By Jonathan Brown
Cheshire residents have come together in one of the most fiercely fought campaigns to oppose municipal waste incinerators since six were proposed to dispose of their rubbish. They claim that their county is in danger of becoming "the most incinerator-contaminated place in Britain".
So far 10,000 people have signed up to the non-political Cheshire Anti-Incinerator Network (Chain). Chief among them is the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Under a scheme proposed in 2009 on the western fringes of his Tatton constituency, a UK subsidiary of the giant Indian Tata group, one of the world's leading producers of industrial chemicals, has been seeking to build a vast new "energy-from-waste" facility (incinerator) handling up to 600,000 tonnes of bio-mass and pre-treated waste each year.
Proposed by the company Brunner Mond, it would be developed and operated by the German energy giant E.ON, and would provide power to drive its existing soda ash plant.
Campaigners claim that should it go ahead, the incinerator at Lostock Gralam, near Northwich, will be one of Europe's largest and produce 60 tonnes of toxic waste each day, necessitating hundreds of extra lorry journeys and the need to import waste from outside the county in order for it to be viable. In August, Mr Osborne, who as shadow Chancellor was the first signatory to a 25,000-name petition against the scheme, wrote to a constituent to tell them that he had met Brunner Mond executives to explain his opposition to the plant and that it posed a threat to the "environment and people's quality of life".
The incinerator has bypassed the local planning process because of the project's size, councillors having already rejected several similar and smaller proposals.
The planning application for the new plant, situated close to a local school, supermarket, DIY store and homes, will be dealt with instead by the Department of Energy and Climate change in Whitehall, where civil servants have already received 3,000 formal complaints. A decision is expected early next year.
Brunner Mond has held a series of public exhibitions where it claimed that 92 per cent of those who attended understood the need for the development.
Campaigners stress this is a huge waste of money
If you think local people don't like windfarms in their backyard, try building a waste incinerator. Invariably, wherever local councils or waste management companies try to site an incinerator, it is greeted with opposition from communities which is furious, intense, and organised. Local residents simply will not have that tall chimney in their neighbourhood spewing out God-knows-what into the air that their children breathe, never mind the 10 per cent it will knock off their house prices. Would you?
The fear of toxic pollution, especially from the group of potentially harmful chemicals known as dioxins which are produced in the combustion process, seems to be at the core of local people's opposition. Twenty years ago dioxins were one of the environmental movement's bogey words, but gradually their presence has come to be used as less of a warning – they're produced whenever you light a bonfire, and the evidence for human harm, apart from in large-scale exposure like that in the 1976 Seveso chemical plant explosion in Italy, is unclear. But there are still lots of nasty substances inside an incinerator.
Environmentalists who oppose incineration put less stress on pollution these days – for example, the possibility of toxic emissions is only given as the fifth out of six reasons for opposing burning by the UK Without Incineration Network. This is partly because the big (and very expensive) filters on modern incinerator chimneys can capture most pollutants. Campaigners stress instead that incineration is a misguided strategy and a waste of large sums of money (a big incinerator can cost up to £100m), cash which will only be diverted from recycling efforts and attempts at waste minimisation.
Local councils, on the other hand, favour incinerators because they think they will help them meet their liabilities under the EU's Landfill Directive, which is remorselessly squeezing down the amount of rubbish they can dump in holes in the ground. Sending waste to landfill is increasingly expensive because of the UK's own landfill tax, never mind fines which might be on the way from Europe for missed targets. And waste management companies which make incinerators are naturally pushing their products for commercial reasons.
Where does the Government stand? The Health Protection Agency came close to giving incineration a clean bill of health in 2009 when it reported: "Modern, well-managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants. It is possible that such small additions could have an impact on health but such effects, if they exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable."
But as for the Government's own view, it is curiously hard to say. If you look at the waste management policy section of the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, you can't really find any reference to incineration as a policy measure, although the Government is committed to a "zero waste" minimisation strategy.
Waste management was one of the real success stories of the last government, which in a mere decade managed to raise the amount of household waste going for recycling from 4 per cent in 2000 to nearly 40 per cent now, and was aiming for 50 per cent by 2020.
But the Coalition has declined to embrace this target, and instead the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has announced a review of waste policy, which will be published next year.
Presumably something about incineration will have to be said then. In the meantime, it seems that the Government's policy, as the supersmooth mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby once announced in Yes, Minister, is to have no policy.
By Jonathan Brown
A grassroots revolt is growing over a new generation of controversial incinerators planned across the UK, which would see the amount of household waste sent to be burnt more than double. Incinerators are currently being planned on more than 80 sites under the so-called "dash for ash".
