Diary of an engineer: The language they understood

Submitted by AWL on 5 October, 2021 - 10:27 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

While people at the Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) trace the origins of some illegally-tipped carbon fibre, I go to Nottingham to look at the processing of Incinerator Bottom Ash (IBA). S, an operator who used to work in waste processing, kindly offers to come along to back me up. The yard is surprisingly small, walled on all sides by piles of ash. W, the head of operations, shows us the belt which loads IBA into their plant. He shows us a raised tunnel where unburned waste is dropped into a skip by picking workers.

Me: “Can we see inside please?”

W: “I’m afraid that’s confidential.”

Me: “But that’s the area where you’re having problems?”

W: “Since the matting came through everyone in there’s in hazmat suits — gloves, boots, face-shields, hoods — you think it’s hot out here, imagine what it’s like in there. Our staff haven’t trusted IBA from Sheffield since the matting because they’re not confident it won’t be full of black fibre.”

I note that W and the drivers are wearing t-shirts, hi-viz, boots and gloves. If the workers on the belt were wearing something similar before they complained, their arms would have been exposed.

He shows us the fibre — huge piles of IBA are riddled with it. Some is bundled into dense rolls, the rest is tangled around bits of cable and shards of metal, making it impossible to separate. We put on thick gloves and take a few samples.

I look at the closed sorting chamber, and we watch as unburned waste is dropped through a hole in the floor into a large skip. After sorting the IBA is fed through a fierce gas flame, then shaken and rolled through trommels into different grades of coarse or fine gravel.

S asks “Do you have a lot of demand for your product?”

W: “It’s actually a good time in the market right now. A lot of people are doing work on their houses and gardens, so we sell a lot of product as a foundation material, or aggregate for back-filling underground works like pipe-laying.”

We sit in a miserable office and I ask for further clarification on the processes. A passing driver asks if we’re here to get rid of the black matting — S assures him we are.

Me: “What do you do with the unburned waste picked off the line?”

W: “It goes to our recycling contractor; they process what they can and send the rest to landfill.”

Me: “Would they be able to process the pile of contaminated IBA with the matting? If so, could send me a quote so we can get that moving?”

In the end, the company agree to accept our IBA, and quarantine any loads they deem have too much “unburned” in them, which relieves pressure on the plant. We send photos and take samples of every batch, reporting on the quality and condition. They won’t process it. Then one day my manager comes back from a call with the director, and says:

“They will process all our IBA, including the stuff in quarantine. We will pay to dispose of the black matting, and then send the bill to the transfer station that sent us the illegal waste.”

Me and the operators are shocked, we’ve been arguing with them for weeks.

N: “How did you manage that?”

G: “I told him the contract would be invalid if they didn’t fulfil their obligation to us. I just spoke to him in a language he understood.” G rubs his fingers together in a gesture meaning “money”.

S laughs: “They’re fucking crooks.”

• Emma Rickman is an engineer at a Combined Heat and Power plant

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