British Airways and the US bioenergy company Solena are to establish Europe's first green jet fuel plant in the East End of London.
When it is up and running in 2014, the factory will turn 500,000 tonnes of landfill waste – including household and industrial rubbish – into 16 million gallons of carbon-neutral aviation fuel every year.
It will produce enough fuel to power all of BA's flights from nearby City Airport twice over. And with 95 per cent fewer emissions than traditional kerosene, the plan will be equivalent to taking 48,000 cars off the roads.
There are four sites under consideration for the plant, which will be built and run by Washington DC-based Solena, with BA guaranteed to buy all of its output. It will employ up to 1,200 people. Alongside the reduction in carbon from the jet fuel itself, it will also cut the methane produced from landfill and generate 20 megawatts of electricity per year as a byproduct.
Biofuel for aeroplanes has made slow progress, hampered by tricky technicalities including the necessary high energy capacity, and the extreme cold at which it must operate. BA's rival Virgin conducted the first commercial flight powered by biofuel in February 2008, and last January saw the first algae-fuelled jet take off from Houston.
But the fuel to be produced at Solena's east London plant will be altogether different. Rather than existing types that must be blended with normal fossil fuel jet fuel, Solena is aiming for a green fuel sufficient to fly the aircraft without any jet fuel added.
BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, believes the scheme will help BA to meet its target to cut net carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. "We believe it will lead to the production of a real sustainable alternative to jet kerosene," he said yesterday. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is also behind the plan – which will source as much of its waste material from local rubbish as possible.
City Hall wants to "untap the massive potential to generate cleaner, less polluting energy from waste, otherwise destined for landfill", Mr Johnson said, adding: "We are working to bring together more organisations in this way to harvest the capital's rubbish."
BA is adamant that the plant will be powered only by rubbish, and will not resort to using biomass crops grown specifically to be turned into fuel. But environmental campaigners are sceptical, pointing to automotive biofuel initiatives that ended up with a greater carbon footprint and a destructive global impact by replacing food crops.
"Biofuels for cars were meant to be a way of using waste cooking oil, but fuel companies ended up taking food away from the poor and trashing rainforests to make way for biofuel crop plantations," said Kenneth Richter, the biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
"Fuelling planes with biofuels could cause more of the same problems. It seems BA is already backtracking on its claim that it would only use food waste to fuel these planes."
Chip fat to dead giraffes: Biofuel accepts all comers
*British Airways is not the only transport group looking at household waste as a future source of "green" fuel. The bus company Stagecoach started using recycled chip fat to power vehicles in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, in 2007 – a scheme which has now been extended to another 20 buses in Cambridge, and will be used to power the world's longest busway when it opens later this year.
The fuel is supplied by Argent Energy – in which the Stagecoach chief executive, Brian Souter, has taken a stake – which produces it from waste cooking oil from industrial users and tallow from rendered animal products.
Occasionally, the usual run-of-the-mill sources have an unexpected addition. "I am so excited about making fuel out of the dead giraffe from the safari park and a whale beached in Stornoway," Mr Souter said.
The company is careful to ensure that all of its green fuel is made from waste. It does not use biomass specifically grown for fuel, or even waste biomass that might be more efficiently converted to energy another way.
The only reason that the company cannot run all 7,000 of its buses on green fuel is the amount of available rubbish and the lack of infrastructure to convert it.
But Stagecoach is looking at all available alternatives. "One possibility is that we could scoop the muck out of the sewers to make really good biofuel," Mr Souter added.