At present, incineration remains a necessary ‘evil’

The Minister for the Environment, the Environment Agency (EA) and the National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) affirm that incineration remains an integral part of the UK’s waste disposal strategy, and that it is not as ‘evil’ as the public is lead to believe.

Incineration has become a political hot potato of late, with Greenpeace slamming Labour for being the only party to support a policy of incineration, following a damning health report (see related story) and Belgian scientists producing research outlining growth problems caused by living in the vicinity of smoke stacks (see related story). On 20 June, the NSCA released a report and held a conference entitled The Public Acceptability of Incineration, responding to negative publicity and its recognition that “incineration with energy recovery is likely to play an increasing role in the future management of waste in the UK, to meet requirements in the EC Landfill Directive to divert waste from landfill.” To cope with the UK’s 30 million tonnes of waste per year, increasing by 3% annually, where 85% is landfilled and only 6% recycled, the 9% that incineration contributes seems unlikely to diminish for the moment.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher was the first to warn delegates that “there is no absolutely risk free waste disposal option” and that he supported a continuation of the government’s decision to retain modern incinerators. “Older, more polluting incinerators have been closed as a result of much much tighter standards imposed,” Meacher said. “Today’s incinerators are, frankly, light years away from those.” The Minister said that the UK’s pollution standards were amongst the tightest in the EU, with a maximum of one ten thousand millionth gram/m3 of dioxins permitted. From all UK incinerators in 1995, 413 grams of dioxins were emitted, compared with 1.8 grams produced per year now, which is one fiftieth of the annual total emitted iron and steel, and 6% of the total emitted on bonfire night”.

Concerns over incinerators are “out of all proportion” to the health risks involved, Meacher said, adding that installations must be the right size “so that local people don’t feel they are carrying the burden of other communities”, and also reiterated the report’s concern that public understanding and awareness of waste issues is very poor and need “a public debate to sensitise the public that there is a real problem with waste in this country”.

Speaking on behalf of the Environment Agency, Dr Martin Bigg revealed that the Agency was developing a policy position on incineration at the moment, which will result in tightened emissions but that, in principle, he had “no objection to incineration, provided that it can be proved to be the best environmental option and doesn’t undermine preferred options”.

Bigg emphasised that environmental controls on incineration are stricter than ever, already being regulated by the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, 99’s Pollution Prevention and Control Act, 96’s Waste Incineration Directive – which resulted in the closure of 38 installations, by public consultation and by authorisation, inspection and monitoring. Exceedences of environmental controls are decreasing year-on-year, he said, while energy is recovered from installations by using Combined-Heat-and-Power.

Dr Andrew Farmer of the Institute for European Environmental Policy summed up the possible negative impacts from incinerators as:

  • the air pollutants – nitrogen dioxide, fine particulates, heavy metals and dioxins;
  • air pollutants from transport of waste;
  • discharges to water; and
  • ash disposal.

On health concerns, Farmer said that last year’s tests by the Committee on Carcinogenity revealed that the risk of cancer from incinerators was “not measurable by the most modern epidemiological techniques”. He said that the recent Belgian study had found “no significant difference in dioxins concentrations” between those living near incinerators and the rural population and that the two incinerators used were relatively old and were shut down in 1997 due to high emissions, much higher than current UK incinerators.

Maggie Thurgood, Project Consultant of the NSCA said the public are unaware of what happens to their waste, but that the more informed they are “the more likely they are to support the use of waste incineration as one part of an overall waste strategy”. Thurgood said that concerns over incineration come in the form of:

  • emissions and health
  • conflict with recycling, where contractual ties may require waste to be incinerated in preference to an expansion of recycling and Local Authorities may take the ‘easy’ option of incineration;
  • local impacts, including impacts on property values and aesthetic concerns;
  • the importing of waste from other communities, which is seen as unacceptable; and
  • the transport of waste to the incinerator, causing noise, dust and congestion.

In order to increase public acceptance of incinerators, several factors should be considered, says the NSCA report:

  • incineration must reinforce and not jeopardise other waste strategies;
  • the public must be involved at the earliest stage of decision-making;
  • information, such as on environmental impacts and emissions should be available, honest and trustworthy; and
  • developers must be sensitive to community concerns, for example a small incinerator may be acceptable where a larger one would not be.

However, Friends of the Earth (FOE) slammed the NSCA report as “poorly written, un-referenced, and grossly misleading”. “The truth is we need to drastically improve recycling in this country to reduce resource use, cut greenhouse gases and provide much needed jobs,” commented Mike Childs, FOE’s Campaigns Director. “This industry funded report ignores these issues altogether. Communities across the country are campaigning against monster incinerator proposals and will continue to do so until we match the levels of recycling found in other countries.”

The Minister for the Environment, however, said that the government’s support for incineration did not come at the expense of recycling. “Incineration must not displace recycling,” Meacher said. When questioned about Local Authorities having insufficient funds to encourage more recycling, Meacher recalled the sums available, totalling about £695 million. “We believe it is enough and there is no excuse to not meet the targets,” he said.

The Minister also responded to severe criticism from the Environment Select Committee over the governmental Waste Strategy (see related story) saying comments were “not as balanced as they normally are” and promised a governmental response “in the next few weeks”. He said that it was a “matter of credibility if you are on 9% [recycling rate] and set a target of 60%”. “Let’s show we are capable of making these earlier targets before aiming for 60%”. Meacher also said that he would soon make a statement on particulates. “There have been some problems with particulates and we need tough targets on them.”

Full detail’s of the NSCA’s report and a Guide for Local Authorities and Developers is available on the organisation’s website.

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