We will need incinerators but public still needs persuading: Defra

After months of consultation on the future of waste the Government remains convinced that a new generation of incinerators is needed to tackle England's waste, but recognises it has a PR battle on its hands.

If anything has dominated the debate over the Government’s Waste Strategy Review, it is the controversy around energy from waste plants and whether they are an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment or an efficient way to get rid of what cannot be recycled.

Speaking at a London seminar on energy from waste hosted by the Chartered Institute of Waste Management this week, Defra’s David Mottershead outlined the Government’s current thinking on the issue.

Despite extensive press coverage of the issue, only 15% of those who responded to a small YouGov survey were opposed to energy from waste plants and their reasons varied from health and environmental concerns to the possibility that EfW facilities could undermine efforts to increase recycling.

Meanwhile, 56% of those asked believed incineration was a sensible option for waste that could not be recycled and was better than landfill.

“I find those results quite heartening,” said Mr Mottershead.

He said that while some of the arguments in favour of incinerators had been overstated, they were on balance the best way to get rid of waste that could not be recycled.

“A lot is made about the role of recovery and the energy you get,” he said.

“I’m not quite sure about that – it’s primarily a disposal option – but it is way better than landfill. Anything that makes un-captured methane in a big way [like landfills] is going to be seriously damaging for the climate and environment.”

While many argue that energy from waste plants need to be fed and that means diverting waste that could have been recycled to keep them operating at full capacity, Mr Mottershead claimed that the European experience did not suggest this was the case.

“Energy from waste is compatible with a high level of recycling, you just have to look to the Scandinavian states for examples of that,” he said.

“Many of the European states can’t see what all the fuss is about and consider it almost as good as recycling.”

But, he stressed, the waste hierarchy would remain unchanged following the review.

“England will continue to prefer recycling and composting to energy recovery – recycling remains our primary goal,” he said.

According to the civil servant the biggest hurdle to overcome would likely be public opposition and much work is needed to change public perception.

“There’s a very big and very difficult communications task to be attempted. It’s very difficult to see how we do this – the Government is not the most trusted body when it comes to health advice for some reason and people are more prepared to trust their own council,” he said.

The battle for hearts and minds is far from won, he said, and while acknowledging that while major NGOs were open to reasoned, scientific argument that could demonstrate that modern incinerators were not the environmental menace they had always been assumed to be, there sometimes seemed little chance of convincing those living nearby proposed sites.

“I was at a meeting with residents opposed to an incinerator just the other day and one of them told me ‘nothing you can tell us will make us change our minds’,” he said.

“I’m afraid that still sums up the position of many of these local groups.”

Sam Bond

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