The real irony over the waste to energy plant in Poolbeg is that it will accelerate European sustainable status for Dublin, and is undoubtedly the best overall solution technologically, economically, environmentally and in climate change terms
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Author: PJ Rudden, chartered engineer FIEI FIGEM FICE FCIWM, UCD Engineering Graduates Association president, is RPS group business director

The real irony over the controversial and long delayed waste to energy plant in Poolbeg is that it will accelerate European sustainable status for Dublin, and there is no question that the plant is “the best overall solution technologically, economically, environmentally and in climate change terms”, RPS group business director PJ Rudden tells EngineersJournal.ie.

This Public Private Partnership (PPP) project between the Dublin local authorities and Covanta is finally under construction and expected to be commissioned in 2017 – 13 years after its original date. The new facility will be a key factor in enabling Ireland to meet both domestic and EU waste targets.

RPS (then called MCOS) was appointed by the four Dublin local authorities in 1996 to lead an international waste strategy management group in a root and branch review of waste management in the Dublin region.

“I am extremely proud of RPS to have played such a central role in such a nationally important piece of waste infrastructure, planning and implementation as this and that it was decided to proceed with the entire plan in accordance with our recommendations,” says Rudden.

“The four Dublin local authorities were never in doubt about the validity of the project but had to overcome various regulatory hurdles at the EU Commission. Then they got the business plan recommendation from PWC and ‘value for money’ certificate from the National Development Finance Agency (NDFA).

Tried and tested thermal technology


The project will be using most technically advanced tried and tested thermal technology and would not be under construction today if it did not fully conform to government and EU waste policy.

Rudden firmly believes “it is the correct technology on the correct site”. “There is no question that this plant is the best overall solution technologically, economically, environmentally and in climate change terms,” he says.

“All the leading European cities cannot all be wrong; there is an incinerator with heat recovery next to the Royal Palace in Monte Carlo and they are in Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, Paris, Hamburg, Vienna, Amsterdam and Oslo and it has not stopped people living in or visiting any of these cities.” Also the size of the Dublin plant 600,000 tonnes/annum is roughly identical pro rata population to the capacity in the other cities mentioned.

“The energy from treating waste at Poolbeg will eventually go into the new district heating project, which will be central heating for Dublin underground. In addition the Dublin local authorities will share in the energy revenue with developer Covanta.

“Dublin waste at the moment is being transported on trucks down the M7 to Cork Port, then being shipped to Stockholm and Amsterdam for incineration and they are heating hospitals, universities with it. What type of carbon footprint is that and what a waste of Irish recoverable resources.

“Our waste is going to Sweden and Holland unprocessed and they are gaining the benefit from the waste to energy and in terms of jobs. It is a bit like when we were exporting live cattle and did not realise the value added of processing here instead.”

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PJ Rudden

Innovative stakeholder engagement process


When the plant was first proposed, Rudden accepts that there were genuine concerns over emissions but all these early concerns were comprehensively dealt with through an innovative stakeholder engagement process including assembling a Community Interest Group (CIG) to represent the views of local people.

“There will be no harmful emissions; the plant has to comply with the EU Industrial Emissions Directive including dioxins and furans.”

Having addressed the concerns over emissions, when it came to the planning and EPA licence oral hearings, traffic and trust were the two main residual concerns. The oral hearing showed that the plant will only be adding marginally to local traffic as most of the plant traffic will be using the M50 and Port Tunnel.

With the Dublin Waste Plan the overall theme was firstly to cut down waste, maximise recycling and minimise landfill to move to a circular economy (zero landfill) and there was wide ranging consultation at every stage of the way.

“We brought in World Health Organisation experts, GPs and independent health professionals who have experience of incineration in other European countries such as Germany to talk to local people and address their concerns,” he says.

“Greenpeace were also invited to Dublin and to contribute they stated they had never seen public consultation as extensive as this. RPS has since advised on the Corrib project, wind farms, overhead power lines and pumping part of the River Shannon to Dublin. Of all of these projects, one of the most acceptable from a public point of view was Poolbeg.

“There were low levels of local opposition which did increase marginally during the 2007-2011 period of government when an expectation was temporarily raised locally that the project would or could be stopped. There were concerns in the beginning about emissions which were quite legitimate and those concerns were addressed early on thus greatly reducing any potential public opposition.

Best international practice


“It all came right in the end because what was proposed was the right and sensible approach to residual waste management using best international practice.

“After all the stress testing that was carried out over the years by the European Commission, An Bord Pleanala, EPA and NDFA, this plant could not be under construction today if it was not fully in line with government and EU policy.”

After 12 years of delays and a lot of criticism about the project and its costs, the construction of the Poolbeg waste to energy plant “all happened so quickly in the end”.

This, he says, is important as ‘out of pocket costs’ for the four Dublin local authorities, if the project had been shelved would have been in the region of €105 million whereas all public monies spent on the project will now be fully recovered.

