Header

Home

Matthew Taylor

WASTE MANAGEMENT CONTRACT FOR CORNWALL

 THE CASE FOR A
PUBLIC INQUIRY

 Cornwall is a county that its people are proud to call home, with a unique quality that millions more love to visit year after year. Preserving what makes Cornwall special is vital to us, to the economic wellbeing of the county as well as the quality of life of its local residents. In fact it could be argued that enhancement of the County’s assets should be at the forefront of the decision making process in Cornwall at every level. Unique solutions are needed for this unique county, thinking outside the box is essential. The conventional solution to what to do with our waste is to bury it or burn it. But the days of landfill are coming to an end – is a great big incinerator in the middle of the County really the best Cornwall can do?

 

Matthew Taylor MP, July 2006

 

Executive Summary

This report sets out the background to Cornwall’s plan for dealing with municipal waste over the next 30 years – the reasoning behind it, and in particular the proposal for a “Waste to Energy” plant burning 240,000 tonnes of municipal waste each year for 30 years.

This report accepts there are arguments both for and against, and does not attempt to conclude that debate. Rather, it argues that there are ten key issues that remain highly debatable, and can only be properly resolved by a full Public Inquiry before any EfW plant is built.

 

 

 

 

 

  

The waste issue

Cornwall’s growing population (7.8% growth from 1991 – 2001 ) is consuming more and more as it grows. Waste is produced as a by-product of this consumption. In general we look for the quickest and simplest way to get rid of our mountain of waste. We consume, we throw the bits we don’t want into a black bag, and it’s taken away. Every year we collectively throw away 3% more household rubbish than we did the year before.

In recent years many of us have begun doing our bit by recycling, but on the whole we still see waste generation as part and parcel of living. Waste removal and disposal is just a part of our day to day lives – most of us never give it a thought.

 

The drive for change and how Cornwall will step up to the challenge

Cornwall’s landfill sites are filling up, and government targets and landfill taxes mean new waste tips are no longer an option, as well as environmentally destructive. We have no choice but to rethink what we are doing with our waste. Tax payers across the country are faced with significant financial penalties if government and European targets are not met. The pressure is on to find solutions and with time running out we find ourselves in the position of having to find them quickly.

In Cornwall the County Council are proposing to meet these legislative targets and demands by signing up to a 30 year long Integrated Waste Management contract which will be delivered by a specialist company - SITA - and financed by a Private Finance Initiative (upfront private investment, in return for a long term contract with the County). The bare bones of the contract as it stands are for a single Energy from Waste (EfW) plant, with capacity to burn 240,000 tonnes of waste per annum (largely Municipal Waste), to be built at a location in central Cornwall, plus a network of Resource Management Parks and Household Waste Management facilities across the County. The outlined scheme acknowledges the need for waste minimisation and recycling, although no overall targets for either are set. Details of the proposed scheme can be found in the Cornwall Waste Development Framework Documents produced by Cornwall County Council (Preferred Options Reports).

The Dilemma

The County Council believes that the Integrated Waste Management contract will solve the County’s existing and future waste issues, ensuring that we comply with legislation, minimise payments of LATs (Landfill Tax Allowance Trading System) fines and Landfill Tax, and embrace the best practical environmental option for sustainability and innovation as we move forward.

There is however a significant body of opinion within the county that feels that the County Council are taking Cornwall in the wrong direction. The concern is that the main solution (the EfW plant) as outlined in the PFI contract is out of date before it’s even built and that it is not the sustainable, forward thinking option that the County deserves. There are fears that the solution as it stands will be too rigid, will not allow for future change, will not encourage waste minimisation, recycling and reuse and will in fact tie the county and its residents into a tight knot that will be impossible to undo. It is accused of being a white elephant of enormous proportions.

Many NGO’s, businesses, environmentalists, councillors and concerned members of the public are concerned that in one way or another Cornwall is being sold short.  They worry that in committing ourselves to SITA and the PFI contract Cornwall may be missing an opportunity to take the lead as an exemplar of good, forward thinking and sustainable practice. They see Cornwall as a unique county with the potential to build on its already growing reputation as a ‘Green Peninsula’.