The Coalition must decide this summer whether to give its blessing to the £10bn roll-out of the new incinerator chimneys, which continue to meet fierce levels of local resistance from those who would live in their shadow. Concern over possible health risks and impact on property prices looks likely to make incineration one of the most toxic political issues of 2011.
According to the Environment Agency
Vehement opposition also comes from environmentalists, who claim that incinerators contribute to greenhouse gases and discourage councils from meeting more ambitious recycling goals.
According to the Environment Agency there are 21 facilities in the UK currently treating municipal waste, while a further eight have been given the go-ahead but are not yet operational. It is estimated that a further two dozen "energy from waste" schemes are still making their way through the planning process or awaiting a final decision from the Secretary of State.
And the waste industry is promising a "step change" in burning Britain's annual rubbish mountain. It believes that "many more" will still be needed in the medium term to meet the previous government's goal of turning 25 per cent of municipal waste into energy to heat homes and provide electricity over the next decade, and prevent Britain from paying millions of pounds in future EU landfill fines.
The UK Without Incineration Network has 80 active groups opposing local developments. One of its co-ordinators, Shlomo Dowen, a former teacher, opposes a new incinerator on a former mine near his home in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. The campaign is becoming a test of wills between local people and big business, he said.
"This about people power. Typically people start off from a situation of not giving much thought to what happens to their waste when it goes in the bin. They don't know and they don't want to know.
"But when an incinerator is proposed they become alarmed at the health impact and this gets them to take to the internet. Then they realise they are very expensive and that there are other viable alternatives such as anerobic digestion which is renewable.
"No one is arguing that incinerators improve people's health. The debate is about how much local people's health will be depreciated.
"The waste companies underestimate the level of resistance. They don't care as passionately as people do for their own neighbourhood. To them it's just a job. The more people scrutinise the process the more likely it is to come off the rails."
That resistance now includes the Chancellor, George Osborne, who has added his support to campaigners against a new incinerator in his Cheshire constituency. The Liberal Democrats have have opposed incineration at national and local levels. Political support for incineration looks increasingly uncertain as the amount of waste generated each year by households has been falling steadily and recycling rates increasing. Waste companies however claim there will always be a limit to how much rubbish can be recycled – at around 70 per cent of what we throw away – leaving millions of tonnes each year as a valuable untapped energy resource.
Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth's resource use campaigner, rejects industry claims that incinerators could help remove 34 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by preventing rubbish being buried in the ground where it continues to produce harmful greenhouse gases. "Scratch the surface and you see that, because of all the oil-based materials they burn, such as plastics, they emit a third more CO2 than gas-fired power stations. Add in emissions from biogenic materials such as paper, textiles and food, and they can be more than twice as bad as coal-fired power stations," he said.
But with further capacity for 1.2 million tonnes of waste-burning already planned, the industry is not having it all its own way – despite the backing of business leaders including the CBI, which earlier this year urged councils to bury their objections to building new incinerators.
Both coalition parties are committed to the growth in the emerging anaerobic digestion industry in which biodegradable matter is recycled into renewable energy.
Meanwhile in October seven projects due to be funded under a private finance initiative were scrapped by the Coalition, in several cases on cost grounds – but not before local authorities had spent millions of pounds investigating and consulting on the matter during the lengthy planning stage.
David Sher, policy adviser for the Environmental Services Association, which represents the waste industry, acknowledged the level of opposition.
"While all large infrastructure projects are challenging to deliver, energy from waste projects are still shaking off occasionally held misconceptions that increase that challenge," he said. "These surround their impact on recycling rates and uncertainty over the health and environmental effects of emissions.
"In recent years, significant work has gone into debunking the myths surrounding energy from waste, notably by the Health Protection Agency, showing that any potential damage for well-regulated incinerators is very small or so small as to be undetectable."
Mr Sher insisted: "Energy from waste is a clean, proven and reliable technology and must form a component of sustainable waste management and energy strategies."
HOUSEHOLD WASTE BY NUMBERS
23,700,000 tonnes of household waste collected in England in 2009-10 and 1.5m tonnes in Wales.
1,036 kg of waste from typical English households in 2009-10, of which 411kg was recycled.
4,000 Number of landfill sites in the United Kingdom.
9.4 million tonnes of England's household waste is now recycled – 3.3 times the figure in 2001.
70 per cent of what we throw away can be recycled.
25 per cent: the Government target for the amount of municipal waste it wants burnt and converted into household energy over the next 10 years.
