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.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.