Back in 1996, when RPS took the lead in the waste management strategy group – an Irish/Danish consortium, 90 per cent of Dublin waste was going to landfill in Kill, Balleally and Ballyogan and practices of waste prevention, reduction, reuse and recycling were not common in Ireland.

“We took a year in 1997 to do the entire study and unveiled it in early January 1998 when there was enormous welcome for it in the media, politically and otherwise as press reports from that period show” recalls Rudden.

Bring landfill down from 90 per cent to below 20 per cent


“I was convinced by what the people of Dublin said to us during the consultation. We went into the national and local newspapers, the largest shopping centres and libraries in Dublin for a matter of months with consultation leaflets on how to manage waste and to listen/take feedback. The media were struck by the ambitious new integrated plan to bring landfill down from 90 per cent to below 20 per cent and not to have future Dublin waste landfilled in surrounding counties any longer.

“We got a tremendous response from Dublin people on the ground who told us very broadly that they wanted to cut down on waste and to recycle as much as possible and landfill as little as possible.,” he said.

“We therefore worked on an integrated plan on that basis with the help of our Danish colleagues who had already cut landfill to less than 10 per cent in Denmark.

The strategy led to the appointment of new environmental awareness officers in each of the local authorities to drive waste awareness, prevention and reuse, the introduction for the first time of the three bin kerbside system (green, brown and black) at every Dublin household and new spacious recycling centres to international standards across the Dublin region replacing the older bottle banks which are really only token recycling.

“It is good news that the Poolbeg project is now going ahead, as the people of Dublin are getting what they said they wanted – most of the people sampled during the strategy study agreed that thermal treatment was better than landfill and the relatively silent reaction since the project has commenced construction shows that this remains the case,” says Rudden.

“Waste operators did not appear as objectors in the early years, it was only when they took over from local authorities with household collections that they objected strongly to the likely competition from the waste to energy plant.

“It should be remembered too that the strategy approach to Dublin waste back in 1996 was quickly accepted by the four local authorities within one month of being published to varying degrees. This was mostly due to the very higher recycling ambitions in the waste plan to be funded through the introduction of pay related charges.

“I always thought that the overall waste strategy was the right solution for Dublin waste when I saw its consistent success in other large cities.”

Valuable resource to be recycled and recovered


During the Celtic Tiger, waste to landfill, particularly construction waste, was a very lucrative industry but Rudden says that the economic downturn brought a “sense of reality” that putting waste into the ground was no longer the way to go but to recognise it as a valuable resource to be recycled and recovered.

“I would compare it to the situation when in the 1980s Government proposed smokeless fuel: there was a hue and cry from industry that it could not work and jobs would be lost but when it was implemented, everyone was happy with a more sustainable lifestyle. Diverting from landfill and moving to a recycling society is akin to that,” he says.

“Arising from the Dublin Regional Waste Strategy, the Government then published a National Waste Strategy in October 1998 called Changing our Ways.

The Department of Environment produced this first Irish waste policy, which was a seminal document for Ireland and called for a regional approach to reduce landfill. In 2012 the Government raised the environmental standard further by calling for the total elimination of landfill in a new waste policy. This was in accordance with ‘zero waste to landfill’ and ‘circular economy’ proposals from Europe which is also now regarded as very ambitious in environmental terms.

The new policy document named ‘Waste: As Resource Opportunity’ moved onto greater resource recovery leading to zero waste to landfill.

“You prevent, reduce and minimise waste as much as possible, then reuse as much as possible, then recycle as much as possible then recover maximum energy from the residual waste before landfilling as little as possible if at all.

Dublin has now reached 45 per cent recycling above the European average and is planned to reach 60 per cent. We are now into the third generation of the Dublin waste management plan and heading for zero landfill in 2017.

“The delay in providing Poolbeg has been advantageous in one respect – we will hopefully have achieved the highest possible recycling by the time the plant opens in 2017 and nobody can say we were compromising recycling with waste to energy. Dublin will then have maximum recycling and energy recovery with zero landfill in waste management with energy recovery to district heating – a truly circular economy approach that will equal the best in Europe.

“It will be opened 13 years later than planned and unfortunately for the Irish environment, a huge volume of waste will either have been needlessly landfilled or exported in the meantime.” Nevertheless the Dublin region is now set to become a leading European sustainable city region in waste and environmental terms.

This interview with PJ Rudden, chartered engineer FIEI FIGEM FICE FCIWM, UCD Engineering Graduates Association president and RPS group business director, was first published in Public Sector Magazine and is reproduced with their kind permission 

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  Author: PJ Rudden, chartered engineer FIEI FIGEM FICE FCIWM, UCD Engineering Graduates Association president, is RPS group business director The real irony over the controversial and long delayed waste to energy plant in Poolbeg is that it will accelerate European sustainable status for Dublin, and there is no question that the plant is...