The question as to whether or not the Integrated Waste Management contract (as it currently exists) is or is not the way to go, is part of a much bigger dilemma relating to changing opinions on waste and how it is dealt – a dilemma that is being considered across the globe and which requires new ways of thinking.

Can we completely change our view of waste in Cornwall? And even if we could, does Cornwall have the energy, time, money, expertise and drive to deliver what will be a complex solution requiring a definite mind shift and a change in the way we live our day to day lives?

Certainly there are many who believe that this is possible and who would like the opportunity to give it a chance without being restricted by what they consider to be a limiting and long lived contract. Just as much as the County Council genuinely believes it is offering the best practical environmental option, they passionately believe Cornwall could and should do better.

This is the case for a Public Inquiry. Without one, the County Council that drew up the contract will also be the body that decides on the planning application by SITA to build the waste-to-energy incinerator.  The merits of the particular site may be examined – but what many believe to be a fundamentally flawed strategy will not. The County Council have made their plan – it is time for that plan to be examined, for the public to have their say, for SITA and the County plan to be cross examined. Only a Public Inquiry can make this possible.

 

Redefining waste

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of waste is ‘unusable or unwanted material’.

Unfortunately, what has traditionally fallen under the heading of waste and ended up in our black bags is often anything but ‘unusable’. We’ve simply failed to recognise its potential.

We have failed on a second count too: Whilst we discard so much of our waste as ‘unwanted’,  we have forgotten to ask  how much of that unwanted stuff wasn’t needed in the first place, and could be removed from the equation altogether. For example we have an extreme problem in this country with over-packaging - bags within bags, bags within boxes, boxes within cartons. So much of the unwanted is also unnecessary.

Surely the solution is not to keep finding more ways to dispose of the unnecessary. It can be argued that it makes far more sense to stop this unwanted material entering the waste stream in the first place. This is the concept of waste minimisation.

In addition to not creating the waste in the first place, re-using and recycling the waste, treating it as a resource to be utilised rather than as rubbish to be thrown away is the only way of realising the true value of the products we all consume. We are throwing away money, energy and jobs every time we bag up our rubbish for the bin men/women!

According to ReZolve, analysis of black bin bag contents would suggest that a 60% recycling rate is possible in the county. Recycling rates in Cornwall currently sit at about 26%, and the size of the proposed incinerator implies that will barely increase.

Charmian Larke of Atlantic Energy argues that the Integrated Waste Management contract will only deliver a maximum of 31-33% recycling. As it stands there have been no recycling targets set for SITA, so it is possible that these rates could be higher or lower, we just don’t know. Is this really the best Cornwall can do, when the best in the world already achieve twice as much?

 

THE CASE FOR A PUBLIC INQUIRY

The way we view waste is absolutely essential to the strategy we develop to deal with it. There is clearly an argument to be made that in Cornwall we have not yet decided as a population how we view and therefore how we want to deal with the waste that we generate.

There are many reasons why many residents across Cornwall are opposing the County Council’s decision to embark on the PFI contract, but what unites them all is concern that a solution is being imposed without adequate consultation and that this solution will set the future in stone in such as way as to discourage innovation and severely restrict future movement.

Despite the fact that it will generate energy, the single EfW plant in Cornwall as currently proposed is seen by many as an old solution for an old way of thinking, past its sell by date before it has even been built. Yet the County Council insist it is a huge environmental step forward. One side say it is little more than an old fashioned incinerator. The other says it is a green power plant. They can’t both be right.

The question of whether the current PFI contract as pursued by the County Council is the best one for Cornwall needs more than the County Council effectively giving itself planning permission. A Public Inquiry is the only way for the issue to be given a fair final hearing, for the debate to be thoroughly tested and concluded in an open and transparent way.

