Medical biowaste that must be disposed of - Used under Creative Commons License

Contrary to the way this story will be reported, burning odd body parts is not a good method of generating energy. We know this because those crematoria the councils run are not net energy generators, they’re energy sinks. The human body being largely water, water not being a great fuel.

So, this announcement of a new form of incinerator which will run off biowaste, well, it’s not, quite, as it seems:

A plan to produce electricity by burning “body parts and organs” has created uproar in a small Sussex town.

The groundbreaking proposals to turn medical waste such as bandages, blood products and nappies into clean energy has confounded locals who fear the process will create poisonous air and noise pollution.

But Michael Burns, 62, the local businessman behind the concept, insists that rather than being a modern-day Frankenstein, he has “a lead on the world” in creating clean energy from a specific combination of plastic and biomass.

The plan isn’t, obviously, to burn body parts in order to generate energy. For even the most enthusiastic greens know that won’t work. Rather, there’s the idea to take a certain specific blend of waste and produce energy from it. But even this doesn’t work purely on the energy generation grounds. Why have a blend after all? If we some stuff, plastics, which produce energy when burnt, why mix that with cirrhotic livers which don’t? Why not just burn the plastic in the first place?

The plan is actually to do something very different:

One of the biggest problems, he believes, is that landfill sites are closing and no one knows what to do with the non recyclable waste.

But his discovery that burning plastic alongside biomass creates a “pretty good fuel” led him to look at hospital waste.

“Medical waste from theatres has a high level of plastic and a high level of biomass from things like paper tissues, gowns and nappies,” he said.

“We get paid by the tonne to take the waste and believe we will be able to hugely undercut the companies currently being paid by the NHS to take this waste to landfill.”

This is a waste disposal method which happens, near by chance, to produce some energy on the side.

We’ve not shortage of holes in the ground, we’ve only a paucity of the licences to allow stuff to be stuck in holes in the ground. OK, that’s silly of us but it is. We can’t recycle this gubbins, given those odd bits of cancrous lungs. So, what are we going to do with it? Well, why not burn it? But the straight mixture doesn’t burn, so add plastic until it does. Job done.

Note that as an energy generation method alone this isn’t economic. They’re being paid to take the waste. That is, the waste management problem is subsidising the energy generation. It’s also obviously true that this will only ever be the most minor addition to energy supply. Not all that many of us have bits cut off at any one time. It is an entirely useful technology in that it solves the waste problem. But to confuse it with energy generation is an error.

Which still leaves us with the interesting part. If burning plastics creates energy then why don’t we just do that, instead of all this whining about how we must recycle plastics?