Pros and cons of the burning issue

The burning issues concerning incineration, mainly of municipal solid waste, are debated in this month's special feature with contributions from the energy from waste lobby and from environmentalists broadly opposed to this method of waste disposal. Readers wishing to contribute to the debate on this burning issue are invited to plug into LAWE's edie web or write or fax to the Editor.

Author Ray Palin is the Director of the Energy from Waste Association

The consultation paper of June 1998, Less waste, more value, commits the Government to “substantial increases in recycling and energy recovery”. In the same month, the fuels review called for a strong drive on renewable generation “including energy from waste”.

Support for a common-sense, balanced and inclusive approach to waste management could hardly be more unequivocal. In many areas, waste arisings are growing at 5% or more per annum. Transport to distant landfill is an unsustainable option even in the near-term. The status quo cannot continue.

It is being increasingly widely accepted that an integrated approach, using a combination of reduction, recycling, composting and energy recovery from residual waste, is best calculated to conserve all our precious resources – including materials, energy, land space and finance – and result in the most sustainable, affordable waste management strategy.

The environmental advantages of modern thermal treatment waste plants lie in extracting the maximum value from residual wastes after recycling: energy and materials such as metals and secondary aggregates in useful form. Municipal solid waste (MSW) is reduced 90% in volume to an inactive ash residue; the environmental impact of gas and leachate formation when raw waste is landfilled is avoided; scarce fossil fuels are conserved, displacing the pollution caused by alternative generation from this source. Since MSW is almost entirely derived from renewable sources (assuming that paper comes from sustainably managed forests), energy from waste (EfW) has a significant role to play in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Over two million tonnes of residual MSW is burned at present, generating some 200MW of renewable energy. More than 750MW is potentially available. Waste-fired community heating (CHP) schemes are especially beneficial, wherever they are feasible, for their higher efficiency.

Yet some sceptics argue that EfW acts as a disincentive to recycling, wastes resources, is expensive and results in “toxic” ash. None of these worries is justified, as an objective look at the facts will demonstrate.

At present, the UK’s performance in terms of “recovery” or beneficial use of waste is poor, with over 80% of MSW going to landfill and only about 12% to some form of recovery, including recycling (6%), against a recovery target of 40% of household waste by 2005. European recovery rates are generally much higher, in the range 35 – 80%, of which various forms of recycling and composting account for some 15 – 30%, showing clearly that high recycling rates and EfW can and do co-exist.

Modern plants

Modern plants are sized to allow headroom for sensible levels of materials recycling to develop and often themselves incorporate front-end recycling facilities. Existing plants already collect over 50,000 tonnes of ferrous metal per year for recycling. Many also recover non-ferrous metals. Added to fossil fuel savings, that’s some “waste of resources” – not to mention the quarrying of virgin aggregates made unnecessary.

A recent NETCEN paper showed that, in a typical large shire county, the 40% target is only met with scenarios incorporating EfW. An integrated strategy, confirm the authors, costs the least and delivers the most favourable energy balance, the highest materials recycling and recovery rates and thus the greatest diversion from landfill. And all recovery options, not just recycling, create jobs.

EfW gate fees – the lowest in Europe – are closing the price gap with landfill as charges rise and Landfill Tax is added. Private sector finance provides project finance and according to OFFER, EfW is among the cheapest sources of renewable energy.

With the approval of the Environment Agency, uses are being found for bottom ash in road-making and construction, as is generally the practice in Europe. A report for the Energy from Waste Foundation by WRc confirms that toxic metals from typical UK bottom ash tend to leach in water at levels less than the admissible concentration in drinking water.

Health concerns are understandable, but quite unfounded. A study by the independent Institute for Environment and Health reported that no studies have found significantly more disease in workers or people living near incinerators. Very tough emission standards, stricter than those which apply to fossil-fuel combustion, now apply to EfW plants, further reducing any risks to negligible levels. In everyday words, they are safe.

It should be remembered that all new waste facilities can give rise to public opposition. EfW must surely be judged, not by comparison with some imaginary standard of perfection, but with practicable alternatives. Very positive local approval is achieved by EfW plants and the successful commissioning of each new facility is itself a source of added goodwill.

There are no instant “solutions” to our waste management problem and no room for outdated dogma. Blanket opposition to “incineration” is illogical, shortsighted and counterproductive. It serves only to confuse the public, raise costs, and potentially harm the environment by allowing more waste to go to often distant landfill.

The Energy from Waste Foundation launched last month seeks to help improve public understanding of the complex issues involved in modern waste management. It is not suggested that all waste should be burned or that there is not room for improved investment in reduction, reuse and recycling: many authorities could do far more to tap into the public’s willingness to reduce and recycle. The debate is about how best to reduce waste and achieve the right balance in each region among the management options.

In most countries, the environmental credentials of EfW are no longer disputed. In the Netherlands, among the greenest of countries, EfW continues to expand. Here in the UK, doubts should have been settled years ago. The new Government’s waste strategy and renewable energy policies gives us the chance to build the waste management industry of the future – in partnership and co-operation.

For further information:

Energy from Waste Association

26 Spring Street, London W2 1JA

Tel: 0171 402 7110 Fax: 0171 402 7115

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