 

TEN SPECIFIC ISSUES TO BE TESTED BY A PUBLIC INQUIRY

There are TEN specific issues and concerns that have arisen over the duration of this research. Doubtless there will be more that are not covered here, views that should be heard as part of the necessary Public Inquiry. But these form the 10 key elements of the case for a Public Inquiry.

 

1. Can we control the EfW plant’s insatiable desire for fuel?

Municipal Solid Waste tonnage in Cornwall currently amounts to 320,000 tonnes per annum and is predicted to grow at a rate of 2-3% each year.

The Integrated Waste Management contract includes a single Energy from Waste Plant that will be designed to burn 240,000 tonnes of waste for a 30 year lifespan. It is justified as the solution for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), but in the event that waste minimisation, re-use and recycling reduce the Municipal Waste stream to less than is needed to operate the EfW plant at the agreed minimum level (218,000 tonnes of waste), the option is available to SITA to take in Commercial and Industrial Waste to burn. Cornwall County Council anticipates that there will be more than enough Municipal Solid Waste to burn and indeed their projections would suggest as much. SITA as a profit making company must also be confident that the waste stream will be forthcoming – it is not in their interests to operate a plant below optimum efficiency.

It is not however beyond the impossible to suggest that with comprehensive effort and focus, recycling, reuse and waste minimisation in the County could be far higher than predicted. The size of the plant implies little improvement in the proportion of MSW that is reduced, reused or recycled – yet other communities already do much better, and even the supermarkets are beginning to cut packaging or use recyclable material. If this happens, the County say they would turn to Commercial and Industrial Waste as the fuel with which to feed the plant – but this would act as a disincentive to the Commercial/Industrial waste sector to take measures to minimise, reuse and recycle waste themselves.

There are positive indications that Cornish businesses are starting to look at their waste and how it’s dealt with, with fresh eyes. So it is not without plausibility that within the next 30 years, even the Commercial/Industrial sector may not be able to supply the fuel necessary to operate the EfW plant at optimum levels. And whether the EfW feeds on municipal or commercial waste, its insatiable appetite for 240,000 tonnes of waste each year will be no incentive for Cornwall to find new solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle.

According to Cornwall County Council, the Council are not contractually obliged to supply SITA with the waste to fuel their EfW plant if MSW supply falls below the levels expected. However, if enough waste cannot be found within the county it will be the Council’s decision whether or not waste can be imported into the County for burning in the incinerator. According to the County Council they are completely within their rights to say no to this request and will not face any financial penalty as a consequence. However, with tens of millions invested in an incinerator, will the County Council really be able to resist SITA’s need to make it pay?

Adam Paynter of the County Council has said that with two independent lines, each taking 120,000 tonnes of residual waste, it will be possible for the EfW facility to run on a single line should optimistic waste targets be met and not enough waste is supplied for burning. But it is unlikely that SITA would be jumping for joy should they have to turn off half the plant and therefore make significant financial losses.

Despite verbal reassurances from the County Council, a Public Inquiry would facilitate the essential step of detailed and transparent examination of the financial obligations of this contract. This should serve to remove concerns about financial penalties and/or import of waste should the County succeed in reducing waste streams.

 

2. Have we maximised incentives to minimise, re-use, compost and recycle?

The provision of new Household Waste Management facilities and Resource Management Parks as outlined in the Waste Development Framework, Preferred Options Report is an encouraging step in the promotion of recycling and re-use in the County.

It is understood that SITA are obliged under the contract not only to create the facilities at which composting, bio-waste processing and recycling will take place, but also to explore innovative new technologies for recycling and re-use as they emerge. The intention is to develop glass, plastics and paper recycling in the county on a larger scale than at present, and for new smaller scale social enterprises to be set up to work with one part of the waste stream, as with the ‘Shreddy Bed’ Project run by ReZolve.

Re-use, recycling and composting have the potential to generate additional jobs in the county, not just at the dirty end of things, but in small businesses and social enterprises.

