A UK council is trialling new technology that could allow residents and businesses to drastically reduce the amount of waste they produce and save money at the same time.
Waste isn’t the sexiest smart city topic on the face of it but it’s one of the most pressing challenges around. That’s why it’s also the focus of a significant amount of innovation, from on-demand collections powered by artificial intelligence and smart bins which let crews know when they’re full to initiatives which make bin lorries quieter and cleaner, and plan their routes more efficiently.
But what if the waste didn’t need to be collected at all? A new technology, now being trialled by a council in the UK, could make this a reality.
The Home Energy Resources Unit (HERU, which has been dubbed ‘the new Dyson’, takes everyday items which would have been destined for disposal, such as coffee cups, plastics and nappies, and converts them into fuel to heat water for homes or commercial buildings.
This means homes and businesses would have drastically less rubbish to collect and they also have the chance to cut their heating bills.
The HERU uses an industrial heat treatment process called pyrolysis, at temperatures up to 300°C, and patented heat pipe technology.
Everything from paper, card, packaging, plastics, garden clippings and uneaten food is converted into oil, gas and charcoal which is combusted. When there is nothing in the home to process, the boiler reverts back to conventional fuel sources and the whole process leaves nothing behind except a small pile of ash.
This has an additional benefit, says Nik Spencer, a serial entrepreneur and inventor of the HERU. The ash left behind is rich in alkaline and lye, the material that is used with animal fat to make soap. “It will scrub the drain as well so you don’t get ‘fatbergs’,” he said.
Spencer says that in the future, he envisions household waste collections could be reduced to as little as every other month, rather than weekly as many are now.
The only materials which can’t go into the HERU are metal and glass. Spencer says that in the future, he envisions household waste collections could be reduced to as little as every other month, rather than weekly as many are now.
“Metal and glass are not organic so they’re not going to start breaking down or smelling,” he said
A single cycle of the HERU can produce a 30°C temperature rise for around 70 to 120 litres of water a day, which is equivalent to a full bath.
The impact for cities and their citizens could be significant. According to the Local Government Association, councils in England spend £852 million per year on waste collection.
Disposing of waste has significant environmental impacts too. According to Greenpeace, 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, including plastic bottles, bags, microbeads and more. It’s the equivalent of a truckload of rubbish per minute.
In many countries, waste that can’t be recycled is buried as landfill – some, although not all, will eventually rot but in the process it may smell or create methane gas, which is explosive and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Landfill sites can also attract vermin.
The HERU has already undergone hundreds of hours of lab testing. As it moves closer to commercial deployment, it is now being piloted in a real-world setting by Wychavon District Council in the UK.
The trials, which have been co-funded by Worcestershire County Council, will see the HERU tested at three different sites with three distinct types of ‘fuel’:
The trials are set to last ten months and the units will be monitored remotely in real time, to assess progress around energy efficiency, usability and more.
Vic Allison, deputy managing director, Wychavon District Council, told SmartCitiesWorld: “This is a brilliant opportunity to support a local business and tackle environmental issues. We see the environmental benefits being potentially enormous on a global scale.
"We share Nik’s passion for getting vehicles off the road and moving waste away from landfill. If the resource can be dealt with at source and converted to hot water for residents and businesses, then this will have massive environmental benefits.”
He added: “This fits with both our outward-facing priorities and our corporate aims that we have as an organisation. However, we believe this product has the potential to have global reach far beyond our district.”
Spencer said the test locations had been chosen in Wychavon because: “We believe that the first units will be commercial so we think that they’ll go into restaurants, hotels and adult care homes to start with because the return on investment is much faster.”
However, he believes they have the potential to have a significant impact in residential settings too – for example, a 36-apartment residential development could replace 16 wheelie bins with two HERU units, freeing up space for additional housing.
For an individual house, a HERU the size of a washing machine could sit outside or in the garage, but the company intends to keep developing the device so it can go inside the home. Trials in housing developments are also planned.
A lifecycle assessment by consultants at Ricardo Energy & Environment found that operating a HERU in every home in the UK would amount to savings of between 5.1 million and 6.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Having a HERU in every home in the UK could amount to savings of between 5.1 million and 6.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
The analysis also found that as the energy grid becomes more decarbonised, the HERU’s carbon savings over traditional collection services will improve even further.
Spencer says he is talking to several city councils and local authorities and that they can help to drive change by creating areas for metal and glass recycling and raising awareness.
He said city councils and local authorities will also play a crucial role in providing feedback and input to the government, who will ultimately be responsible for creating the policies and regulations which will drive the widespread adoption of technologies such as this.
You might also like: