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Rubbish dumps could supply up to a fifth of the UK's electricity, enough to power two million homes, by 2020, according to a report from UK engineers and green-energy lobbyists.

Peter Gerstrom, chairman of the Institute of Civil Engineers' board of waste management, warned that on current form, the UK will not meet EU targets for renewable energy. The EU Renewables Directive calls on member states to produce 10 per cent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010, and 20 per cent by 2020.

He argues that redirecting biodegradable waste from our landfills will have benefits aside from energy production: "Waste into energy will have environmental benefits by reducing the rubbish mountain. It also has the added bonus that recycling residual biodegradable waste in this way is an effective way of hitting the targets in the EU Landfill Directive.

"Instead of burying rubbish that is left after recycling it can be used to create electricity through a variety of measures," Gerstrom said.

These measures would include incineration of large quantities of the waste, which raises questions about acceptable levels of particulate pollution, and emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.

However, a spokeswoman for the Renewable Energy Association explains that much of the material being incinerated would have a closed carbon cycle. This means that they will only return to the atmosphere the carbon they used to grow, and that carbon will be pulled back out of the atmosphere when other plants are grown in their place. In total, burning this biomass will not add to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

"About sixty eight per cent of the calorific value of this waste we are talking about is biomass, which counts towards a CO2 emission saving. Of course plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels, do not count as an emission saving," she told us.

As for other emissions, she argues that any plant burning fuel will generate some particulate pollution: "It is a case of six of one, half a dozen of another," she said.

However, since the incineration of waste is more tightly regulated than burning coal, the pollution generated from burning in a waste incinerator should be lower, she added.

You can download the full report here. ®

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