Garbage into gold

New technology offers ever more ingenious ways to turn the detritus of life into valuable forms of e

Digestion? Composting? Steaming? After years of it being seen literally as waste, in the past few years industry is finally waking up to the potential of our rubbish. "We're looking at a kind of industrial revolution," says Richard Kirkman, head of technology for Veolia Environmental Services. "We're making factories to make raw materials from waste, to put those materials back in the economic cycle. That's our business model."

One of the most interesting prospects in waste disposal is anaerobic digestion (AD), which is suitable for easily bio­degradable matter. Waste is sealed in oxygen-free and bacteria-rich conditions where it is digested. The end product is methane, which can be used in gas-fired power stations or fed into the gas supply, and a rich organic fertiliser for use in agriculture. AD is, essentially, hi-tech composting, needing only half the space and a third of the time to complete the process.

One government report suggests that by 2020, AD-derived biogas could, through electricity generation and domestic gas supply, account for 10-20TWh of the UK's heat and power. At the upper end of the scale, that equates to 7.5 per cent of predicted demand.

A £32m New Technologies Demon­strator Programme, launched by the ­Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is also investing in a range of new ideas to help lessen the waste mountain. In-vessel composting, for example, is simply industrial-scale composting performed in a controlled environment, with the air flow and ambient temperature adjusted to sanitise waste and guarantee the quality of the final product.

Gasification and pyrolysis also have exciting potential. In the former, carbon-rich waste is heated in the presence of oxygen to break down hydrocarbons to form a biogas. Pyrolysis is achieved without oxygen to achieve a biogas with a different composition. In the days before North Sea gas, coals were subject to the same procedure in order to make fuel. The technology is not new, but the idea of using it for municipal waste is only just beginning to catch on.

Finally, mechanical heat treatment, used as a precursor to other forms of processing, is also being investigated. Piles of waste are steam-heated, sterilising the contents and reducing them to more manageable forms. Paper and card, for example, are reduced to a fluffy mass for further processing, and labels and lacquers are steamed off glass and metal, leaving them ready for reuse or recycling.

For Kirkman and Veolia, the next stage is to remove "the human interface" in material-recovery facilities. He says: "At the moment we have people picking stuff up off conveyor belts.

“In the same way that cars used to be made by people and now they're made by robots, it's within our capability to make a sorting centre without people touching anything."

Control-centre-based touch screens ­allow a human operator to instruct a robot to move materials, or an infra-red "magic eye" identifies different types of plastic and uses a jet of compressed air to shoot an items into relevant bins.

But in the end, as Steve Lee, chair of the anaerobic digestion task group and chief executive of the Chartered Institution
of Wastes Management, points out: "We still talk about waste management as something inevitable. What about waste prevention?

“We've been living an uncontrolled party for the past 50 years and one day historians will look back on this era agog. We understand materials and our responsibility towards them much better now, so we need to start talking about how we can design out waste completely."

Sarah Lewis-Hammond is an award-winning environmental journalist

Good Riddance to Rubbish

Poo into power
Faeces, animal or human, make great biogas. Just pop the poop in a methane digester and two weeks later out come fertiliser and methane. Thames Water says it saved £15m and powered 14 per cent of its operations this way in 2008.
Hydrogen from pee
Researchers at Ohio University have found that hydrogen atoms in urea are more loosely bonded than those in water, so electrolysis easier and cheaper.
People power
Systems are popping up, from the Japanese railway generating electricity from the vibrations of passengers going through ticket barriers, to
the London nightclub dance floor that turns kinetic energy into electricity.
Tornado power
The Canadian engineer Louis Michaud claims that warm air lost from power stations could be used to create intense vortices, inside which wind turbines would utilise the 200mph tornadoes.

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain