Ed Crooks BA’s biofuels plans mean a lot of garbage: the problem of “peak waste”

BA is planning a biofuels plant, as it makes its bid for the “green airline” ticket. Its proposed project, to be built in east London, would employ 1,200 people and produce 16m gallons of aviation fuel a year.

It is a smart move, stealing a march on Sir Richard Branson, leader of BA’s bitter rival Virgin Atlantic. Sir Richard has been talking a lot about the danger of oil shortages – the “oil crunch”, as he has been calling it – as head of the UK business task force on peak oil, but has made only tentative attempts to position his company to face that threat.

However, BA’s plant would deliver only modest amounts of fuel, while consuming enormous quantities of London’s garbage.

There is a very real prospect that we will hit “peak waste” before we hit peak oil.

Siting the plant in London is a smart move, because the city is the Ghawar of waste: the country’s largest upstream source of supply. The plant would use organic waste such as food, thrown away in astonishing volumes by the British public, which would be gasified and then converted into liquid fuels by the standard Fischer-Tropsch process used for gas-to-liquids plants.

However, there is a fundamental problem with this plan: a shortage of garbage. London throws away about 3m tonnes of that organic waste every year. That might sound a lot, but BA’s plant would need to use 500,000 tonnes a year to produce its 16m gallons. That is one sixth of London’s output, or the waste from 1.3m people. About 1m tonnes a year is already finding productive uses, so BA’s demand will be about a quarter of the city’s available waste.

Meanwhile, the mayor of London has a project to encourage the use of waste for fuel, so there are likely to be several other companies in the area that could compete with BA for its waste supply. For example Ineos, the chemicals group, has big plans for biofuels from waste, in the US as well as the UK.

That 16m gallons, moreover, would fuel just 2 per cent of BA’s fleet at Heathrow airport. So to power all the aircraft just for BA, just from that airport, would require the waste from eight cities the size of London, or roughly the entire population of England.

The problem, strange as it may seem, is that there is just not enough waste in the world for the process to make a radical difference to energy supplies. “Fuel from garbage” is a seductive idea, and at the margin it can make a contribution, but the margins are where it is likely to stay.

It also suggests that there may come a time when you will no longer have to pay people to take your waste away, but will be able to sell it. That has already happened with many types of commercial waste. How long before householders have to keep their bins inside the house, for fear of “garbage bandits” snatching their precious potato peelings and banana skins?