Erik has his eye on refuse

Here at port we have noted a marked increase in the numbers of imported white and green ’bales’. These are bales of refuse imported from other parts of Europe. This area of operations is fairly new to us and the question naturally arises, why indeed do we import refuse to Sweden?

One would have thought that each country, perhaps even every region, could take care of their own refuse. How environmentally-friendly and financially viable is it to transport refuse all the way here?

Of course there is a logical reasoning as to why refuse is imported to Sweden. At present it is no longer allowed to dump rubbish on tips in Europe. A fee is paid by the sender for every ton of refuse arriving at a Swedish receiving station. Apart from the payment, the refuse material is put to good use for us here in the cold North. It has significant energy value and the source of heating of many homes when it is used properly. When refuse is converted for fuel purposes it is no longer referred to as ‘refuse’. It is then referred to as Refuse Derived Fuel, RDF.

What do we do with the refuse?

In Sweden we use refuse to produce energy by burning it at our district heating plants to produce heating, as well as electricity. As the need for district heating is great it is far more economical to burn refuse instead of wood, oils or other fuels. It is also a good way of getting rid of refuse. It can always be discussed whether there is an even better environmentally-friendly way of disposing of refuse. There are also moral issues and arguments that weigh into the debate. For example, will Sweden now become Europe’s rubbish dump? Everyone has their own opinion.

Loose bales or containers?

Refuse bales, or energy bales as they are also called, are mainly imported in small conventional vessels from the Great Britain and Ireland. The vessels are usually between 90 and 95 meters long and can carry a cargo of 2 000 bales. The reason why the vessels are of a smaller size is because most ports in the United Kingdom have a vessel draft limit. If we decide to import refuse from other countries in the future the vessels will no doubt be larger. At Swedish ports the energy bales are unloaded with the aid of a so-called ’material handler’ equipped with an extendable grapple boom that easily grabs the bale. Each bale weighs around one ton and 1,5 square meters large.

But we also envisage other opportunities for refuse imports in the future. Great Britain is a big refuse import region and therefore has a large surplus of empty containers. Sweden, in contrast, with its steel and paper industries, has a constant deficit of containers. Someone came up with the bright idea of using this imbalance by instead freighting the energy bales in containers, which also brings down transport costs. There has been talk of the arrival of very large container volumes but nothing that we have seen to materialize as yet. I personally do not believe there will be the volumes that the container shipping lines had hoped for. It’s all about being able to handle the containers at both the loading/unloading sites as well thoroughly cleaning the containers afterwards. Finally, it´s also down to how profitable the operation will turn out to be.

Transporting energy bales in containers has another big advantage. Some bales smell and in the worst scenario are damaged and leak. With the refuse in containers dockside personnel and others in the transport chain do not have to come into near contact with the bales. Leaking and stinking bales were a big problem not so long ago. When we started importing bales we noticed careless manufacturing processes that made the bale split easily, especially when wet and being picked up by the boom of a material handler. Some bales split during transport, especially those on the bottom of a 7-10 bale stack. Sometimes the bales are so wet that they leak leachate with one horrific example of an inch of leachate left in the hold of a ship after unloading wet bales. I’m happy to report that this is a thing of the past and thankfully bales are better constructed today and container drier materials too! However, the smell is still a problem.

Not all refuse smells

Refuse doesn’t necessarily have to be foul smelling rotting food waste. It can also be recycled wood chips or fuel pellets. Wood chips is old wood that has been chewed down to one foot long jagged wooden sticks. Fuel pellets are made up of paper, plastic and wood that cannot be further recycled anymore. Södertälje is lucky to have Igelsta heat and power plant on its doorstep. The once coal-fired plant since the late 90s uses paper, plastic and wood wastes to fire its furnaces. This type of material, but to a lesser extent, arrives in bales at the Igelsta quayside. The larger volumes are delivered in the conventional way and unloaded with the aid of a gripclaw. The Igelsta plant does not use household rubbish to fire its furnaces.

I believe that transports of energy-making raw materials to Sweden will continue to grow as in Sweden there is a surplus of heating plants that have the incineration capacity. We also need the supply of heat provided by our district heating plants during our cold winter months. It might seem that I am in favour of burning anything that cannot be recycled in another way, regardless of where the material comes from. Of course this should never take place at the cost of recycling, which must always come first. To send refuse to landfills, where there is a risk that groundwater can become polluted, must be avoided at all costs, regardless of which country it occurs in. Instead, it is far more advantageous to make good use of the competence within our highly-efficient district heating plants to produce cheap and environment-friendly energy.

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