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The Eco-corner

Continuing the saga of Byker, on Tyneside, where a glimmer of hope for economic recovery is beginning to show:-

When the recyclable material has been extracted from household waste, and the organic material has been sent for composting, there is still a good deal left which nobody wants. A lot of this is plastic of one kind or another, a material which does not occur naturally and usually ends up in landfill sites or the sea, where it swills around for ever, taking toll of marine life and the cleanliness of our beaches.

Landfill sites are filling up and new ones are so hard to find that the Government has introduced a landfill tax to discourage their use. The alternative is to burn it, as most plastics are oil based, but they also contain compounds which give off toxic gases unless burnt at a temperature higher than is normal in a power station. So what happens to the residue at Byker? It is baled up and sent by sea to Gothenburg in Sweden, where waste treatment is ahead of most other countries.

Since Sweden has a population density of only 20 persons per square kilometre, whereas Britain has 250, it might be thought that in Sweden one would be able to find plenty of landfill sites well away from any human habitation. But not so; landfill is prohibited, and for some years now this troublesome waste has been burnt in specialised power stations, generating both a supply of hot water for domestic use, distributed through underground pipes, and a supply of electricity. Such a system is called CHP (Combined heat and Power), and is not unknown in Britain, but only done on a small scale and therefore expensive.

When I visited Kiruna, a town in northern Sweden lying within the Arctic Circle, some 15 years ago, I was told that the houses were kept warm during the winter by means of an underground hotwater system and lit during the long nights by electricity generated at the same power station, fuelled by the town's own waste. The power station's tall chimneys showed only a shimmer of hot gases unaccompanied by smoke or particles of soot, all these having been filtered out.

The Government should be building more of these proven waste-burning power stations as the current coal and oil-burning power stations reach the end of their working lives. But it's not only the Government who should act — we could help a lot by not buying produce encased in plastic.

Bob Weighton

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