In April Bucks County Council was forced to reveal controversial plans to build a waste incinerator in the middle of rural Aylesbury Vale. As room runs out in our landfills, is burning waste for energy really the answer?
For decades we have buried our household waste in landfill sites across the country, but EU legislation and UK government targets are pushing local authorities to find alternatives to simply topping up the landfill, and fast. In recent years one alternative has been repeatedly put forward by local authorities and, time and again, it has met with wide opposition from the public amid growing health fears.
Waste incineration – the burning of household waste in a controlled and monitored environment – heats rubbish to temperatures over 850°C converting it into four products, incinerator bottom ash, flue gases, particulates and heat which is then used to generate electric power. Any non-combustible materials such as metal or stone will not burn and remain solid at the base of the incinerator forming the incinerator bottom ash. The metals are then extracted and recycled. Flue gases and particulates are captured in the chimney via a series of filters and are treated before being finally being released into the atmosphere.
Many of the incinerators established or proposed in the UK use Energy from Waste (EfW) technologies. These incinerators allow authorities to harness the energy potential locked inside our everyday rubbish. A medium sized EfW plant processing 200,000 tonnes of waste per year is expected to produce enough electricity for 17,000 to 20,000 homes.
Depending on the materials being burnt, incinerators can reduce the volume of waste by up to 95%. Not only does incineration provide energy, it also drastically reduces the amount of waste going to our brimming landfill sites. It is already widely used for the disposal of clinical waste but more and more local authorities are pushing for incinerators to be used for more waste types.
A Spanish owned company, Waste Recycling Group (WRG), has been contracted to build incinerators for many of the proposed sites across the country in the last five years. They currently run two incinerators in the UK, at Allington Quarry, Kent and at Eastcroft, Nottingham. A third WRG plant is in the pipeline in Hull where planning permission has been granted in a controversial battle between local authorities and action groups. These are only the ones that have been approved. In the last five years WRG has been connected to several rejected incinerator plans, including ones in Cheshire, East Sussex and Scotland.
Destroying the countryside
The most recent WRG proposal would erect an incinerator with a 94m chimney in the heart North Buckinghamshire. Built at Lower Greatmoor Farm in Edgcott, in the heart of Aylesbury Vale’s ancient woodland, the plant would overshadow surrounding beauty spots, villages and the National Trust’s Waddesdon Manor, destroying the countryside. The plans would also turn a disused railway line into a new two-lane road specifically for HGVs bringing waste to the plant.
While planning permission is yet be granted, Buckinghamshire County Council hopes that building the incinerator would help them achieve UK and EU policy targets on landfill reduction. Buckinghamshire households produce about 270,000 tonnes of waste a year of which 41% is recycled. However as the area is expected to expand in population over the next decade, the County Council predict the amount of household waste will increase at a much greater rate than they can handle, even by introducing further recycling initiatives.
But UK Without Incinerators Network (UKWIN), an independent organisation representing action groups opposing the expansion of waste incineration, claim that the alternatives to incineration are “cheaper, quicker to implement and more flexible and are better for the environment”. UKWIN believes that resources would be better spent improving recycling and by providing a weekly separate food waste collection instead of burning our waste.
Supporters of incinerators say that rubbish in landfill sites produces methane which contributes to greenhouses gases and subsequently climate change. But incinerators too play their part in adding to greenhouse gases. Despite the bonus of producing electricity from waste, the levels of CO2 they produce are far higher than those created by burning fossil fuels.
Perhaps the most contentious issue concerning incinerators is their impact on the health of people in surrounding areas. Studies conducted for the British Society for Ecological Medicine in 2008 show that there is a higher rate of adult and childhood cancer cases in areas around public waste incinerators. The report claims that “incinerator emissions are a major source” of compounds linked to cancer and hormone problems.
Renowned British pollution expert Dr Dick van Steenis, supports Stop Aylesbury Vale Incinerator (SAVI), the action group campaigning against the Edgecott incinerator plans. He says “incinerators cause a shortening of lifespan of up to 14 years by increasing a range of diseases especially heart attacks and cancers” according to a study conducted by Coventry University.
Whether incinerators are the way forward or not remains to be seen. But wide public opposition and damning facts about the impact these smouldering chimneys are having on national health leaves a burning question: to incinerate, or not to incinerate?
This piece was written for my MA portfolio in May 2009