Innovation will be key to progress in the field of re-use and recycling.
However, just how much of an incentive SITA will have to explore new ways of increasing the percentage of waste being composted, recycled and re-used remains to be seen. The County Council has indicated that SITA will make more money from the material they recycle than from the material they burn and will face penalties if they do not recycle materials that are recyclable. This again is an issue for clarification at Public Inquiry since common sense would suggest that SITA’s priority will first and foremost be to ensure supply of fuel for their incinerator rather than trying to find ways to stop waste from being burnt.

It has been suggested by critics of the Integrated Waste Management plan that calculations of future waste arising have significantly underestimated the potential for both waste minimisation and changes to packaging to make an impact on the waste stream in Cornwall. Early discussions between Chris Hines of the Eden Project and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) suggest that it may not be too long before large retailers cut the packaging they use on their products. Excess packaging could either be completely removed or non-degradable packaging could be replaced by compostable alternatives (when packaging is necessary).

The nature of packaging materials is changing, with wider availability of compostable starch based materials in place of petrochemical based plastics. Not only will this mean a changing feedstock for the incinerator, it will also mean that more packaging waste will end up being recycled or composted.

Eden has succeeded in making a 9% reduction in the amount of waste they send to landfill simply by switching to compostable versions of packaging or removing packaging altogether.

If the BRC and the UK’s supermarkets are already looking into their packaging, it is unlikely to be long before they start making significant changes. And where the supermarkets lead, others will follow.
This surely has to be an important factor in determining the capacity of the incinerator. Is an EfW facility that needs 240,000 tonnes of waste a year, a figure based on existing waste flows, really the right solution to be tied into for the next 30 years?

Only recently SITA were forced to amend a PFI contract with Surrey County Council in light of the Council’s desire to ‘prepare ourselves for the necessary shift in focus on the way we manage our waste in Surrey’. Amendments to the contract will see more provision for recycling and less for recovery plants than negotiated originally. SITA will now build smaller incinerators than were previously suggested, as well as more recycling facilities. With changes like these forced in a matter of months, is Cornwall right to be planning to incinerate so much for 30 years?

Why are predicted recycling figures for Cornwall comparatively low? Are we satisfied that the PFI for Cornwall doesn’t already need amending?

 

3. Have we got a plan that works for Cornwall’s waste as a whole?

The County Council acknowledges that the Waste Development Framework will need to provide planning policy for a number of waste streams in addition to Municipal and Commercial/Industrial waste. However there is a question as to how joined up this thinking is. 

There is bound to be some sector/sector cross over and some room for joint ventures. However, since waste management in Cornwall falls under the responsibility of different sectors there is a lack of impetus to look at the situation in the round. Where this fact may have the most significance is in the field of energy generation. Particularly since the County Council appear to view the EfW plants as a ‘power plant’, a way to help meet Cornwall’s future energy needs. However, if energy generation is indeed a priority, there is a debate to be had as to whether the type of EfW plant proposed is actually the most efficient way to do the job.

Experts such as Gage Williams (Compact Power) suggest that burning biomass combined with sewage sludge and organic matter in 2 or 3 smaller plants would be a far more efficient and effective way to produce energy for the County. It is understood that this type of plant could also take part of the MSW and Commercial/Industrial streams and since carbon content would be high, the output would be high energy.

A series of waste facilities that produce high energy power as well as increasing composting and recycling would according to Biffa not only be the most efficient and sustainable way of producing power, but would also be extremely effective at increasing job opportunities within the waste industry.

With professional opinion divided, there is a clear case that these issues, and the potential benefits for the County from considering all the waste streams in Cornwall as a whole, should be examined at a Public Inquiry.

4. Are there better treatment solutions?

There is much dispute about whether a single centralised EfW facility (treating mainly MSW) is the best way to generate energy from waste in Cornwall.  Some such as Restormel Borough Council would prefer a network of smaller facilities linked to Resource Management Parks, taking in both domestic and commercial waste. Smaller plants could be distributed so as to minimise road transportation and to ensure that the waste is treated nearer to where it is generated.

