To incinerate or not: the burning question

Ireland's plans to boost incineration were hotly discussed at the IWWE and IWRM exhibition this week as government, industry and opposition came together to discuss the country's waste problem.

It has been clearly established that recycling will have a large part to play in the future of Ireland’s waste management. But the debate between increasing incineration or promoting other methods of reducing waste came under fire from all sides at the seminar Waste: an Irish solution for an Irish problem.

Following reductions in landfill allowances, the Irish Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is currently toying with the idea of encouraging incineration and energy recovery as a temporary means of waste control.

Deputy director general of the EPA, Padraic Larkin, said that Ireland was already successfully diverting a lot of its waste away from landfill, with the 77 landfill sites that were previously being operated now having dropped down to just above 30.

“The European Commission encourages localised waste management, with waste production and disposal seamlessly fitting together,” Mr Larkin said.

He confirmed that extracting and reusing energy by burning waste was a viable option, and should be considered as part of the government’s waste management plan.

“Wind and water power can be unpredictable, but you can count on the cows and the pigs,” he quipped. “We should use this energy.”

Donal Buckley, head of the Environment Unit at IBEC, admitted that Irish authorities were grappling with the idea of incineration and trying to decide whether they were for or against it.

“Incineration is not the answer,” he said. “However, it is part of the answer, and incinerating round 20% of our waste is what we should be aiming for. And incineration does produce some dangerous dioxins, but we must remember that higher quantities of these emissions are produced in other places.”

Others, such as the Green Party in Ireland, were keen to get the message across that other ways of disposing of or reusing waste were more environmentally sound.

“We promote a zero waste society but we don’t favour an incineration culture, which requires massive capital investment,” Green Party spokesman Ciaran Cuffe, TD, told delegates. “And Ireland is well poised to promote a different approach to waste management that will also retain the ‘clean and green’ image of Ireland.”

However, despite his concerns, Mr Cuffe did agree that under some circumstances incineration could perhaps be used as a temporary approach to Ireland’s waste problem.

After having visited other incineration sites elsewhere in Europe, he said that a incinerator managed perfectly 100% of the time would produce less dioxins than were produced by some natural causes. But with the required margin for human error, incidents such as hoppers catching fire accidentally cancelled out any benefits.

“Encouraging incineration is a very Victorian approach to solving Ireland’s waste problem – we need to wean ourselves off resorting to easy but unhealthy ways of disposing of our waste,” he concluded.

And yet others were even more strongly opposed, as consultant and previous member of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, Feargal Duff voiced his disbelief to delegates that Ireland could consider going down such a route.

“Incineration is not a short term solution,” he warned, “and once you go down that road, it will be very difficult to come back.”

He added that incineration was know to present many problems, not least the high operation costs and flow control issues, meaning that more waste was burned in order to keep it going and created problems when there was not enough rubbish to burn.

The debate goes on.

By Jane Kettle

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