem of coping with such losses? You were feeling victorious and successful?
Well, I think you feel successful, but you don’t feel happy for those on the other side who lost their lives. I think it’s an important point to make that all war is terrible.
So, even after a victorious battle, you still feel grief for the losses on the other side?
Of course, yes.
During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, there was a serious threat that chemical weapons may have been used by the aggressor. Small levels of various chemicals were detected in various areas of land. If these weapons were used, would you still be in danger on the ship?
Oh yes. Very much so.
So how do they reach the ship?
They can be carried with the wind, or they can be fitted into a shell that is firing the ship. So, you need to be very careful. I mean, we thought it was very real hazard. We took it very seriously.
What sort of protection can be used against such weapons? I know you can wear some kind of white anti-radiation boiler suits and masks. What else can help?
Well, there’s two things. One is a ship’s protection, and that’s called collective protection. The ship has a series of sprinklers on the upper deck, keeping the side of the ship wet, so the chemicals won’t stick, and of course the ship could be made airtight—completely airtight. And then there’s personal protection. You can wear clothing and a mask, and rubber gloves and boots. Also, if you need to access the upper deck it’s via an airlock.
What is an airlock?
The ship has a positive pressure inside. So, you open one door and shut the other door. So, you shut the door behind you, then you open the outer door. And this blows all the chemicals away.
And how long does the process of blowing chemicals away take?
Well, we were shut down in that state for many, many days.
So, you didn’t have to be in a battle to be endangered by the chemical weapon? And that’s why you had to protect yourself?
At any stage you could be fired upon. Even off the coast, you could be fired at with a missile with a chemical warhead or bombs with chemical agents. You get no warning of that, so you have to be able to shut down quickly and effectively.
The Royal Navy is known for representing the very high standards, not only in terms of the equipment and technology they use, but also with regard to the practical skills and mental aptitudes they require of their service people. A lot of pastoral, ethical, and moral guidance is given as part of the training. The British Royal Navy is known for its very high standards in all the fields that are required to serve in it. When naval authorities from other countries fall short on such standards, and it appears that they do not understand what they are doing wrong, there is a lack of communication; how do you cope with that?
It’s a very difficult question. I’m not answering this on behalf of the Navy. It is my personal view, it must be quite clear, but the Royal Navy have absolute standards. Maybe other nations aspire to those. And some fall short and some don’t, but we have an organization called Flag Officer Sea Training where we train ships and their crews from other nations to the same standards as us. And of course, we train with our NATO allies all the time. We train to a specific standard, and it’s an absolute standard, and our NATO allies meet that standard.
In the present conflict in Ukraine there are accusations that children, women, and vulnerable people are being used as human shields. Why doesn’t the thought of harming children, women, and vulnerable people stop any military action? Why isn’t their presence a more powerful deterrent to going ahead than any nuclear or chemical weapon?
First of all, I should say that I have been retired for some eight years, so I am not familiar with what is happening tactically on the front in Ukraine, but as a principle using human shields of any sort is against the Geneva Convention.
From the current situation in Ukraine we, the general public have learnt that there are a lot of rules when at war. The Russian president describes the Russian action in Ukraine as a ‘ Special Operation’, but in Britain, when talking about these events, we refer to this action as war. Do we just use a colloquial language? From the experts’ point of view, is it a war or a ‘Special Operation’?
There’s no doubt that it’s War. A ‘special operation’ has very limited aims and the invasion of another country’s territory is a war. ‘Special Operations’ is just, a name they’ve used to make it not sound so bad,
Do you think that the international skills in the art of negotiation are currently at a peak standard, or is there room for improvement?
I wouldn’t know.
What about the war and climate change? Are you aware of whether current attitudes about the damages that come with war are up to date with the current climate change situation? Wars seem to come with a lot of CO2s as well as other damage.
All war is a retrograde step. The aggressors obviously they don’t care about climate change. The climate issue is very real, but when one country wants to invade another, they didn’t do it because of climate change issues, they do it to gain territory. I mean, the damage is done. Look at the destruction in Ukraine, at how very quickly it has happened. But I don’t think, Russia cares about climate change and how much damage is done.
It does not appear so. All the explosions cause more CO2 in the air.
During your time in the Royal Navy, Do you have any favourite times?
Yes. There are many more good days than bad days. Which is fantastic. I mean, the great advantage about being in the fighting service is that every two years you change jobs. You never get stale. There is always something different to do. My favourite times, too numerous to mention. Certainly, I enjoyed my time in the West Indies. I enjoyed my visits to the United States, but most of all, I enjoyed the comradeship of others. Warships are very insular place. A Destroyer is a 400-foot-long ship by 40-feet-wide with a crew 290. There’s not a lot of room for personal space, but I enjoy that. You have to enjoy the company of others, and I do.
Have you ever experienced terrible storms?
Oh, yes, regularly. First of all, I was on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes in 1978 off Iceland and in force 11 storm, and the flight deck was awash with water, and that’s a 35,000-ton ship. And then in 1983, between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, we were in force 12 and the ship went over 45 degrees and righted itself. That was quite scary. It took an awfully long time to come back to the upright position.
You’re scared and under pressure to stay balanced.
At sea you’re always under pressure to stay balanced because small ships aren’t built for comfort, they’re built to carry war to the enemy. I have also been in quite a lot of heavy seas over the years
Have you seen some amazing sites of the world?
Oh, yes. Talking about climate change. In 1983 in South Georgia Fortuna glassier was nearly 10,000 feet high. Now it’s gone, completely gone, I understand. So, climate change is very real. You get to see some marvellous wildlife: porpoises and dolphins follow the ship in warm times. Flying fish land on the deck, and there are penguins and elephant seals in South Atlantic. There is wonderful wildlife. It’s very comforting if you like being at sea, standing on the deck and watching the sun go down and watching the sun come up. Marvellous. It makes it all worthwhile.
How difficult is it for you now that you suffer Parkinson’s like syndromes, and we do not know exactly why, to go through the day? How difficult is it for you to keep this condition at bay?
Well, it’s progressive, so there’s always going to get worse, but you can manage. The important thing is to stay as cheerful as you can. I’ve got a good support network. My wife’s wonderful, and I’ve got some very good friends that all help out, and without them life would be very difficult. I’m lucky to have good friends.
Apart from your amazing military knowledge and skills, you also have passion for motor sports and philately. How long ago did you visit a motor sports event?
Oh, some years now, because I’m not able to because of Parkinson’s, but I used to go down to Le Mans regularly for the 24-hour race and attend the British Grand Prix. It’s been 10 or 15 years since I’ve been there now.
You and Susan like cruising for holiday. Which of the recent cruises was your favourite?
The one to Alaska, yes. Fantastic. We went from the west coast of America up to Alaska and then back to Vancouver, and it was fabulous. We were the first ship of the season up there. Unbelievable. Peaceful scenery. It’s different doing it as a tourist rather than doing it for work.
That’s still being on the ship.
Yes. Being on a ship without responsibility.
Commodore John Keegan. I would like to take this opportunity and thank you and everyone else in the Royal Navy for your amazing service, and for everything that you have done that we know about, and for what we are not aware of. Also for the fact that you have been prepared to put yourself in danger, while we, as civilians, have been living carefree lives, and just enjoying ourselves and peace. Thank you for all that; it is so lovely to see you today and to be able to talk with you. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.
Thank you very much.