The suggestion has also been made that smaller facilities could make use of newer technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis. There is further argument that smaller facilities take a shorter time to build and have a smaller environmental impact.

In addition, using gasification and pyrolysis as opposed to incineration would mean that the resultant electricity would qualify as Renewable Energy and therefore earn Renewables Obligations Certificates (ROCS) on the proportion of the waste used that was non-fossil fuel derived (usually considered to be about 2/3). This would make the whole scheme more cost effective.

When it comes to the provision of EfW facilities there are conflicting views as to whether a centralised or decentralised option is a better solution for the County. Charmian Larke of Atlantic Energy has calculated that savings of over £1 million could be made on transportation alone, with a decentralised option consisting of three as opposed to one site. Other cost savings have also been demonstrated. Dealing with waste as near to its point of generation as possible, in keeping with the Proximity Principle and in line with the concept of sustainability would appear to be a prudent line to take. The County Council however argue that a centralised option is far cheaper.

Certainly full consideration of the latest processes to treat residuals and recover value from heat/energy recovery is essential, even if it means moving away from the County Councils preferred option of a single EfW plant.
A Public Inquiry would facilitate full and transparent discussion of all the options, providing an independent test of whether the County really has the best solution.

 

5. Is it the best location for the EfW facility?

Clearly any community facing the proposition of an EfW facility on their doorstep is unlikely to be waiting in eager anticipation. They will have genuine concern for the impact on their health, their environment, and their quality of life. It is essential that every community has the chance to comment and test the proposal, not only on the proposed location of the plant but also on the Integrated Waste Management scheme as a whole.

The Proximity Principle and the principle of sustainability must be central to the choice of any location for a waste treatment facility. The decision on location must be proven to have taken account of the need to protect the local environment and if there are to be EfW plant(s) of any sort in the County, the energy should be used as close to its source of generation as possible.

Table 6.7 of the Sustainability Appraisal for the Preferred Options report suggests that Potential Facility Impacts and Site Constraints imposed by the EfW facility would be considerable at all potential sites. It is difficult to ascertain from this how one site could be chosen above another.

The idea that the County Council should be deciding on the SITA planning application itself, when that application is based on a plan drawn up by the County Council in the first place, is hardly likely to give residents reassurance their concerns will be considered impartially. The best forum for discussion of the single Waste from Energy plant and the factors that will lead to planning permission being granted at any particular site is at a Public Inquiry. Only that way will justice be seen to be done.

6. Don’t we still need a Waste Strategy?

Although the County Council do not have to produce a Waste Strategy by law, they have been promising one for several years. It seems slightly back to front to have already committed to a Waste Development Framework and the Integrated Waste Management contract before a Strategy is produced.

The EfW facility became part of the Waste Local Plan (and hence Cornwall’s future) after assessment under the governments “Best Practicable Environmental Option” assessment process. However if the same plan were to undergo scrutiny today via a Sustainability Appraisal (as would now be required) a very different conclusion might be reached.

7. How safe is burning waste?

As is to be expected a number of parties have concerns about pollution arising as a consequence of the Integrated Waste Management Plan implementation. Concerns range from worries about additional vehicle emissions to increased dioxin levels in the atmosphere.
Members of campaign group STIG have raised an issue particularly relevant to the Clay District, suggesting that dioxins may attach themselves to clay particles and therefore accumulate and bioaccumulate through the food chain.

Local food processors and farmers have been particularly worried about impacts on the food chain. Families in the area of search worry about the impact on children and babies. 

Modern EfW plants are far cleaner than old fashioned incinerators – but even the best technology can fail – especially over a 30 year lifespan. Any local community facing the building of one of these plants rightly wants to know what the safeguards are, and the risks.

The County Council have compared emissions from the proposed EfW facility to the amount of dioxins released by fireworks on Bonfire Night or over a barbeque and have sought to reassure concerned members of the public that modern day incineration techniques release far less pollution than in the past.