21 incineration facilities in the United Kingdom treating municipal waste, with a further eight soon coming into operation.
24 "energy from waste" schemes are in the planning stages or awaiting imminent Government approval.
£48 per tonne – current rate of landfill tax. It is due to rise every April for the next three years
Waste Britain: Improved recycling rates mean that we may not have enough garbage to feed planned new plants
By Kate Youde
Environmental groups are demanding an end to the building of new waste incinerators, which they say will undermine recycling. Experts question whether Britain will produce enough household waste to fuel energy-from-waste plants as the country improves its recycling efforts. And they warn that waste will have to be diverted from sustainable recycling schemes or imported from elsewhere to keep a rash of new planned waste incinerators working.
The UK has 25 waste incinerators, but, according to the UK Without Incineration Network, there are a further 65 "potential" incinerators outlined for England, nine in Scotland and one for Wales. Environmentalists are calling for a moratorium, urging the Government to take a more sustainable approach to waste management.
Last week, the coalition government announced a review of waste policies in England. It will include consideration of "how to ensure the right contribution of energy from waste, including delivery of a step change in generation from anaerobic digestion", a method of processing biological wastes that generates methane which can be used to produce power and heat, as well as a soil improver. Preliminary findings are not due to be published until next year.
Incinerator policy will come under scrutiny next month when the public inquiry into a proposed 180,000-ton energy recovery facility at Rufford, Nottinghamshire, recommences. Becky Slater, campaign assistant at Friends of the Earth, said the UK should learn from Europe, where some countries with many incinerators "are now finding they are struggling to fill them and recycling rates are being restricted".
In Hampshire, where the Veolia waste contractor operates three incinerators, a shortage of municipal waste has already led the company to seek to vary the plants' planning conditions to allow them to process more commercial waste and, potentially, import waste from outside the county. A county council spokeswoman denied the incinerators would impact on recycling. However, only one of the county's 14 local authorities recycles domestic food waste – the rest incinerate it.
Gill Weeks, of the Environmental Services Association, the trade body representing the UK's waste management industry, claimed there was particular overcapacity in Germany and the Netherlands, with other EU member states exporting waste there. Campaigners warn that the possibility of overcapacity in the UK arises because waste levels across the country are now in decline as Britons get better at recycling. Official statistics show collected municipal waste in England alone decreased by 4.1 per cent to 27.3 million tons in 2008-09, compared to 28.5 million tons in 2007-08. The proportion of municipal waste being recycled or composted increased from 34 per cent to 36.9 per cent in the same period, while waste incinerated with energy recovery rose from 11.1 per cent to 12.2 per cent. Landfill disposal fell from 54.4 per cent to 50.3 per cent.
"If you combine that stabilisation of waste growth and an ever-increasing recycling rate, it shows we need to be very careful not to build too much infrastructure to deal with waste," said Ms Slater. Despite this, there has been a "surge" of PFI incinerator proposals, she said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says there are 39 waste PFI projects, two of which are operational and two which are being built. Four more await a planning inquiry or appeal. Environmentalists warn that PFI agreements lock councils into expensive, inflexible, long-term contracts that make predicting future recycling rates difficult.
A Defra spokesman said the priority was to prevent waste being created, but that there would always be some unavoidable waste. "Reusing and recycling this waste is important, but where this can't happen, a more environmentally friendly alternative to sending it to landfill can be to use it to generate power for homes and businesses," he added. "We monitor potential waste-incineration capacity very closely and we do not believe at this stage there will be overcapacity. Many European countries such as the Netherlands have a higher rate of recycling than England and combine it with high rates of incineration."
The Lancashire town of Leyland is hardly a monument to cutting-edge technology. It is best remembered for the car plant that became a symbol to the industrial turmoil that plagued Britain in the 1970s. Perhaps that's why the locals were none too impressed to hear, a few months back, that their locality had been earmarked for a plant where all Lancashire's domestic waste would soon be processed. The county produces 775,000 tons of the stuff a year, so it certainly sounded as if Leyland was being dumped on from a great height in return for a few badly needed jobs.
But when Greenpeace celebrates the kind of technology that is to be used on the county's rubbish in a report on "cool waste", and Friends of the Earth positively purrs about the prospect of the plant (which, despite the protests, has just been approved by Lancashire County Council) then something must be afoot.
