Anyone travelling through Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 can easily spot one of southern England’s largest waste-to-energy (WtE) plants, sitting just outside the airport’s boundary fence. This is the Lakeside Energy From Waste facility, a joint venture opened in 2010 by Grundon Waste Management and Viridor. The facility became fully operational in 2012 and can handle waste upwards of 1,400 tonnes per day, and generates 37 MW of electricity.
But it might not be there for much longer, despite being less than a decade old. After much debate and disagreement, Heathrow looks set to begin work on a new runway in the next few years. Parliament gave its assent in 2018, although final planning approval is yet to be granted, and opposition remains powerful, not least from the current mayor of London.
Proponents of the runway hope that work could begin as early as 2021. This would mean the closure and relocation of the Lakeside facility, as it lies in the way of the necessary expansion of the airport’s boundaries. This in itself is proving politically unpopular, with all the planning requirements and opposition efforts normally found with a brand new WtE site. In February 2019, the plant’s operators announced they have identified a new site for the plant, just 600 metres northwest of its current location. A public consultation on the relocation is currently underway.
It probably doesn’t say much for the level of joined-up planning that a new waste facility could be built right on the edge of an airport facing huge pressures to expand. The government appeared to be caught unawares of the implications of a third runway, and initially suggested – unsuccessfully – that plans be drawn up that did not require the plant to be demolished. A timely reminder, perhaps, that the waste sector does not exist in a vacuum, and must compete with other sectors for land and monetary investment. Hence the likely expense of moving the entire plant less than half a mile up the road.
In many ways, the story is indicative of London’s continuing struggle to modernise its waste management services. Until quite recently, London sent most of its waste to landfill outside its boundaries. This approach falls foul of two modern tenets of waste management; that waste should be dealt with in situ as much as possible, and that landfill should be minimised. But fragmented oversight – London has no single waste authority – and planning issues have led to a confused and complex picture.
Lakeside’s principal customer is the West London Waste Authority. The WLWA now landfills very little (most former sites are now closed), instead sending everything it can to two WtE plants. One of these is Lakeside, hence the urgent need to have its replacement ready once the Heathrow bulldozers move in. The other plant is the Suez-operated Severnside, which opened in 2016. This is a modern facility, but doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the waste processed at Lakeside (from the WLWA and other nearby local authorities), and has the added disadvantage of being nowhere near London. Waste from west London is currently transported by road over 100 miles to the Severnside plant.
The Lakeside saga highlights London’s struggle to upgrade its waste management policies and infrastructure, faced with planning law, environmental/residential opposition, and a disjointed regulatory structure. West London is not alone; North London faces similar challenges with its ageing Edmonton plant. Life may have been simpler when Londoners could simply shove all their rubbish onto a barge and float it down the Thames to landfill far away in Essex, but those days are gone. There are opportunities here, of course, for developers and operators of technology which will better allow a large and complex city to deal with its waste in a more efficient manner.