The best way for these public fears to be allayed is through a Public Inquiry, not by the County Council judging its own plan.

 

8. If it is such a good idea, why has it been rejected at other Inquiries?

There is no denying that incineration, even when energy is being generated as a result, suffers from an image problem.  How would an incinerator affect Cornwall’s growing reputation as a green county? Would it have ramifications for the regions food industry, on tourism?

According to Charmian Larke of Atlantic Energy, incinerators throughout the country are being stalled at the planning stage, and often do not get through planning even on appeal. Since 2000 Ms Larke has highlighted 7 planned incinerators that were rejected at planning, appeal or judicial review .

 All this suggests that incinerators, even if they are Energy from Waste plants, are not only viewed unfavourably by the public, but have often failed to make a convincing case when examined in detail.

Before committing to spend hundreds of millions of pounds over the next thirty years, Cornwall would do well to consider this experience elsewhere.

9. Can we afford to reconsider?

The County Council have expressed concern that by not proceeding with the PFI contract as already agreed, PFI funding will be lost and the procurement process will have to start again from scratch.

It is certainly true that the Government have threatened the County by saying that if the present procurement process was halted, then the PFI “credits” (permission for the County to enter a PFI contract) would be withdrawn. This has lead to fear that the County would be left with no affordable waste solution.

However, this is to misunderstand the role of PFI – which is in fact just one funding option. PFI does not gift the County extra money – in return for upfront private investment in facilities, the county has to commit to paying a 30 year contract. Another option would be for the County to borrow upfront to invest, paying back the loan in a similar way to paying the PFI contract. In any case, the Government need local authorities to find solutions – in practice, Ministers have to allow councils to raise the finance to do this, one way or another.

Another huge concern for County Councillors is the enormous fines the Government is starting to impose on landfill. The longer Cornwall fails to find an alternative to landfill, the bigger these fines will get. The result would eventually be huge increases in Council Tax. However, if alternative, smaller scale solutions were adopted, these are actually quicker to build than a vast EfW plant. And as the waste debate evolves, many environmentalists argue that to encourage re-use, reduction and recycling EfW plants (which in burning plastics contribute to climate change) should be subject to similar penalties as landfill – in which case an EfW facility in Cornwall could prove to be an expensive wrong turn if better alternatives are available, as opponents argue. Indeed, Liberal Democrat policy at national level is already considering such financial incentives against burning waste.

What is certain is that in drawing up their waste plans with SITA, the County Council have had to factor in both the costs and the timescale associated with a Public Inquiry into their EfW Plant proposal, since it is a very real possibility such a Public Inquiry will take place.  So there is built into the project both the time and the funding for a Public Inquiry – there is no excuse for not holding one.

 

It has been said several times already, but unless there is a Public Inquiry the planning application SITA puts in for an EfW plant will be decided by the County Council – who drew up the plan in the first place.

The simple fact is that this plan is highly controversial. The local communities affected will naturally have very real fears about the impact on them. More widely, many of those concerned about the environment in Cornwall, both ordinary members of the public and those with specific expertise, have serious concern that Cornwall County Council have not found the best solution. For the County Council to sit in its own judgement will not resolve those worries – it will heighten them.

There are very real arguments both for and against the plan for an EfW plant. It is vital for Cornwall that the right conclusion is reached – and that it is seen to be properly tested and decided.

The only way to effectively and fairly conclude this debate is with a full Public Inquiry. That is what this report calls on Ministers to deliver.

 

 

Cornwall County Council, Cornwall’s Challenges and Concerns – The Evidence Base

Mike Brown, CES Group website: www.cesgroup.co.uk/who/c1_pl.html

Written communication, Environment and Heritage Portfolio holder, Adam Paynter, Cornwall County Council.

Biffa, Future Perfect Publication www.biffa.co.uk

Gage Williams, personal communication

Notes on low risk approaches to residual waste thermal treatment technologies, Charmian Larke, Atlantic Energy, April 2005.

 

Top