The environmentalists are interested because the Lancashire plant's operator is Global Renewables Limited (GRL). The firm is a subsidiary of an old Australian mining company that decided several years ago to investigate whether the techniques it was using to extract diamonds, gold and tin from the earth could be applied to remove recyclable commodities from the mountains of waste that were dotted across its vast nation. (When it comes to rubbish, the Australians are in a field of their own. Only the US throws out more household waste than Australia. The colossal garbage tip south of Sydney, which is 50m high, provides a more spectacular view than even the Sydney Harbour Bridge.)
The Australians found that where there was muck, there was, indeed, brass. Working on the age-old mining principle that the more reusable materials it could separate out, the more profit it could make, it built the southern hemisphere's largest waste facility - Eastern Creek - where it recycles virtually all of the waste it receives and - here's the groundbreaking bit - incinerates none of it. It is considered by many environmentalists to be the first firm to view waste as a mineable resource rather than something to be destroyed.
This is the kind of technology that counties and cities the length and breadth of Britain desperately need. All the recent talk on recycling has been focused on stepping up our kerbside recycling efforts (we recycle or compost 23 per cent of our waste compared to 53 per cent in Germany and 70 per cent in Flanders, Belgium). But what about the 77 per cent of material that we cannot recycle ourselves? So much of it still goes to Britain's 1,986 methane-emitting landfill sites, which are filling up fast, that Britain looks unlikely to meet limits set by the EU that will hit us 2010. To bring the country into line, the Government has announced that councils are to be fined £150 per ton if they exceed pre-agreed targets from 2010 and that, along with the offer of Private Finance Initiative cash to build facilities to replace landfill, has started a mad scramble among the councils.
If your local council has not already signed up to some kind of PFI-funded facility then it soon will, and most of those to date involve incinerating waste. If the initials MBT (mechanical biological treatment) accompany your council's plans, then it's good news, according to many environmentalists. It means your local plant has the technology to separate out recylables from the rubbish inside your binliners, and incinerate a fraction of it.
But many others work on different technology, through which the waste is incinerated and heat and/or electricity captured. Advocates of these Energy from Waste (EfW) schemes, which involve burning waste to generate electricity and hot water, argue they are the best option. But any kind of incineration is environmentally disastrous, according to Greenpeace and FoE. FoE has commissioned research that shows that some incinerators emit 33 per cent more carbon dioxide than gas-fired power stations.
There is also a fear that firms which incinerate the waste are less interested in driving up kerbside recycling, as they need a minimum of calorific rubbish such as plastic and paper to operate. Hence the green lobby's interest in GRL, which has established a UK corporate base at Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, from which to bid for UK contracts like Lancashire's.
In its search for profit, the firm has commandeered the best mechanical mining devices to extract recyclable contents from inside binbags: giant magnets remove metals; the plastic film that covers magazines and newspapers is literally "blown" out of waste heaps by heavy-duty cyclone machines; a giant vibrating conveyor belt separates out small pieces of glass. In some cases, the UK markets for some of these products is still to be established. For instance, GRL is investigating who might have a use for recycled plastic film, which the Japanese and Swiss convert to biodiesel.
Once GRL's initial sorting process is complete, the really sophisticated technology begins. Warm water is fed into the waste mass through a network of underground pipes, creating a chemical process that results in a highly acidic liquid being produced. This is the stuff which, in the bad old days, used to leak from tips into groundwater, but within GRL's system it can accelerate the decomposition of the waste. The pipes also collect biogas (methane and carbon dioxide), generated by rotting organic matter, some of which is used to power the plant.
After several days, the waste has decomposed into another vital, sellable asset: compost, or OGM (organic growth media) as GRL calls it. Rules governing the use of compost made from waste mean that it cannot be spread around fruit and vegetables in this country but can be used to remediate colliery spoils, former industrial sites, landfills and quarries. In Sydney, where GRL processes 11 per cent of the rubbish, the firm sells back 30,000 tons of organic compost a year. After the composting, GRL will still be left with a small volume of Lancashire's waste - up to 15 per cent of the original volume - which can't be used as compost and will be returned as stablised, non-methane-emitting landfill.
David Singh, GRL's development director, believes that the technology is more likely to be called on in areas, like Sydney, where large volumes of waste can be collected within a reasonable travelling distance of the plant. "We came to the waste business from mining background, which means we treat it as an asset to extract something from rather than something to dispose of," he says.
Dr Michael Warhurst, FoE's waste specialist, believes the technology should be considered everywhere. "London and the South-east need just as much compost - if not more - for remediating land. The alternative to this is incineration, which is simply putting more fossil fuels into the atmosphere. In our dash to find an alternative to landfill, many parts of Britain are jumping for a solution that simply brings another form of environmental destruction. If there are alternatives, we should at least look at them."